Anne Mulcahy, chairman and CEO of Xerox (XRX), yearns for the day when the hiring or firing of a female CEO isn't a big story. She would love to read a description of her that doesn't automatically point out that she's a woman. Yet Mulcahy is also acutely aware that she's in a distinct minority, one of only nine women leading the country's largest 500 corporations (see BW Online, 3/25/05, "The Glass Ceiling's Iron Girders").
Mulcahy spoke with BusinessWeek Senior Writer Diane Brady at the 2005 Catalyst Awards Dinner, which Mulcahy chaired on Mar. 24, about the challenges still facing women in the workplace. Following are edited excerpts:
Q: Why are you drawn to an organization that promotes women, especially when -- as a CEO -- you don't want to be defined by that?
A: My first priority is to lead Xerox, but I also feel a responsibility to have an impact as it relates to the advancement of women. There's a reason why there are only a handful of us, so I think we ought to be addressing the issues behind that. I would welcome the time when being a woman in a senior role is not news.
Q: What do you think are the issues?
A: It's all about the pipeline and giving women the right experiences to get into top jobs. It's about putting them in high-impact [profit-and-loss] jobs so that they're positioned for advancement. Far too often, women get sidelined to jobs that don't give them the experiences required to get ahead (see BW Online, 2/11/05, "Fiorina's Lesson for Female CEOs"). Another factor is that the vast majority of decision makers are still men. That makes it more challenging to advance. People do make decisions around their comfort level. That's still the reality of American business today.
Q: Do you see improvements?
A: It's getting better. You go to the second or third level of many organizations, and you see a lot more women. I see more women getting into high-impact positions. They understand what's needed to get ahead. That's the future, to make sure that women are ready to take on top executive roles.
Q: When someone like Carly Fiorina of Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) is let go, it's seen as emblematic of women in general.
A: It doesn't seem fair to me, but it's a testament to the fact that it's still rare to see a woman in that role. The goal is to get enough women in roles that it's not a big story.
Q: How is Xerox doing in advancing women?
A: We have great representation, but we [at Xerox] have tried to keep a low profile. We don't want to declare victory. The goals have to be more ambitious, and we have a lot more to do. We're better than most, I think, but we're not good enough.
Q: What are the challenges you face?
A: It's similar to the challenges that other companies face. We have more than enough talented women out there to create balanced executive staffs. But it doesn't happen naturally. You have to set the objective and work toward it. You have to make it a priority, or it doesn't happen.
Q: People talk a lot about the need for flex-time, day care, and other perks aimed at women in the workplace. Does that stuff really matter?
A: It's just one of many enablers required to make significant progress in the workplace. I wouldn't want to get distracted with suggesting those things are the answer. You still have to give people the opportunity to get the right experience. That's how you get ahead.
Q: What has been most helpful in your career?
A: I began in sales, so I started -- right from the beginning -- in an area with quantitative goals and [intense] competition. Having easily measurable results was hugely helpful. I stayed on that track -- everything was black and white. You either succeeded or you didn't.