Women Hit Glass Ceiling

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on October 20, 1997. Partner content is not updated.

So a smattering of women have actually made it to the top of the heap, the corporate pinnacle, the apex of conventional business achievement. Canada now has women running 10 of the top 500 revenue-churning, publicly traded companies in the land. Huzzahs.
This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on October 20, 1997. Partner content is not updated. So a smattering of women have actually made it to the top of the heap, the corporate pinnacle, the apex of conventional business achievement. Canada now has women running 10 of the top 500 revenue-churning, publicly traded companies in the land. Huzzahs.

Women Hit Glass Ceiling

So a smattering of women have actually made it to the top of the heap, the corporate pinnacle, the apex of conventional business achievement. Canada now has women running 10 of the top 500 revenue-churning, publicly traded companies in the land. Huzzahs.

But the success stories are still pitifully few. The blue-chip outfits that make up the list of the biggest, most profitable companies are free of women chief execs - branch plants of American giants notwithstanding. From the banks to the oilpatch, from mining companies to telcos and techcos, a woman may be senior vice-president of human resources, or corporate communications, but the big cheese she usually is not. As for boards of directors, which could easily accommodate a broad range of professional women, just nine per cent of all directors in Canada's top corporations are women, according to a study released by Spencer Stuart, a Toronto-based consulting firm. And many of those are repeaters whose faces grace board appointment notices time and time again. Were it not for women entrepreneurs - and women are starting businesses at three to four times the rate of men, despite the reticence of corporate lenders - the presence of double-X chromosome corporate clout would be woeful indeed.

The picture is no brighter south of the border. According to Catalyst, a New York City research firm that assesses and promotes the advancement of women, just 57 women held positions of executive vice-president or higher in Fortune 500 companies in 1995. Catalyst totted up the top five earners in each of the Fortune 500 companies. Of the group of 2,500, just 47 were women. Sixteen had made chief financial officer and one, yes, one, woman had made CEO, she being Marion Sandler, CEO of Golden West Financial Corp. of Oakland, Calif., who co-chairs the company with her husband, Herbert. Since that report, Jill Barad has become CEO of Mattel Inc., makers of Barbie. So now there are two. "We must," says Catalyst, "retire the myth that women have already 'made it.' "

Rather, the glass ceiling, a term that sounds terribly antiquated two decades after it was coined, is still very much with us. That invisible barrier - I know it's there, I just can't figure out how to get past it - has merely, says Judith MacBride-King, an associate research director of the Conference Board of Canada, suffered some "puncture wounds." MacBride-King is currently working in association with Catalyst on the first comprehensive study of successful women in Canadian business. "We're looking at women who have 'made it,' " she says. "Finding out what worked for them to get them where they are." Part and parcel of the study is a survey of Canada's top chief executives that analyzes the gaps between top executives' perceptions of how women have done in the workplace and executive women's own experience. MacBride-King, who expects to release the report in early December, said it's clear from the responses so far that such disparities still exist. "In an environment where business leaders are indicating that they are experiencing key skill shortages, the question needs to be asked, 'Do these skills already exist in the women in their organizations, and what's keeping those organizations from fully utilizing them?' "

Not only is the glass ceiling still with us, but so is the Old Boys network. On behalf of Royal Trust, Environics Communications recently surveyed more than 650 "affluent women" - defined as those in households with more than $137,000 in annual income. Three-quarters of the women surveyed, the majority of whom have careers, said the Old Boys network still makes it difficult for women to succeed in corporations. Sixty-nine per cent said the opportunities offered to women are more limited than those offered to men, and 68 per cent said that taking a maternity leave can be an impediment to corporate promotions.

In the United States last year, Catalyst surveyed more than 450 executive women (vice-presidents and up) as well as more than 300 CEOs of Fortune 1000 companies. Three-quarters of the women surveyed said one of the keys to career success lies in consistently exceeding performance expectations, that to be considered to be equal, women have to be better. Ninety-six per cent said that developing a style with which male managers were comfortable was an essential career-enhancing strategy. One survey participant had some wry suggestions for aspiring women: "Don't be attractive. Don't be too smart. Don't be assertive. Pretend you're not a woman. Don't be single. Don't be a mom. Don't be a divorcée."

