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COMMITMENTS : Cinderella and the Glass Ceiling : Getting to the top doesn't always earn women the respect they deserve. But author Kathleen Reardon says it's partly their own fault for playing into the 'cute and little syndrome.'

June 19, 1995|BRIAN ALCORN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Working women who have looked with resentment through the glass ceiling for decades will find no solace in Kathleen Reardon's new book, "They Don't Get It, Do They?" (Little, Brown).

"There's this perception that if you crack through the glass ceiling, it's all going to be wonderful. Well, that's baloney," says Reardon, a USC management professor who also works as a business consultant and heads the Presidential Fellows Program in USC's Leadership Institute.

Women make up 44% of managerial/professional employees, yet they still hold fewer than 5% of senior management positions in large companies. More disturbing, Reardon says, is the growing number of women walking out of the executive suites they worked so hard to earn, frustrated to the point of despair at the hostility, indifference and disrespect from their male co-workers.

Many of these women are starting their own businesses. Reardon reports that women-owned businesses grew 35% from 1989 to 1990, and by the year 2000 nearly half of all businesses will be owned by a woman.

Ask any of these executives-turned-entrepreneurs why they changed careers and you'll likely hear a horror story, Reardon says.

"The thing that mystifies me is that it seems to be getting worse, not better."

Discrimination and sexism alone do not account for this power imbalance, Reardon says. In her book, subtitled "Communication in the Workplace--Closing the Gap Between Women and Men," Reardon says that two decades of research have convinced her that the larger problem lies with "the enduring nature of dysfunctional communication patterns and the stereotypes that accompany them."

"Dysfunctional communication," Reardon says, is all the subtle stuff that keeps women from getting ahead: inappropriate remarks about the way they dress or look, interrupting or talking over them at meetings, taking credit for their ideas and cutting them out of important planning sessions.

"Even generally good people do this," Reardon says. "Even people who think they are truly enlightened discover that when they look at their day-to-day communication, they are having these types of conversations. We slip into these scripts and it requires conscious effort to break out of them."

The root of the problem lies in the fact that men are far more comfortable dealing with women in social situations than in business ones. Hence, women at work tend to get labeled with social stereotypes men understand--mother, sister, potential lover.

Much of this behavior falls into what Reardon calls the "cute and little syndrome." When women are promoted to a level where they can no longer be dealt with as cute and little, they're seen as a threat.

Unfortunately, she adds, many women play this game too, in order to be liked. They don't see the trap until it's too late, and then they don't understand why they are passed over for promotion or why they are snubbed by their male friends when they are promoted.

To stem the exodus of women from leadership positions, Reardon proposes a seemingly simple solution: Change the way we talk to each other in the workplace.

"We can stretch and even transform ourselves by learning and experimenting with new ways of talking," she writes in her book.

Reardon gives the example of Janet, a 40-year-old regional manager for a food-products company, who has learned that the three male members of a committee she is on had an informal meeting without her where important decisions were made.

Janet confronts Fred, the committee chair:

Janet: I felt left out of the planning of this project, Fred. The meeting was held without my knowledge.

Fred: Now, Janet, let's not make this a personal thing. Frank, Bill and I happened to run into each other, so we got some work done.

Janet: But I am on the planning team. You could have run it by me.

Fred: You shouldn't waste your energy on this, Janet. It's nothing. Don't feel bad.

Janet: It's happened several times.

Fred: Getting a little paranoid, aren't we?

Janet: I just want to be kept informed.

Fred: OK, Janet. OK. It's no big deal.

At first glance, it may appear that Janet handled the situation as best as she could, forcefully confronting her peers about this "oversight." But Reardon says the above dialogue, which women executives will find all too familiar, does nothing to prevent the same thing from happening again.

While Fred may be an unreconstructed knucklehead, Janet plays her part in this dysfunctional conversation by letting him control the direction of the conversation.

"Since Janet focused the conversation on her own emotional state rather than the infraction by her colleagues, Fred was free to mention her feelings," Reardon writes. "Janet's choice of words influenced Fred's communication options."

*

Conversations such as this are the nuts and bolts of workplace discrimination. But "They Don't Get It, Do They?" isn't about bashing men for boorish behavior. Instead, it offers alternatives for women that can put them back in control.

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