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Breaking the Glass Ceiling: CAN WOMEN REACH THE TOP OF AMERICA'S LARGEST CORPORATIONS? by Ann M. Morrison, Randall P. White, Ellen Van Velsor and the Center for Creative Leadership (Addison-Wesley: $15.95; 229 pp.)

July 26, 1987|Susan Warfel | Warfel is a business reporter for Investor's Daily in Los Angeles.

It doesn't take an MBA to figure out that the road to top management has proved more difficult than many women had expected. According to some experts, women comprise less than 2% of corporate officers at Fortune 500 companies. At the chief executive level, they number no more than a handful. A surprising number are leaving the corporate world to find fulfillment elsewhere, including entrepreneurial ventures.

One theory holds that aspiring female managers hit a "glass ceiling" that gives the illusion of an open path to top corporate ranks but actually frustrates women's efforts to rise beyond a certain level. This barrier isn't related to an individual's competence, write Ann M. Morrison, Randall P. White and Ellen Van Velsor in "Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Can Women Reach the Top of America's Largest Corporations?" "Rather, the glass ceiling applies to women as a group who are kept from advancing because they are women."

The authors, who are management research and training experts at the North Carolina-based Center for Creative Leadership, base their book on a three-year study of women managers.

Two-thirds of the 76 women interviewed held general management positions and were deemed to have broken the glass ceiling; the rest were likely candidates for promotion to general management. By focusing on Fortune 100 industrial concerns and service companies of comparable size, the authors wisely restrict their analysis to that segment of business where women's limited presence is most glaring.

The study presents a troubling picture. "It appears that in order to approach the highest levels, women are expected to have more strengths and fewer faults than their male counterparts," the authors state.

But behavioral restrictions also are great, they assert. Women managers must be tough without appearing macho. And they must retain certain "feminine" characteristics such as adaptability without appearing soft.

To top it all off, the women interviewed "had to operate with three levels of pressure constantly pushing on them. These pressures--of the job itself, of their pioneer role in the job, and of the strain of their family obligations--made their advancement that much harder."

Much has already been said and written on this subject, of course. But the fact that many of the findings reported here replicate those of earlier works is probably a strength in this case,544434542controversial.

"Breaking the Glass Ceiling" adds new credence to the claim that women continue to be held back by a corporate establishment that is not yet comfortable with their presence. A similar study of male executives conducted earlier by the Center for Creative Leadership further enhances the book's credibility.

The authors compared this previous research to their female manager study, including assessments of both study groups by more senior executives in the managers' companies. It is in this way that they document the difference in standards used to judge men and women. Quite simply, key corporate insiders attributed a higher number of "success factors" to the women who had made it to the general management level than they attributed to men at about the same level.

But while the authors' documentation of a "glass ceiling" seems convincing, their attempts to achieve two related goals are less successful. For "Breaking the Glass Ceiling" takes a perplexing tack in that it provides not only advice to women striving to get ahead but also an unusually gloomy assessment of their prospects.

The authors contend that women will ultimately find it easier to break the glass ceiling of general management but will then encounter a formidable "wall" that will block further progress. Their honesty can't be criticized. But their trite suggestion that "we must try to content ourselves with the gains that are made" can.

What is their prediction? "Women will take top management posts with the next 50 years." Fifty? Now they tell us (10 pages from the end)!

If the authors' forecast is justified, why bother with their handy tips for clearing management hurdles? Perhaps the women abandoning Corporate America to launch their own businesses have the right idea.

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