Women Under the Glass Ceiling: Parity and Power in the Pipeline

A recent Catalyst project, discussed in the HBR Blog Network post “New Research Busts Myths About the Gender Gap,” calls for action within the MBA corporate community. No one doubts that women’s experience in the workplace has woefully lacked what men have been given; but one Catalyst report, “Pipeline’s Broken Promise,” dispels the generally accepted causes (pipeline, motherhood, choice, mentoring), explanations that have led to disinformation and stagnation. But what are the reasons for continued male-female career disparity, then? How can we change effects if we don’t know the causes? Maybe we don’t need to know the causes – the correlations are enough to warrant action to produce change. But the Catalyst assumption seems to argue that inattention, inaction, and naïve or disingenuous acceptance of the popular explanations all amount to an actionable cause, a controllable root cause, to use some MBO lingo. A major MBO assertion is that we can’t change what we can’t control – ergo the drive to get control. Another Catalyst report, “The Myth of the Ideal Worker: Does Doing the Right Things Really Get Women Ahead?,” illustrates, simply put, the obvious, that women are different than men, and that women should not expect equal treatment and experience when exercising the same strategies as men use to get ahead.

But Catalyst is talking about a narrowly defined community – the study is of MBA’s, female and male, and of their various experiences and reflections on that experience. But is success a possession, and, if so, can the possession be enjoyed if it needs one’s 7×24 protection? But proximate causes can have long tails, and the problem of the gender success gap is systemic; the Equal Pay Act of 1963 is as old or older than the cohorts studied. But those outside the community of MBA’s might fairly ask what changes an increase to parity of women to men in the workplace might bring. Why should an outsider care if the CEO is a male or a female? Why should the disenfranchised, the marginalized, the unemployed, the poor, the homeless, the Norma Raes of the world, believe that MBA-women, given the opportunity, will bring some improved economic balance to more than their own cohort?

Will female-male parity in the workplace find homes for homeless families? Will parity help eliminate torture? (Readers might ask how this is relevant, but we are talking about global corporations with the lobbying arms of blacksmiths.) But closer to home, will parity solve the health care crisis? A recent report by the US Census Bureau, “Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2010,” highlights the current female-to-male earnings ratio, but posts even more alarming updates, including “approximately 31.6 percent of the population had at least one spell of poverty lasting 2 or more months during the 4-year period from 2004 to 2007,” and “in 2009, 26.1 percent of all people experienced at least 1 month without health insurance coverage.”

Catalyst’s “Pipeline’s Broken Promise” report concludes, explicitly, that power and responsibility in the corporate world belong to men, and there are few signs that current initiatives to achieve parity for women will be successful. Implicitly, this means that to men go the spoils and the accountability. The recent financial crisis shows what the men have done with the spoils and how they have shirked their accountability. The question remains: what will be done with the spoils and how might accountability improve financial results in the general civic community if women had parity with men in terms of income, job advancement, CEO and board positions – in short, career success and career satisfaction?

Yet another Catalyst report provides a persuasive answer to this question. In “Gender and Corporate Social Responsibility: It’s A Matter of Sustainability,” the authors show that corporations with greater female to male parity do serve both themselves and their communities more profitably than organizations with less or no parity. The report suggests serious implications for well-being measurements of both businesses and communities. The concept of corporate goodwill capital is not new, but given the current ills in society and the marketplace, firms would benefit from long-term proactive solutions that would bring parity to female-male workplace experience that would provide benefits to both the firm and the communities in which it operates.

Support for a positive answer to the question of what women will do with the spoils and accountability might also be found in another source, one outside of the business community. Are women different from men in substantive ways that would make a difference in financial corporate results? But the question must be further refined: are female MBA’s different from their male counterparts? The question is a difficult one for Catalyst to answer, for in an effort to dispel the disparity, the answer must be no; but if the answer is no, then what’s the response to the disenfranchised who would ask what difference achieving parity makes? In “Feminist Perspectives on Power” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy), Amy Allen argues that women understand and use power in substantively different ways than men understand and use power. The net effect of this different view and handling of power is that women use power to help others rather than to oppress or combat with others. Transferred to the corporate world, this would mean that women should not view business as a survival of the fittest battlefield but as a cooperative opportunity to empower themselves, their firm, and their communities. In Section 4 of her essay, sub-titled “Power as Empowerment,” Allen says, “Most of the feminists who embrace this transformative or empowerment-based conception of power explicitly define it as an ability or capacity and present it as an alternative to putatively masculine notions of power-over.” Allen references to persuasive effect French feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray, and concludes, “some feminists interpret Irigaray’s work on sexual difference as suggesting an alternative conception of power as transformative, a conception that is grounded in a specifically feminine economy.” What this means for the woman MBA who aspires toward control, spoils, and accountability, and given her current inability to satisfy her aspirations, is to turn away not only from the male strategies for achievement, but to vow that, once she achieves full parity, she will work toward changing the meaning and use of power in the corporate world, a change that would improve both top and bottom line results and change the corporate system, for otherwise, she will simply have become a man, succumbed to his power by marrying into it, a marriage that will still be unequal, for by becoming him, she will have denied herself, and in denying herself, she will have lost the chance to achieve parity with her community.

