Send to Kindle

I often write about the “pyramid problem” (that women are still not proportionally represented in the upper levels of business), its causes and its solutions. My work is focused on helping businesses understand this “problem” as a business opportunity and to create inclusive cultures. I’m often asked, “But haven’t women made lots of progress?” I can’t help but think of the slogan for a cigarette designed in the late 1960’s especially for women. It proclaimed how far women had come—yet called us “Baby.”

I loved Gail Collins’ book, When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present.  It describes the changes that have shaped the lives of women of my age bracket and gave perspective and dimension that I seem to have missed by being so close to them.

When I was in elementary school in the 1950’s, Rosie the Riveter had left her job and was working either at home or maybe as a teacher, nurse, secretary or waitress. Women in the middle class aspired to marry well so their work could focus on managing children and household. Those who had college degrees left their jobs once the first baby arrived. None of my mother’s friends worked outside the home. When I went to college in the late 1960’s, I had no career ambition.

The 1960’s brought incredible changes: the Civil Rights movement, the birth control pill, Women Liberation and civic involvement over the Vietnam War. As a freshman at a woman’s college in the South, we fixed our hair for class and wore wool skirts and matching sweaters. Men waited for their dates in the dorm reception areas. By the time I graduated, we wore jeans to class, boys had free access to dorm rooms and we began to see different options for the future. Being too “liberated” to consider marriage at such a young an age, I had to think about a JOB, which was pretty frightening!

By the mid-1970’s, being a woman was not an obstacle to being admitted into law school. Graduating with good grades, I was able to get a job with a good firm. I was aware that I was entering a traditionally male profession and that I was doing so in the company of lots of other women. I was also aware that we had more opportunities than women who came before us. When Justice Sandra Day O’Connor graduated from a prestigious law school with honors in 1952, no law firm offered her a job.

My experience was, in fact, different from that of women just a few years my senior. My brother’s wife, just eight years older than I, left her career without considering alternatives when her first child came. When I had children, I kept working and climbing the corporate ladder, struggling with child care. Women like me assumed we could have family and career. We had no role models for this juggling act. It was hard being a good mother and a good career woman. We had less time with our kids. We felt guilty about both jobs. Career women with children, career women without children and stay-at-home Mom’s sometimes judged each other (and, sadly, as demonstrated recently on the political scene, still do). But our generation had choices that women did not previously have.

It has been three and a half decades since I entered the professional world. Yes, women have made progress. We are now half of the workforce. There are 18 women CEO’s in the Fortune 500, including leaders of Archer Daniels Midland, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and PepsiCo. Men are used to competing with women for promotions and having women bosses. Thanks to the White House Project and others, the experts engaged in discussing global affairs on national television news programs are no longer always men. The U.S. has had four women Supreme Court justices, three female Secretaries of State and a woman Presidential candidate. The result has been major shifts in norms and attitudes about what women can and should do.

Let’s celebrate all this progress! Hip-hip-hooray for all the opportunities women now have. But . . .  there is a “but.” Three decades ago, women were (naturally) mostly at entry levels and not at the upper levels of business, government, academic and military organizations. We thought it was just a matter of time. We expected that women would gain the necessary experience and work their ways up these ladders. Well, three decades is enough time that we expected, by now, to see women proportionally represented at all levels of these hierarchies. Those expectations have been disappointed.

According to Catalyst, although women are 46.6% of the U.S. labor force, in the Fortune 500 they are now only 14.1% of executive officers, 16.1% of board members, 7.5% of top earners and 3.6% of CEO’s. That’s not proportionate. That is the “pyramid problem.” Catalyst concluded recently that women have made essentially no progress in the last six years.

Yes, we women have come a very long way since 1960. But we are no longer babies and we have not come as far as we expected when “everything changed.” The glass may be half full–but it is not full enough! When all businesses really leverage both masculine and feminine strengths within their organizations, then women and organizations will show their full potential.