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Corporate Women Are Writing Off the Myths : Gender as a Non-Issue Surprises Consultant Probing Executives' Perceptions

August 22, 1986|ELIZABETH MEHREN | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Quite honestly, and with not a small amount of embarrassment, Jeanie Duck had to admit that she had bought into certain myths about women in top corporate management. Said Duck: "I think it's part of the fact that men have defined the reality for so long."

She had expected, for example, that these high-ranking women would be faulted for not being team players. It was a common enough perception, after all: Women don't play on the football team, so how can they expect to play on the executive team? "It didn't jibe with my experience," Duck said, "but I expected everyone else to believe it. Especially to hear men not believe it, that was what surprised me."

Facing Up to the Hard Issues

She figured that women in key positions might be seen as soft on hard issues, as being too concerned with niceness, perhaps, to lop off the personnel deadwood or go head-to-head with an employee's drinking problem.

Most of all, in researching the role of gender in issues in organizations, Duck was prepared for a definite dichotomy in how men and women perceived their respective roles at the top.

"I was shocked," Duck said. "Over and over, men and women said the same thing."

In fact, said Minneapolis management consultant Duck, in interviewing 26 high-ranking business women and 12 executive-level men in banking, health care, manufacturing and retail businesses in five different states, "the thing that surprised me most was how consistent the data was."

With increasing numbers of women rising nationally in the corporate structure, Duck's original target, she told a seminar of the International Transactional Analysis Assn. Inc. here last weekend, was to explore how executive women top out, or plateau. A corollary goal was to examine if women executives "derail," as Duck put it, differently from men in comparable positions.

Duck's surprises started with the first question she presented to her subjects, all holding a minimum rank of vice president. When she asked them, men and women alike, if they perceived a difference between the way men and women in management conducted business, "everybody I talked to said they could make no distinctions based on gender."

Duck swiftly dropped that question. Instead she came up with a query list that ran along the lines of "Do you see differences between the ways males and females in organizations understand/accumulate and/or use power?," "Compare men and women as team players," or "In facing difficult organizational problems, do you perceive any differences in the willingness or the way women and men approach these problems?"

Answers on the Wall

Briefing the psychotherapists attending her seminar, Duck also drew them into the process. Since the theme of their conference was "Transactional Analysis Looks at Gender Issues," Duck soon had her audience wielding brightly colored Magic Markers as they eagerly scribbled their own answers to these and other questions on huge sheets that covered whole walls of the hotel conference room.

"Women do not necessarily use a win/lose metaphor in their cooperative behavior," one therapist answered in response to the second question. "For women," another agreed, "it's what we do as a team, rather than are we going to beat the other team."

"It's the quilting bee, rather than the football team," Emily Hunter Ruppert, a psychotherapist in the Boston area, elaborated.

Among her interview subjects, Duck said she encountered more than mere willingness to discuss the view from the top. "What I found was that people were excited to be able to talk about these things," she said. "It was a chance for them to lift some of the barriers."

As to the matter of gender differences in organizing, accumulating and using power, Duck said many of the executives she interviewed "felt that women were naive about power, especially in organizational situations." Less likely than men "to realize that power is relationship-based," women, Duck found, "seemed to have the idea that 'if I am good, that ought to be enough.' " With such a purist perspective, Duck said the women "saw no need to market themselves" and thus were less skilled at self-promotion, "especially overtly."

Both men and women saw women as "good at reading people," Duck went on, "but not really catching on as to how to use it."

In turn, said Duck, that discrepancy presented another dilemma. "If relationships are critical to getting power and to getting things done," she said, "oftentimes women don't get the data about how they are coming across." Men, she said, "are more likely to give tough feedback and perception feedback to other men than they are to women."

What happens, Duck concluded, is that "when a woman joins a group, it changes the dynamics." In the presence of a female peer, said Duck, "the men said they didn't feel as comfortable to be silly or to be rude and crude."

'Cellophane Ceiling'

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