In 1998, Catalyst and National Foundation for Women Business Owners published a joint study showing that women were leaving corporate and public sector organizations to start businesses of their own because, among other reasons, they continually encountered gender stereotypes that held them back.
Much earlier, in the course of my own research, I had interviewed a very successful entrepreneur who had trod that path exactly. She put it this way:
I live in San Francisco, and I liken the disillusionment in a corporation to a creeping fog. In the nighttime, the fog slowly comes in from the ocean and goes under the Golden Gate Bridge. You are really not aware of it at first, and eventually you hear the foghorns in the distance, and those foghorns indicate a change in the environment, a slow creeping disillusionment.
In 2004, Catalyst released the results of a study of the experiences of male and female executives of Fortune 1000 Companies. It reported that while both men and women have similar goals on entering organizations and strategies for reaching them, and that both groups would encounter barriers in their careers, women had the additional problem of encountering harmful gender stereotypes. How that was happening was crisply explained four years later in the title of the 2008 Catalyst study: “The Double-Bind Dilemma for Women in Leadership: Damned if You Do, Doomed if You Don’t.”
Stereotypes and their harmful paralyzing effects on women’s career opportunities and advancement have not gone away. According to a report just released (Catalyst, Jan. 14), gender stereotypes continue and especially in male-dominated organizations.
We have known for half a decade at least why it makes no sense for companies to tolerate this. A 2004 Catalyst study reported results from an examination of some 353 companies that maintained their Fortune-500 rankings four years out of a five-year period. It showed that companies with the highest percentage of women in top management had a higher return on equity (35 percent) and greater total returns to shareholders (34 percent) than companies with few women top managers. A 2009 Catalyst study suggested an additional reason. The higher return on investment was seen in firms where male managers saw the value of diversity training and then carried out the results in working with members from diverse groups.
Assuming that the point of operating a business is to make a profit, what does this tell us?
Companies hiring and advancing qualified women access a larger pool of talent and benefit from considering all minds valuable. Where women are given equal (not special) opportunities and bias-free measurements of job performance, it is possible to eliminate or reduce the harmful outcomes of stereotypes. Companies are then able to operate on a higher level and perform better overall.
It would be more profitable for companies if managers were to set stereotypes aside and follow leadership styles that advance the organization’s mission. Unfortunately, far too many major corporations and smaller companies around the globe still use outdated styles of management and leadership at all levels of the organization that are ill suited to benefiting from employee diversity.
Companies that seek success need to set standards of “no tolerance” for those who deliberately use stereotypes to avoid appraising and paying women professionals the salaries they deserve. To do this, it will be important to establish diversity training programs that eliminate the harmful effects which may impede female employees from making productive contributions, especially in this down-turned economy.
Aspiring women in organizations where stereotyping is supported or tolerated by top management are learning work styles that enable them to counteract and maneuver around gender stereotypes, and along the way improve the climate for all employees. Not an easy task, but a strategy successful women have found useful.
Look for tips in an upcoming column on how “Managing Up” may help you gain an edge on career advancement to make an even greater contribution to the bottom line in your company.
Dorothy Perrin Moore, Ph.D., is professor emerita of business and entrepreneurship at The Citadel. The Job Coaches are experienced volunteers from the Center for Women’s Job Counseling Program. Ask them a question by calling 843-763-7333 or e-mailing email@example.com. If you would like further assistance, make an appointment; a donation of $20 is requested for appointments.
First appeared in the Moxie section of The Post and Courier Friday, January 22, 2010.