Allen, Amy, “Feminist Perspectives on Power”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2011/entries/feminist-power/&gt;.

Update at HBR Blog: Why Boards Need More Women

Union Maid: Made and Unmade

“Don’t talk old to me,” Norma Rae tells her dad. “I don’t like it.” But in the next scene a foreshadow appears when Reuben mentions Dylan Thomas’s “Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” for in the next scene Norma Rae’s dad keels over, dead, into a basket of textile spools. “You load sixteen tons, what do you get?” These days, you get “another day older and deeper in [health care] debt,” augmenting the Merle Travis and Tennessee Ernie Ford classic. Labor laws may have rendered some of the early union causes moot, while many corporations may have also already adopted many if not most of the basic wants of the early unions – in most industries. The problem, as Hendrik Hertzberg explains in his March 7 New Yorker comment, “Union Blues,” is funding collective self-interest into political activism capable of representing the working stiff. Corporations can now marshal any number of deep pockets to advance their interests. Are corporate interests the same as the interests of those employed by the corporation?

But what foreshadowed the fall of unions? When we were kids and Dad was out of work, he went down to the Union Hall, where he put his name on the list. The Union Hall was as important as the Church. We could see the fall of the Church coming, but we missed the foreshadow predicting the fall of organized labor, in spite of, as Hendrik points out, its obvious “failings, all its shortsightedness, all its ‘special interest’ selfishness.”

James Surowiecki, in his January 17th New Yorker piece, “State of the Unions,” explains the unions’ fall from public grace: unions are now mostly public unions, and their wages and benefits no longer positively influence non-union wages and benefits. Solidarity, or any hint of symbiotic relationship, is lost. Envy and bitterness over disparate working environments have replaced any sense of brother-sister-hood. “Labor,” Surowiecki concludes, “may be caught in a vicious cycle, becoming progressively less influential and more unpopular. The Great Depression invigorated the modern American labor movement. The Great Recession has crippled it.” And will the crippling further atrophy gains made over those years to labor conditions that prevailed prior to the Great Depression?

The last company town is closing, with little or no foreshadowing. The story was filler in the LA Times; almost without notice, Empire, Nevada is being surrounded by chain link fence as its citizens strike out for elsewhere, forming a tiny diaspora of folks who once owed their souls to the company store. Empire, Nevada, the home of a gypsum mining plant, is being fenced off, and all the folks are getting out, for the gypsum mining plant was home to Empire, Nevada. The edge of the popped housing bubble has reached this far. The company closes; the town closes. “If living were a thing that money could buy, Then the rich would live and the poor would die, All my trials, Lord, soon be over,” goes the protest song of the folk movement. But living is a thing money can buy, as the health care crisis proves, yet the poor just can’t seem to die.

Jill Lepore’s “Objection: Clarence Darrow’s unfinished work” (May 23 New Yorker) gives us some idea of labor conditions prior to improvements attributed to the rise of unions. Lepore quotes Darrow: “The only difference I can see between the state prison and George M. Paine’s factory is that Paine’s men are not allowed to sleep on the premises.” The Darrow quote comes after Lepore describes that “the factory doors, Paine doors, were locked once the workers got in, at 6:45 A.M., and kept locked, except for a lunch break, until the guards came and turned the key, when dusk fell.” At question in the case, according to Darrow, Lepore reports, was “whether when a body of men desiring to benefit their condition, and the condition of their fellow men, shall strike, whether those men can be sent to jail.” Meantime, the Wisconsin governor had called the National Guard into Sawdust City, where the city and company were essentially the same working entity: thus the government was the corporation.

The extent to which labor and management can feud was colorfully described in Caleb Crain’s January 19, 2009 New Yorker piece, “There Was Blood: The Ludlow massacre revisited” (Caleb’s piece begins as a review of the Thomas G. Andrews book, Killing for Coal, but becomes much more than that; see his follow-up on his blog). Crain concludes: “When a representative democracy wins people’s trust, it is capable of moderating disputes among corporations, the market, and the individual. Time suggests that nothing else can take its place, though from time to time corporations have offered to do so.”

Who or what will solve the disputes surrounding our public schools? According to Joel Klein, for eight years chancellor of New York City’s school system, in his June Atlantic piece, The Failure of American Schools, the conflict and divisiveness isn’t between management and labor but between management working with a co-opted union and politicians in conflict with children’s needs. Says Klein, “The school system doesn’t want to change, because it serves the needs of the adult stakeholders quite well, both politically and financially.” Klein concludes: “We need to foster a culture that supports innovation.”

For all their “special-interest selfishness,” most of our successful corporations have advanced and compete on their capability to innovate, while schools have declined due to their inability to innovate. But is there foreshadowing in the current economic crisis suggesting yet more implosions: Health Care’s inability to innovate; lack of innovation in energy and other green-sustainable industries; corporation management further removed from their work force as a result of globalization, automation, and the replacement of specialized manufacturing or trade skills with generalized office work capabilities; further declines for schools. Corporatism is not capitalism; unionism is not organized labor.