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Leader's Edge She's Here to Stay

Women are moving ahead much faster than men in business, even if men are still in charge.

By  Julia Kramer

We’re lucky to be part of an industry in which women and men work together every day without a lot of hoopla. We value that women in business are here to stay. But were you aware that women are outpacing men in income gains, new business ownership, and higher levels of education—including college enrollments, undergraduate and graduate degrees, and doctorates?

Women are outpacing men in home buying, and—make room, boys—women comprise the majority of new hunters. Outpacing doesn’t mean leading, it just means moving ahead faster, but most experts think women will indeed overtake men in these categories. And soon.

When you think about it, the progression of women’s rights is relatively new and swift. Not until 1920 were women granted the constitutional right to vote. Unbelievably, this was years, and in some cases decades, after women were graduating from top universities such as MIT. This was long after Clara Barton founded the Red Cross, Susanna Madora Salter was elected mayor of Argonia, Kan., golfer Margaret Abbott won an Olympic medal and Jeannette Rankin of Montana was elected to Congress. Yes, all without voting rights.

After 1920, women’s opportunities proliferated. The feminist movement took hold, and Titles VII (from the Civil Rights Act of 1964) and IX (from the 1972 law banning gender discrimination in education) changed the legal landscape in support of women’s rights. Politically, women reached high office, including U.S. Supreme Court justice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, attorney general, secretary of state, secretary of labor, and Speaker of the House.

Amazing progress, but throughout all the exciting years of social, political and legal change, fewer public mothers and daughters went to work, earned degrees, moved up through the ranks and continued to struggle with varying degrees of chauvinism, gender discrimination and harassment. If you’ve never observed or experienced the frustration and damage caused by sexism, watch an episode of “Mad Men,” AMC’s hit television show about the advertising men and women on Madison Avenue in the early 1960s. Some feel this show is condescending to women and so don’t watch it, but a recent article in The Washington Post reflects the attitude of many men and women: It’s difficult to watch because it unflinchingly and correctly portrays the sexism of the era. Historians “love the show,” reports the Post. “It is, quite simply, one of the most historically accurate television series ever produced.”

So how does a firm make sure it’s not stuck in the ’60s? How do we wrap our arms around women’s issues and concerns, avoid gender bias, and profit from the value that women bring to the workforce?

Remove artificial barriers and outdated perspectives that stand in your way. Ultimately, gender biases and adverse actions will be dangerous to your organization’s future. And not just because someone may take you to court. As The Washington Post recently reported on Vice Admiral Ann Rondeau, the president of the National Defense University, at Fortune magazine’s Most Powerful Women summit: more women should be in combat now because we “can’t win this current fight without women on the field. It is just a fact.”

Translated to the business world, your firm will not be competitive or successful unless you not only hire, but actively develop and deploy, the most qualified individuals, whether they be men or women. Put your women into combat—that is, train them, mentor them and send them into action, whether it’s in front of the board or in front of a client. Let them help you succeed.

Don’t assume women’s issues are yesterday’s news. It’s a mistake to think that just because you have a female executive or top producer that your firm is gender neutral. Take a look at the overall demographics of your organization. If your firm is like many in our industry, women comprise a large percentage of service and internal support roles and a lower percentage of senior management roles. If this is the case at your firm, modify your succession and recruitment plans so that qualified women are appropriately represented. Monitor your promotion and performance evaluation processes for any gender bias.

Eliminate gender-based language and stereotypes. I’m not promoting a sanitized workplace where no one utters a four-letter word. I’m also not so unrealistic to think that name-calling can be eliminated. However, certain slang words that negatively portray woman should be eradicated from office-speak. So, too, should damaging and demeaning stereotypes be eliminated. I’m old enough to remember the sting of the insinuation that a smart and respected colleague “slept her way to the top,” the disbelief that managers refused to hire young women because they “get married, have babies and expect paid maternity leave,” and the frustrating exclusivity of the good ol’ boys network.

It’s difficult to write about women’s issues because it’s hard to discuss the issue without pointing fingers at men or at least creating that perception. Jane Galvin Lewis’s quote about this difficulty hits the nail on the head and offers a conciliatory approach. “You don’t have to be anti-man to be pro-woman,” Lewis says. So be pro-man and pro-woman, or, better yet, be pro-people to ensure that your firm is, just like working women, here to stay.

Kramer is The Council’s senior vice president, Office of the President.


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