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Some Firms Look Through Glass Ceiling to See Ways of Tapping Women's Talent

July 12, 1998|MARTHA GROVES

That sound you hear is the sledgehammering of the glass ceiling at a select group of U.S. corporations and firms. It is a sound heard all too seldom.

Just look at the numbers:

* Forty-six percent of the total U.S. work force is female; more than half of all women work full time outside the home.

* Women now earn more than half the bachelor's and master's degrees awarded each year.

* Women earn one-third of the master's degrees in business administration and half of the undergraduate degrees in business and management.

And now consider this:

Only about 10% of corporate offices at the nation's 500 largest companies are held by women, according to research by Catalyst, a nonprofit New York organization that focuses on issues of women's advancement. The number drops to just 3% for top titles: chief executive, president, chair, vice chair, chief operating officer and executive vice president.

Why is the glass ceiling so, well, tempered?

Even though more corporate leaders recognize that tapping women's talent is vitally important, few companies have figured out how to recruit, retain and promote women. Rather, companies create or reinforce conditions that put women at a disadvantage--by assuming that women are not as talented or as committed to their careers as men, by failing to give women line experience, by excluding them from informal career networks and by failing to make managers accountable for advancing female employees.

In an effort to change all that, Catalyst has compiled "Advancing Women in Business--The Catalyst Guide: Best Practices From the Corporate Leaders," newly published by Jossey-Bass Publishers in San Francisco. Drawn from 36 years of Catalyst research, it spotlights 38 companies dedicated to making the most of the distaff side's talent and intellect.

Take Morrison & Foerster, an international law firm based in San Francisco. For more than a decade, the firm has had in place a variety of work-life programs that help women achieve their potential. These include a flextime policy for partners and associates who must care for children or adult relatives, a three-month paid maternity leave (followed by an optional three-month unpaid leave), and a companywide dependent-care resource and referral program. The firm pays 95% of any fees for backup child care.

To keep offices free of internal obstacles to advancement, the firm offers ongoing training in diversity awareness. The initiatives have paid off for women, who make up 22% of the firm's 200 partners. The programs have also created an environment in which employees feel they can be honest.

"At MoFo, if you have to leave to take the kids to the dentist, you say so," said Maren E. Nelson, who runs the litigation department in Los Angeles and was named a partner while on maternity leave. "At other firms, you say you're going to a meeting."

A decade ago, 400 female employees of Hewlett-Packard, the Silicon Valley technology giant, met one Saturday in the company cafeteria to get to know one another and discuss their technical contributions. With the company's blessing, that grass-roots effort has mushroomed into an annual, regional Technical Women's Conference drawing from 500 to 3,000 women at each site.

"It's hard to describe the energy," said Laurie Mittelstadt, a member of the technical staff at HP Labs in Palo Alto. The gatherings "give women the courage to go up the [corporate] ladder. It heals something you didn't know was missing."

Meanwhile, work-life integration has become a chief goal. Rather than "turning off" the family or personal side of life when they come to work, she noted, women now seek more of a blending. They are asking, "What is it about my technology that can help the world?"

One result of paying extra attention to women: In 1996-97, they made up 36% of HP's incoming hires.

Stung by high turnover of female employees, accounting giant Deloitte & Touche in early 1992 instituted a program aimed at retaining and promoting talented women as "a business imperative for the 1990s." Since then, the percentage of women admitted to partnership has soared to 20% in 1997 from 8% in 1991. Overall, female partners now number 212, or 11% of all partners, the highest level among the Big 5 accounting firms.

Six years ago, a female partner in the firm's Costa Mesa office advised Jannie Herchuk to turn down an attractive job offer from a client because the new women's initiative "had the potential to make this a fabulous place to work."

Herchuk took her advice and has never regretted it. In 1994, when her first child was 10 days old, Herchuk learned that she had been named a partner. Most of the time since then, she has worked a flexible schedule with somewhat reduced hours.

For all its progress, the firm still has a way to go, she said. "There [are] a lot of ingrained thought patterns," she said. "Few of our men were overtly discriminating, but they were likely regarding women professionals in a light different from male professionals."


Does your company have an innovative way of holding on to female and minority employees? Tell us about it. Write to Martha Groves, Corporate Currents, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053 or e-mail

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