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New Barriers Block Women on Way to Top

September 15, 1985|JOHN F. LAWRENCE

Some years ago, a major U.S. bank had a woman in its No. 2 post in Hong Kong. When No. 1, a man, left, she assumed she'd get the job.

She assumed wrong, and when she learned why, she quit. A colleague told her she lost out because she was too facially expressive. "The problem is girls never learn how to play poker," he explained.

With affirmative action and the major influx of women into business, one would think episodes like that wouldn't be happening much these days. Exposure to the growing number of women now in lower and middle management should have given male decision-makers enough experience to evaluate women without bias.

Unfortunately, that is still not the case, and the most dramatic evidence is the continuing failure of women to climb into the top five positions in major corporations. A new survey of corporate leaders by Korn/Ferry International and UCLA turned up only 29 women in the top ranks out of a total survey sample of 1,360 top executives at major companies. Twenty-nine is better than eight, the number found in a previous survey in 1979, but it hardly suggests much progress.

Tokenism Is Over

"The passion and fire in this movement (to promote women) has to a certain extent gone out," says Lester Korn, chairman of the national executive search firm. The "tokenism period," which at least got a few women into upper management posts, is over, he says. "I thought women would be a lot farther along by now."

Caroline Nahas, a Korn/Ferry partner, believes that women are much more accepted as professionals these days--"eyebrows don't go up" when a woman partner is introduced, for instance. "But there's still a reluctance to accept a woman in a position of control and responsibility for the bottom line."

The paucity of women at the top extends also to boards of directors. Korn/Ferry's annual survey of board composition shows that representation has risen but that women still sit on less than half of the boards of 633 major companies checked. Typically, on boards where they do sit, they occupy no more than one of the dozen or so seats.

Why is this happening?

Some of it can be explained by the relatively short period in which women have been knocking on the doors to the top jobs. Women with 5 or 10 years of middle management experience are forced to compete with men offering 15 years or more.

Some Discrimination

Still, there must be some form of discrimination at work if the number getting through the doors is so low.

Korn cites the example of "an extraordinary woman bank executive" with billions of dollars in assets under her leadership: She has trained most of the people now posted over her, not to mention some top people who have gone on to higher positions at competing banks.

She hasn't moved ahead, he theorizes, because nobody was actively grooming her for higher office over the past 5 or 10 years, "and she's probably mentally accepted the idea that she's topped out."

Why not consider her as a candidate for a directorship somewhere, based on her knowledge of how to produce good managers?

"If we presented her to a company, they'd say she hasn't had enough experience at the senior level," Korn says.

Part of the problem with boards is that big corporations have a certain myopia that causes them to seek only the biggest names. Hence, they wind up with a bunch of over-scheduled males who can't devote much attention and effort. By contrast, good men and women enlisted from upper-middle management could provide some new breadth of outlook--and maybe a longer attention span.

The main issue, however, is how to get women into the top jobs from which directors are normally chosen. Nahas believes that there's still hope, based on the sheer numbers of top women coming along at lower levels.

With affirmative action no longer getting the emphasis it once received, however, the question is how much pressure there will have to be to get women on the fast track for advancement--and keep them there.

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