Yes, that overstates the case. But there's no question that corporations have failed to eliminate barriers that are both structural and attitudinal. That is not so surprising, given that men and women have very different views of what those barriers are. "They are," says the Catalyst report, "the consequence of unexamined assumptions about women's career interests and capabilities, and unquestioned policies and practices that pervade the corporate culture."

Linda Duxbury, director of the Centre for Research and Education on Women and Work at Carleton University, recently produced a study that gets at the gender gulf. For example, where 86 per cent of men surveyed said organizations actively communicate with employees, only 65 per cent of women said that was so. Where 73 per cent of men stated that a policy of inclusion had been established within their companies, only 44 per cent of women agreed with that statement. "I don't think organizations have a heartbeat of a clue," said one participant. "It's a hell for most women." The glass ceiling, says Duxbury, has merely been raised. "We haven't reached the penthouse."

Marti Smye, president of Toronto-based PeopleTech Consulting Inc., provides an example of the corporate disconnect by examining decision-making. "In a lot of these organizations, the senior decisions are talked about on a one-on-one basis," she says. "So people pick the people to talk to. Women get left out of that loop. They aren't the ones you run into in the hall or they aren't the ones who are specifically sought out."

Sound familiar? Or how about not even knowing when a job is up for grabs, but rather finding out about it after the fact, when the job has been filled. Or "face-time," those long, though not necessarily productive, office hours more easily filled by workers who don't have heavy commitments at home. (We will not get into the golf issue.) Smye says a woman CEO, head of the Canadian arm of a U.S. multinational that she will not name, turned to her recently and said: "It's a boys club. No matter what, it's a boys club." Says the Catalyst report: "These artifacts of a traditionally white male occupational culture work against the career progression and retention of talented female managers."

At a luncheon speech in September, part of the Women of Influence series presented by Chatelaine magazine and sponsored by a handful of Canadian corporations, Lorna Rosenstein shared her personal experience of rising through the ranks. Rosenstein, now general manager of Lotus Development Canada Ltd., recalled her days working for Boeing Corp. when a senior executive introduced her this way: "This is Lorna. She has the greatest legs in the office." Dunderheaded commentary is one thing, but Rosenstein encountered worse when she went to meet a prospective client one day at the United Nations. "I don't shake hands with women," said the gent, who then turned to deal exclusively with the male Boeing executive who was making the sales pitch with Rosenstein.

Those women like Rosenstein who manage to get ahead do so by consistently exceeding performance expectations, by overperforming in order to prove their ability. Women, says Rosenstein, have to be smarter, more creative, more focused, more bottom-line oriented, simply better than men overall if they want to rise as far. And they still get just 70 cents on the dollar in earnings compared with their male counterparts, "just like having Canadian money in the United States," quips Rosenstein.

Optimists take the long view. "Watershed Generation of Women Executives Rising to the Top," crowed The Wall Street Journal last winter - the key word being "rising." These are women who are in the pipeline and therefore poised to remake once and for all the on-top gender balance. "It's not so much that they're in the pipeline," says Catalyst senior vice-president Bickley Townsend, "but what they're doing in the pipeline." In other words, are they being directed into, or self-selecting, jobs in human resources and general administration? Or are they landing "core" jobs, the ones with line management responsibilities that result in profits and losses, or the high-visibility assignments that attract the attention of other executives?

An earlier Catalyst study on women's career advancement found that 60 per cent of American women sampled held staff positions - HR, administration and so on. In Canada, the number of women managers and administrators, outside of government, rose to more than 410,000 in 1991 from 257,000 in 1986. So there is certainly a pool of potential. As there is when the education status of women is examined. Fifty-two per cent of full-time undergraduate university students are women, according to the most recent numbers out of Statistics Canada. At the graduate level, 35 per cent of students pursuing doctorates full time are women. "Is there a critical mass moving in that organizations can draw on? Absolutely," says MacBride-King, though some enrolment levels, particularly engineering and applied sciences, are frustratingly thin.

