Lately I've noticed a growing rift among women professionals. On one side are those who say gender is irrelevant and that only performance counts in the workplace. Forget about doing battle where you don't need to--just do your job and do it well. On the other side are women who argue that gender is still a barrier to success. They say that those who downplay the existence of the glass ceiling are threatened and think "it would disadvantage them in a male environment if they acknowledged the problem," one senior bank executive told me.
I understand that CEOs such as Carly Fiorina of Hewlett-Packard (HPQ ), Meg Whitman of eBay (EBAY ), and Pat Russo of Lucent Technologies (LU ) want the business world to focus on their accomplishments, not their gender. No doubt, too, they have important tasks before them, such as running their megabillion-dollar companies in a difficult business environment. But just look at the numbers: Women held only 12.5% of corporate-officer positions in 2000 and 12.4% of the board seats in 2001 at 500 of the largest companies, according to Catalyst, a New York City-based nonprofit organization that seeks to advance women in business. Just because a handful of corporate women have made it to the top doesn't mean the battle for equal opportunity is over.
High-achieving women are necessary allies in efforts to make more progress. "Women leaders need to take an active role to continue to break down the barriers impeding women's advancement," says Jacki Hoffman-Zehner, an advisory director at Goldman Sachs (GS ). One of those barriers is the pay gap. The General Accounting Office reported earlier this year that from 1995 to 2000, women managers in several fields not only made less money than men, but the wage gap actually widened in 7 of the 10 sectors that employ 71% of all female workers. The old boys' network is another impediment to women's advancement. Many business deals and job searches still depend not on your raw qualifications but on who you know--and women typically aren't part of the inner circles of male executives. Without the help of top-level women, says Hoffman-Zehner, the corporate world has license to look the other way and act as though gender inequity is no longer an issue.
Shelly Lazarus, chairman and CEO of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, a global advertising agency, is a leader who has struck the right tone. While Lazarus says she never experienced obstacles to her own success, she concedes this is not the case for all women and all industries. Her advice: "The opportunity is there for women to go as far as they want to go in the business world, but women must believe they can reach the top--otherwise, they won't want to make the necessary sacrifices."
Clearly, Hewlett-Packard's Fiorina believed she could reach the top. But some women executives have told me privately they would like to see her and other women of her stature take a more active stance on behalf of those still striving to advance. What set them off most recently were comments Fiorina made in a speech at a closed-door conference for women leaders earlier this year. Women must "play by the same rules and be judged by the same standards" as men, she is quoted as saying in the notes of one attendee. That may be true, several participants told me, but it misses the point. At many companies, women can't play by the same rules because they're still judged by different standards. Fiorina's spokesperson, Suzette Stephens, says her boss admits discrimination still exists, but feels the real issue is how to cope with it. "I can see where there would be conflict over how you deal with the problem," Stephens says.
Fiorina could be more supportive without being strident. She might start by speaking about these issues publicly to broader audiences. She also doesn't have to be modest: She can use her own company as a model for others to follow. For example, she could point out that 23% of all department and division heads at HP are women and two women are among the company's top five earners. She could also mention that the National Association for Female Executives voted Hewlett-Packard one of the best places for executive women to work in 2002.
Only when every company truly promotes on the basis of merit can we ignore gender in the workplace. Until then, women leaders must recognize that businesses still have a long way to go before women can play by the same rules and be judged by the same standards as men.
By Toddi Gutner