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Female Execs--In the Pipeline or Still Hitting the Glass Ceiling?

November 03, 1996|STUART SILVERSTEIN

There's no denying that women, despite advances in recent years, are overwhelmingly outnumbered by men at the pinnacle of corporate America.

But among the trend watchers and activists following gender issues in the workplace, that's often where the agreement ends.

The opposing camps divide over two key questions: Is it simply a matter of time before gender justice prevails in the executive suite? Or do women need some help in breaking through barriers that have unfairly kept them from reaching the top?

Coming from the right side of the politically charged dispute are proponents of the so-called pipeline theory. Their position recently was spelled out in a report published by a small nonprofit group called the Independent Women's Forum, with help from the American Enterprise Institute, a prominent conservative think tank. Both are based in Washington.

The conservative theory is that in the future, executives will be drawn from a managerial talent "pipeline" increasingly filled with women. Although the pipeline historically has been dominated by men, the argument holds that today's young women are keeping up with their male counterparts in the workplace and thus are on track to land their fair share of executive jobs in the future.

The IWF's report cites, for example, an analysis of government figures on working men and women who are childless and between the ages of 27 and 33. In that comparison, women still earn less than men, but their earnings lag by as little as 2%--far less than the 24% gap when all working men and women are taken into account.

In addition, the IWF report notes data showing rapid growth in the number of women-owned businesses and increases in the number of female executives.

Although discrimination exists, the main reason so few women lead Fortune 500 companies today is that "the pool of qualified men from which to choose CEO candidates is much larger," said Diana Furchtgott-Roth, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute and co-author of the IWF report.

She noted that 20 to 30 years ago, when the current generation of chief executive job candidates was in college and graduate school, relatively few women were getting law or MBA degrees.

"You can't expect a woman who majored in English or who took time off to have children to, in her 50s, become a CEO when there have been men who got MBA or law degrees 25 years ago and then spent 25 years working 60-hour weeks for their firms. . . . It wouldn't be fair," Furchtgott-Roth said.

But many other observers, taking essentially the liberal position in the debate, fire back that evidence of progress by younger women is no assurance that the success will continue up the corporate ladder.

In their eyes, the government figures on personal earnings are worrisome because they show that the pay gap between men and women widens over time. And they argue that one of the reasons so many women are starting businesses is that they have been blocked by subtle stereotypes and other "glass ceiling" barriers from reaching the top corporate jobs.

Meanwhile, the percentage of women in the most prestigious executive jobs remains tiny. A study released last month by Catalyst, a New York research and advocacy group influential in the liberal camp, showed that women account for only 10% of the officers and 2% of the top-paid executives at Fortune 500 companies.

An earlier poll by Catalyst of 461 high-ranking female executives found that 52% believed that "male stereotyping and preconceptions of women" were still holding back women in the workplace.

"To deny that there is a glass ceiling is to deny reality," said Sheila Wellington, president of Catalyst. "Even these women who are in the corporate inner circles reject the 'pipeline' notion."

To speed progress, Wellington says, corporate America should do more of what some companies already are doing: among other things, holding managers accountable for women's advancement, helping workers balance work and family responsibilities, and providing women with opportunities to take on highly visible and important duties and assignments.

Could there be a middle ground in this debate over why so few women are getting to the top? Executive head hunter Caroline W. Nahas thinks so.

Nahas, a managing director of the big Los Angeles-based search firm Korn/Ferry International, contends that the pipeline theory holds little water because women "have been in the pipeline since the late '60s" and there are still few female senior executives.

On the other hand, she says, the glass ceiling can't take all of the blame. Nahas explains that in her work she often comes across female executives who avoid competing for the top jobs because they don't want to make the necessary personal sacrifices.

But Nahas maintains that some elements of the glass ceiling remain intact. She says top male executives, when they decide to groom potential successors, normally choose other men because they consciously or subconsciously feel more comfortable with them.

Her advice to women who aspire to become CEOs: Make "bold choices and take risks" in your career to attract the attention of your boss. And if you believe you have the talent to become a CEO but can't get there at your current company, move on to another firm.

* Times staff writer Stuart Silverstein can be reached by phone at (213) 237-7887 or by e-mail at

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