But will that feeder pool ultimately change the face of corporate Canada? Marti Smye says many male executives she talks to espouse the "delayed time-frame" theory - that the imbalance will one day right itself. Eventually, the current crop of aging male execs will retire or die and then, so the thinking goes, more women will make CEO. Smye doesn't agree. Look at the retention issue. In 1995, New York's Yankelovich Partners surveyed 300 highly paid career women in their 30s and 40s for Fortune magazine. An overwhelming 87 per cent said they had made or were considering a major career change. "To me that's a sign of total frustration with the system," says Smye. And it's not safe, she says, to question the culture that breeds the discontent "because right away you're off the succession plan." MacBride-King says she has seen a particularly high dropout rate in professional services firms - law, accounting, management consulting. "Senior women are leaving when they get to the managing partner level," she says.

Yankelovich laid the blame in part on having to play corporate games with hoary sets of rules. Instead, women were choosing to opt out, scale back or establish their own businesses. CEOs and the teams they lead, says Smye, are going to have to work harder at cultural change if they want to stanch that trend.

And corporations know it. Some have rejiggered performance assessments, tying compensation directly to senior executives' identification and promotion of "high potential" women. B.C. Tel has had such a system in place for three years. "We're not simply encouraging people to ensure we have the appropriate representation of women within the organization, we're requiring that by putting their variable compensation at risk," says Paul Smith, the company's senior vice-president of human resources. At B.C. Tel, 20 per cent of a manager's variable compensation is tied to the "people quadrant" of the manager's "scorecard." Part of the scoring next year will be aimed at ensuring that every senior executive has a career-development strategy in place for women. "Everyone is going to have to participate in that in order to maximize their variable pay," says Smith.

B.C. Tel's goal is a 50-50 gender split in its executive ranks. Currently, two of its 10 executive officers are women - vice-president of corporate communications, and vice-president of law and regulatory affairs. "We're like the rest of the corporations in Canada," says Smith, who describes such initiatives as causing a "massive change" in corporate culture. He says B.C. Tel has identified managers who were not prepared to support the new environment and have been encouraged to go elsewhere. It's amazing, he says, the kind of change one sees when people realize their paycheques are on the line. Unsupported top-down policy statements just don't have the same effect as holding people accountable. "If line managers have no sense of their importance," says MacBride-King, the new cultural imperatives "won't work."

More often than not, corporations fail to see the business case for forcing cultural change. And no wonder. Smye still sees Industrial Age leaders marching around with that old hierarchical, command-and-control style of management. But one look at Bay Street and Wall Street convinces executives under pressure to boost stock prices, satisfying shareholders who have emerged as the paramount stakeholders. Downsizing in the early part of this decade was aimed as much at appeasing impatient investors as in building so-called global enterprises. "Economic uncertainty and downsizing are making it more difficult for employees (especially women) to take advantage of flexible work arrangements and family-friendly policies," said Carleton's Duxbury in her report. As one line executive said: "They don't want to identify themselves as the next person the company wants to get rid of."

Six years ago, the Bank of Montreal set out to redress the imbalance in its own ranks. While 75 per cent of the bank's employees were women, just nine per cent of women had made it into the executive ranks. Diane Ashton, now the bank's vice- president of employee programs and workplace equality, remembers the day in 1990 when a crowd of BMO employees gathered at Roy Thomson Hall to hear Matthew Barrett, still fresh as the bank's CEO, and Tony Comper, BMO's president. "I remember Barrett saying there was something wrong in the organization and he wanted to get to the bottom of it," says Ashton. The execs announced a task force on the advancement of women. The crowd gave them a standing ovation.

