CHICAGO — "The average woman executive is 46 years old and presently unmarried and without children," Marion M. Wood, a Marina del Rey management consultant told an audience of business professors here. And that profile, she suggested, should come as no surprise in a workplace that--despite increasing ranks of women workers--does little to accommodate women and families.
Wood--the first woman professor in the business school at USC--also warned her audience at a symposium at the 50th-anniversary meeting of the Academy of Management last week that many young women today are accepting the status quo "when all the data tells that they're not being groomed for upper management." The academy is a professional organization of researchers in the field of management.
Like Wood, many of the participants in the Women in Management division of the academy looked at the progress of women managers--in sessions on salary differences, comparable worth, sexual harassment and the trend toward entrepreneurship--with a mix of optimism and skepticism.
Certainly the sheer numbers of women entering management are encouraging. Ten years ago only one in 10 students earning a master's degree in business (MBA) was female, according to Heidrick and Struggles, an executive search firm. Today women and men earn degrees in business in almost equal numbers.
But if capturing an entry-level managerial job is within reach, many women are learning that the road from entry to middle management is a difficult climb. And that the path to the highest levels is steepest of all.
While about 50% of today's entry-level managers are women, the figure diminishes by half at middle-management levels and to a tiny 2% at the highest levels. The Washington Post Co.'s Katharine Graham--whose family controlled the company--is the only woman heading a Fortune 500 company.
Although some researchers contend that the outlook for upper management advancement for women will automatically brighten as more and more women are in the managerial pipeline, many here expressed doubts.
Women MBAs five to 10 years into their careers are discovering that they've got nowhere to go, said Lynda L. Moore, editor of "Not as Far as You Think: The Realities of Working Women" and assistant professor of management at Boston's Simmons College.
Women MBAs enter the work force with the same wages as their male counterparts but typically lag behind by 20% within 10 years. Many find themselves passed by for promotion by men with less education and experience, Moore said.
Women who are trying to combine family and career are finding that the corporate world offers little support. Studies again and again show that the very few women in the upper echelons of management are unmarried.
"The implication is clear," Moore said. "They couldn't have both" career and family.
Yet for the young women aspiring to America's board rooms--the women undergraduate and graduate students now clogging the nation's business schools--the notion that they can "have it all" lives.
"I talk to young women going to (business) school who think everything is clear sailing," Moore said. "They look at the cover of Savvy and every week there's another executive woman who's making big money and has a husband and children."
Costs of Careers
"My students have bought the superwoman myth without even seeing it as superwoman. They've got no sense of the costs of careers to marriage and family or vice versa," said V. Jean Ramsey, chair of the management department at Illinois State University.
But after 10 years in the work force, many women managers are weighing those costs. Some are dropping out of larger organizations to open their own businesses or to work for themselves. The number of self-employed women in the United States jumped by 74% between 1974 and 1984, according to the Small Business Administration. And one out of four businesses today is owned by a woman.
An article in a popular business magazine recently reported that a third of all women MBAs who earned their degree 10 years ago had abandoned their managerial jobs. The article--available at the Academy meeting--was referred to constantly by Women in Management session participants who questioned the validity of its numbers and expressed concern about inferences being drawn from it.
"On the one hand we're seeing research that indicates that women are too career-focused and one-dimensional, and on the other hand the popular media portrays women MBAs as dropping out to have children," said Barbara Gutek, Claremont Graduate College professor and author or editor of several books about women in the workplace. "The implication--right or wrong--is that these women will never come back."