Not long ago, I spoke at a small conference of successful business women. Afterwards came the deluge, as one woman after another came up to me and asked for advice.
It always happens at these events. I speak, I listen, I hear the same words over and over"baffled," "angry," "lost," "trapped," "stuck," "overwhelmed"as each woman tells me she feels that she's gotten only so far in business and can't get any further.
One of the women at the conference told me she's a vice president at the Fortune 500 company where she's been working for two decades. In the last four years she has been given two new lofty-sounding titles, but no more power. She thinks she has hit a wall.
"Have you made it clear what you want?" I asked. "Have you taken any action?"
"No," she said.
Like so many women, she doesn't understand that when you have an ongoing serious complaint, you don't simply, meekly, live with it. You try to change it.
I told her that she needed to take action.
"What kind of action?" she asked
"Anything," I said. "One action will lead to another. Talk to the CEO. Job hunt. Anything. Just do something!"
She sighed. "I don't understand. They know what a good job I am doing. Why don't they just reward me for it?"
With that attitude, she is losing the game.
If you don't read the directions manual when you start a game, you won't know how to proceed. You open the box, and in front of you are the board, markers, and dice, but you don't have a clue. If you're playing by yourself, you can improvise, but you may get it wrong. If you're playing with others, you can always follow their lead. But while they're focused on winning, you have to keep asking yourself if you're getting it right.
Whether that game is croquet, Monopoly, field hockey, or football, you have to understand the directions first. So why play the game of business any differently? Business is as much a game as any other board, individual, or team sports game. Consider all the metaphors like teamwork, making the right moves, playing your cards close to your chest, picking the best players for your team, rolling the dice, making a preemptive bid, raising the ante, finding the right captain, getting the team into position, hitting a home run.
The bottom line: When it comes to business, most women are at a disadvantage. We're forced to guess, to improvise, to bluff (which is not something we're always good atsee Chapter 5: Toot Your Own Horn). This is why so few of us play the game well, and even fewer find it fulfilling.
And what about men? They don't read directions manuals, you say. True. They don't need to. The male mind invented the concept of directions. It wasn't that they deliberately ignored women, or disliked what women had to say. Rather, as business culture developed, few women were around to help. Men wrote all the rules because they wrote alone.
Women have made great strides in the last century. But that progress hasn't always been smooth, nor has it been straight ahead. Sometimes it's even retrogressed. During the labor shortage in World War II, for example, women were called in to perform men's jobs, and they did well. But when the war was over, Rosie the Riveter was sent home, and women had to wait decades for another chance.
The best you can say is that we've seen a kind of creeping incrementalism. Large numbers of women dot the current workplace, but like trees on a mountain, you'll see fewer and fewer of them as you climb higher in the executive landscape, until you reach a kind of timber line where you'll find about as many women as you'll find magnolias.
Fortune magazine recently ran a cover story on the 50 most powerful women in America. Nothing wrong with that. What I found worrisome was that the positions these women occupiedgroup presidents, vice presidents, founders of their own businesseswere not comparable to what a similar group of men would have held. All the men would have been CEO of large companies.
Women now account for over 46 percent of the total U.S. labor force, up from 29.6 percent in 1950. But as of 1999, only 11.9 of the 11,681 corporate officers in America's top 500 companies were women. In 1998 it was 11.2. If this pace continues, the number of women on top corporate boards won't equal the number of men until the year 2064.
Last year only 3.3 percent of these companies's top earners were women, with 98 women holding positions of the highest rank in corporate America, versus 1,202 men. And 496 out of 500 Fortune companies had male CEOs. Many of America's favorite companiesGeneral Electric, Exxon, Compaq have no women officers at all.
And even when women do make it to the top, we don't make as much money: Compensation for the top-paid female officers ranges from $210,000 to $4.96 million, whereas men earn from $220,660 to $31.29 million. All in all, top female executives earn on average 68 cents for every dollar a male executive earns.
The reality in today's business landscape: A woman is most likely to occupy a position of power when she started, or inherited, her own business. We're not going through the ranks and making it to the boss's office, and that's where the power lies in corporate America.
What canand shoulda woman do? The answer would be easy if men and women were born with similar instincts and were similarly socialized. But that isn't the case. In fact, the general thinking among biogeneticists is that the social skills of males and females are inherently different. After that, according to the sociologists, they're raised in ways that accentuate that difference.
Let me tell you about my three children, two boys and a girl, whom I was committed to raising in a thoroughly nonsexist environment. Starting from day one, I could spot gender-based disparities among them. For instance, the way in which my sons and daughters nursed: My two boys behaved alike. They sucked until their stomachs were full, they burped, filled their diapers, and promptly went to sleep. It was a quick, effortless transaction. End of story.
My daughter gave a different performance. She sucked a little, she closed her eyes, then she'd touch, reach out, feel, suck, rest, try to open her eyes, burble, suck, touch, and so on. It was clear from the earliest moment that she was interested in some kind of social relationship with me. She wanted to know who I was and where she was. The boys just wanted to get their fill.
Nurture also has a say in gender distinctions. While teaching a course on gender issues in business at Emory University's Goizueta Business School, I asked my students about the games they played as children. What was the object of the game, how many other children participated, what lessons did they take away from them, and so on?
As usual, the sharpest young man was the first to raise his hand. "I always hung around with at least a half dozen other boys," he said. "We played games like pick-up baseball, soccer, street hockey." He added, "The silliest question you asked was about the object of the game. We played to win. What else is there?"
"Oh, my God," interrupted a young woman. She explained how she usually played with one, or maybe two, other girls at a time, rather than a large group, and that they were always more concerned with building a friendship than with winning. Then she told us a story about playing a game of jacks with two friends at camp. When one of the girls was about to win, they all made up new rules so they wouldn't have to stop. "The object was to keep the game going as long as possible," she said. "And we wanted everyone to win."
The point is not that one of these perspectives is better than the other but that, from early childhood on, boys and girls play with different sets of rules. And because men created the rules in the game of business, and because women are only now trying to be effective competitors, we will prosper only when we are familiar with those rules.
None of this is to say that men are doing a bad, or a good, job. The business world is male-dominated. That is not a criticism nor a condemnationit's a reality. Most of the time the male advantage isn't due to conscious discrimination against women. Like most people, men prefer to surround themselves with others who make them feel at ease. The relationship between men and women in business is not so different from that between a Caucasian Christian and an Indian Sikh, or an army general and a pacifist. Like attracts like. Differences create discomfort.
There is no denying that our society has created a division of labor between men and women, and historically one sex has tended to supervise certain tasks, and therefore write the rules. Recently, however, that division is becoming muddied, as both sexes are thinking about expanding the traditional boundaries, whether at work or at home.
For instance, some men are now staying home to raise children. The way we nurture our children in our culture is a female-determined systemthese directions were written by women. It might turn out to be excellent for our children, however, if men have more of an impact on how kids are raised. We might have healthier childrenjust as we may have healthier corporations if women were to play a bigger role in them. The more heterogeneity there is at the table, the more likely we are to discover better solutions for everyone.
In the pages that follow you will find pointers to help you create your own
personal directions manual for success. To become a player in the world of
business, you have to know the prevailing rules that men play bynot because
you must follow them word for word, but because you need to understand the
playing field even if you eventually choose to make up your own game. It is not
a level playing field if you don't know what to do on it.