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Rating the Corporate Players: A Woman's Guide : THE BEST COMPANIES FOR WOMEN by Baila Zeitz Ph.D. and Lorraine Dusky (Simon & Schuster: $19.95; 413 pp.)

July 10, 1988|Sarah Hardesty | Hardesty is a former executive at an international public relations corporation and co-author of "Success and Betrayal: The Crisis of Women in Corporate America" (Touchstone). She currently serves as director of communications at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. and

If you are fed up with top-10 lists, one-minute solutions, easy how-to tips--in short, superficial categorizations of often complex issues--take heart. You won't find them in "The Best Companies for Women."

Unlike some others of its genre, the book--which assesses the policies and practices toward executive women of 50 companies ranging from American Express to U.S. West Direct--isn't a catalogue of quick and simple portraits full of unmitigated praise. Rather, authors Baila Zeitz, a psychologist and business consultant, and Lorraine Dusky, a journalist, give richly complex and comprehensive reviews to many of the companies they recognize as "The Best."

In fact, a few of the companies selected might even wish they'd escaped the honor. Take the description of a leading telecommunications multinational: "We decided that the company as a whole isn't a place we can recommend," the first paragraphs read. "The company has formulated no clear directives and set no numerical goals to bring women up past middle management. Sexism appears to be rampant, particularly in the manufacturing units."

To come up with their final list, the authors have had to rely to some degree on qualitative and anecdotal information from executive recruiters, professional women's groups, and apparently somewhat randomly selected female executives (a minimum of nine at each company). Yet they've done a highly credible job evaluating how companies are performing on a complex business and social issue.

For example, Zeitz and Dusky wisely present their findings in the context of how each company is faring from a strictly business perspective. We learn in some detail about the impact on all employees--whether women or men--of the restructuring at AT&T, the cutbacks at CBS, the diversification at Avon Products and the like.

The authors have also been careful to solicit opinions on the same company from a variety of women in different divisions, areas of the country, and types of jobs--both staff and line. And, perhaps most important, they have interviewed women both on and off the record.

The good news: Some corporations are, in some cases, making critical improvements in their dealings with managerial women. Successful women tell us of the significant opportunities for advancement at Federal Express Corp., or the flexible policies toward child-care issues at Honeywell. We read of a massive corporate educational program Merck & Co. created "to make employees rethink their attitudes about women and minorities on the job."

Yet, women in the vast majority of companies complain of the dispiriting persistance of "the glass ceiling"--that invisible but seemingly immutable barrier through which executive women can see but not penetrate to top management. Is it simply, as many suggest, that women haven't been "in the pipeline" long enough to break through? Others interviewed contend that women have been ubiquitous at middle-management levels for almost a decade or so now, yet very little--if not nothing--seems to give. Why?

Most women credit the continuing lack of comfort between men and women at top executive ranks as a basic stumbling block.

In the words of a senior woman at Digital Equipment Corp.: "Ninety percent of the people making decisions about who they are going to let in are older men. They have the philosophy that it should be equal for women and men, but they haven't internalized it. They just don't feel comfortable with you, even the ones who don't want to discriminate. It's just a fact."

What happens as a result of such attitudes--often unconscious in even the best-intentioned male managers, "new" as well as old? The women interviewed tell of being pushed into less powerful staff positions, or of having jobs downgraded in terms of salary, title and influence as soon as they obtain them. They describe male managers who refuse to give them the opportunity and responsibility to succeed or fail on the same terms as men. And they cite a closing of the ranks among their male counterparts where "alliances are made that keep women out." It's increasingly apparent that even as companies make progress in dealing with the more blatant forms of discrimination, it assumes more subtle--and perhaps insidious--shapes.

Throughout the book, the authors let women speak for themselves in presenting both the advances and frustrations, the attainments and the disillusionments, the benefits and the betrayals found at each company profiled. Each evaluation is chock-full of pertinent anecdotes and engaging quotes that give the reader a balanced and broad perspective on a particular organization. Written in a fresh, readable style, the book is also well organized. A reader can quickly dip into it and get the basic line on the company or companies of most interest.

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