My work is focused on helping businesses solve the stubborn problem of achieving a more proportional representation of women in upper echelons. Often I’m asked, “But haven’t women made tremendous progress?” The question makes me think of the advertising slogan for a cigarette designed in the late 1960s that proclaimed how far women had come—yet called us “Baby.”
Indeed women have come a long way. I loved Gail Collins’ book, When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present. I am one of the millions of women who experienced the unfolding she describes.
When I was a child in the 1950s, Rosie the Riveter had given up her defense job and was back in the home. Middle class women aspired to marry well and be wives and mothers. Although many were college educated, they expected to leave their jobs once they married or the first child arrived. None of my mother’s friends worked outside the home. The only middle class women I did see working were teachers or clerical workers. I went to college in the late 1960s with no ambition to have a career.
The 1960s brought birth control, the Civil Rights movement and Women Liberation. When I arrived at college (a woman’s college in the South), we wore wool skirts with matching sweaters and fixed our hair before going to class. Boys waited for their dates in the dorm reception areas. By the time I graduated, we wore bell bottomed jeans and long free-flowing hair. Boys had free access to dorm rooms. Since I was too liberated to pursue marriage at so young an age, I had to think about a job (thrilling and frightening)!
Being a woman was no impediment to getting into law school by the mid-1970s. All I had to do was get good grades and pass the bar exam to get a job with a good firm. I was aware that I was part of a wave of women entering traditionally male jobs and industries, and that my generation had more opportunities than women who had come before. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s experience was very different from mine when she graduated with honors in 1952 and couldn’t get a job with a law firm.
The story had been different for women only a few years older than I. My brother’s wife, just eight years my senior, gave up her job without considering alternatives when her first child came. When mine came, I relied on childcare while working and climbing the corporate ladder. My generation wanted it all—motherhood and career. We had no role models for the juggling act. We struggled and dropped some balls. We felt guilty for being imperfect, both as mothers and professionals.
Women who chose careers and women who chose to work at home judged rather than supported each other (and, sadly, still do). But we had choices that the women who preceded us did not have.
In the three and a half decades since I entered the workforce, women have, indeed, made progress. We now represent close to half of the workforce. Women are CEOs of companies with household names—IBM, Hewlett-Packard, PepsiCo and Archer Daniels Midland to name a few. Lots of men compete with women for promotions and report to women bosses. Thanks to the White House Project and similar efforts, the guest experts invited to appear on the national news now include women. We’ve had three women Secretaries of State, four women Supreme Court justices and one woman made a serious run for President. The norms for what women can do and who can succeed have shifted.
I celebrate all this progress and the opportunities women now have. But let’s not get carried away. There is a “but.” When I started my career, women were almost exclusively at entry levels. We understood that it was just a matter of time. Women would work their way up the ladder as they gained enough experience and “paid their dues.” We expected that by now, three-and-a-half decades later, women would be proportionally represented at all levels of the hierarchy in business, government, education and other areas. That hasn’t happened.
According to Catalyst’s most recent report, although women are 46.6% of the U.S. labor force, they represent only 14.1% of executive officers, 16.1% of board members, 7.5% of top earners and 3.6% of CEOs in the Fortune 500. That’s not proportional. More sobering, Catalyst concluded in late 2011 that women are no further along in scaling the corporate ladder than they were six years ago.
We have come a very long way since 1960. We have not, however, come as far as we expected when “everything changed.” This is not a woman’s problem. Gender diversity in leadership is very good for the bottom line. Its absence is a business problem. Business leaders, men as well as women, need to understand why progress is slow, or stalled, and then make some more things change … Baby!
Caroline Turner, author of Difference Works: Improving Retention, Productivity and Profitability through Inclusion, began her career as a successful lawyer in a private practice, becoming partner in a large regional firm in the demanding area of securities law and mergers and acquisitions. Later, she climbed the corporate ladder at Coors Brewing Company and its parent company (now MillerCoors and MolsonCoors) to become the company’s first female Senior Vice President. Turner is now a business consultant, advising clients on creating cultures of inclusion, facilitating workshops and delivering speeches.