For years, ambitious women at McDonnell Douglas Corp. have felt frustrated. In the not-too-distant past, even an innocent gathering of female employees might have caused suspicion. "If three or more women got together for lunch, the guys in blue suits and red ties would believe we were planning a coup," remembers former aerospace employee Ruth Jernigan, now a United Auto Workers official.
Just surviving in that corporate jungle left women little time to pursue outside activities that might boost their careers, such as politics. "The men only have seven-day weeks," says Elizabeth B. Karabatsos, ombudsman for McDonnell Douglas Helicopter Co. in Mesa, Ariz. "Women have eight-day weeks." No wonder focus groups show that corporate women see little career advantage in civic, charitable, or political work. And even those interested in politics must overcome old-boy networks and exclusive social events. "It's those institutional and cultural barriers for women--the golf club, the business luncheon," complains Renee P. Handler, general manager for communications at Douglas Aircraft Co. in Long Beach, Calif.
RIPPLE EFFECT. Today, those stumbling blocks are fast disappearing, so much so that McDonnell Douglas has teamed up with the National Women's Political Caucus to encourage female employees to enter the political arena. This unlikely partnership is attempting to change both male and female attitudes. "We've stood on the outside for so long saying, 'Politics is dirty. We can't get involved,'" says Christine Todd Whitman, the Republican nominee for New Jersey governor. "That's what we can't allow." On July 8, she gave a pep talk to the McDonnell Douglas women participating in the pilot program.
Advocates argue that the program provides benefits to both participants and their employers. It increases the clout of businesswomen by putting them in touch with local and national officials. That--plus their very involvement with important corporate issues--help women advance their careers. By changing the attitudes of corporate women toward politics, it deepens the pool of talented women in the political world. And if other companies follow McDonnell Douglas' lead--NWPC is talking with an oil company and a food company, among others--the results could ripple through America. "We have a natural vehicle that others can adopt," says James H. MacDonald, McDonnell's senior vice-president for Total Quality Management.
Launched in February, the McDonnell program already has some success stories. Cathy Loucks, director of strategic planning for McDonnell Douglas Helicopter, volunteered for a local government panel and was later asked to chair Mesa's downtown development committee. "When I first got into it, I didn't know whether it would be worth my time," she recalls. Now, she's sure she made the right move. She has learned how to put together a problem-solving team and work to attract business, lessons that could help her at the office.
Strategists of both major parties, who view politically savvy businesswomen as future winners at the ballot box, are anxious to see more of the same. Their reasoning: With voters yearning for outsiders to seize the reins of government, both women and business leaders are often viewed as fresh and untainted. "Women business leaders are incredible sources of new talent," says Washington Democratic consultant Maura Brueger. What's more, voter attitudes no longer handicap female candidates. A 1991 Times Mirror Center for the People & the Press survey found that a hypothetical female business leader outpolled a hypothetical male executive by 10 percentage points.
For Corporate America, the time may be right for such an outreach program. In these days of economic uncertainty, defense cuts, and stiff international competition, traditionally apolitical companies can no longer maintain a cool disdain for the grimy world of politics. "They need all the friends they can get," says Women's Political Caucus President Harriett Woods, a former Democratic lieutenant governor of Missouri. "Corporations are beginning to realize that they can't be arrogant just because they're the biggest guy on the block."
Business leaders see a public-relations benefit to having women executives spread the corporate message, whether by serving in public office or networking with elected officials from city hall to Capitol Hill. "We want to be where the rubber meets the road," says Janet Wittenauer, McDonnell Douglas' director of executive development. For the St. Louis-based corporation, the project already has paid dividends. At the recent NWPC convention in Los Angeles, its women lunched with Attorney General Janet Reno and Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and hobnobbed with powerful political insiders of both parties.
The training program is open to McDonnell's top 50 female managers. Twice this year, participants gathered to hear from officeholders, political consultants, and corporate officials and to attend seminars on public-policy issues that affect the company, such as soaring liability-insurance payments. State and local chapters of the Women's Political Caucus also work with the McDonnell executives, introducing them to a network of contacts at that level.
MALE SKEPTICS. The program represents quite a change for male-dominated McDonnell. Even though it has the company's official blessing, some insiders say that a few male employees are skeptical about a program designed to assist only women. "It's a little scary and intimidating for some of the men," says Bonnie W. Soodik of Huntington Beach, Calif., the only woman in the company's vice-presidential ranks. "But it's been intimidating for women forever."
And the intimidation doesn't end with victory at the polls. When Republican Patricia Secrest, co-founder of a small automotive-parts company, was elected to Missouri's House of Representatives in 1990, the GOP floor leader issued a warning about her male colleagues: "They aren't going to like pushy businesswomen asking questions." Undeterred, she helped shape a workers' compensation compromise to lighten the burdens on small companies--but not before a male lobbyist pinned her against a wall and "threatened to put his fist through my teeth," she recalls.
It was the 1991 clash between Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas and former aide Anita Hill that caused businesswomen to question the wisdom of their exile from politics. "A lot of women in the business community began to notice for the first time how few women are in the House and Senate," says Lynn Shapiro, executive director of WISH List, which raises money for pro-choice GOP women candidates.
Republican consultant Carol Whitney, who directed a recent Los Angeles training session for the McDonnell Douglas women, predicts that several of her star pupils will win public office. That could mean profound changes in women's politics, which has been dominated by community activists, teachers, and lawyers. That's a benefit to business that no public-relations campaign could buy.