In November, 1991, the task force, led by Comper, submitted its report. The key finding: that women were held back by stereotypical attitudes, myths and "conventional wisdoms." Some of those "wisdoms" were just plain wrong. Fiction: women had not been in the pipeline long enough. Fact: women had punched in longer service than men at every level, except when the survey reached senior management, where women simply weren't. Fiction: baby-making women tend to quit, and, ergo, are not committed to their careers. Fact: 98 per cent of women returned to the company after giving birth.

The BMO women were well-educated, had received better performance appraisals than men at all levels, and craved career advancement as much as their male peers. Yet they were not making it. There was a perception at the bank that the problem would right itself - the delayed time-frame theory again. Yet in the six-year period prior to the creation of the task force, the number of senior managers grew by 33 per cent, but the number of women managers grew by just one per cent a year. The task force therefore came to a different conclusion: that if the bank did not work aggressively to fix the problem, BMO would still have the same executive representation in the year 2000.

That has been the U.S. experience. In 1990, Catalyst found that about five per cent of employees holding titles of vice-presidents and higher in U.S. corporations were women. Five years later, the U.S. labor department's Glass Ceiling Commission, since disbanded, found that between three per cent and five per cent of such positions were held by women.

Women now hold 24 per cent of all executive positions at BMO. When all this started in 1990, Barrett said he wanted to see 50 per cent of the top offices held by women. The bank has yet to establish a date by which it intends to meet that goal. Ashton says there is an internal "agreement in principle" on this issue that will be made public later in the fall. Is there a glass ceiling at BMO? "We shattered that in 1991," says Ashton, who adds that the bank's commitment to breaking down barriers to achievement has been a factor in attracting women to the company.

But the glass ceiling is not one-dimensional. In the summer of 1992, the bank was badly shaken when its newly promoted vice-president of small business drove her car into a concrete abutment in uptown Toronto. She was just 35, the mother of two small children, and had been vice-president for less than a year. The BMO tragedy brought home to many in the bank the unbeaten problem of balancing work and life. In the 1980s, says the Conference Board's MacBride-King, the work-life question was not even on the corporate agenda but rather was seen as a "woman's issue." That is changing, in part because 61 per cent of the workforce is made up of dual income earners, in part because aging executive fathers view the career aspirations of their daughters differently than they may have viewed those of their wives, and in part because not paying attention to such imperatives can prove costly.

In late September, Brenda Barnes, president and CEO of Pepsi-Cola North America, announced that she was simply going home to her three school-age children and away from the demands of PepsiCo. She said she hoped that people would not interpret her departure as confirmation that "women can't do it," but rather that after doing it superbly for more than two decades she reassessed her priorities, and Pepsi wasn't at the top of the list.

What was rivetting, and refreshing, about the Barnes resignation was that she chose not to put a public relations spin on her departure. Barnes's boss, a fellow named Weatherup, the CEO of PepsiCo, said that the company "had been grooming her for bigger things," the standard post-resignation bleating.

Ultimately, Barnes was not happy with the trade-offs. Her family, she said, needed her more. The fact is that the current definition of being on top - days that start in the predawn, extensive travel, faxes during Sunday dinner, what Linda Duxbury calls "polychronic" time demands - does not accommodate what most sane individuals would describe as a balanced life. Women executives, said the Catalyst report, are "rigorously choosing their commitments in order to balance their time - this suggests that lifestyle balance means setting clear priorities, not 'having it all.' "

Robert Mitchell, Saskatchewan's minister of labor, will soon announce a year-long multifaceted initiative called Balancing Work and Family. The project will include both primary research on private- and public-sector employees' attempts to juggle work and family, and a task force of community, business and labor representatives that will travel the province drawing on the views of local residents.

Mitchell sees this work as groundbreaking. And surprisingly, given how long this issue has been talked about, it is. "We're not going to get anywhere until work and lifestyle becomes a business issue," says Carleton's Duxbury, who has advised the Saskatchewan government. "It's not charity. It's not morality. These issues have to be treated as business imperatives." Only when, and if, that happens, will the glass ceiling be shattered once and for all.

Maclean's October 20, 1997