Can The Feds Bust Through The `Glass Ceiling'?

Corporate executives are used to Washington meddling in nearly every phase of employee relations, from hiring to pensions. But the feds have kept their hands off perhaps the touchiest area: the dominance of white men in top management jobs.

That's about to change. In early May, Labor Secretary Lynn Martin is expected to announce steps her agency will take to shatter what critics charge is a "glass ceiling," a set of sometimes subtle attitudes and prejudices blocking women and minorities from plum corporate jobs. "For those businesses who have been asleep at the switch, this is a wake-up call," Martin warned in March.

'FINE LINE.' The action will be based on the findings of a yearlong Labor Dept. study of nine companies started by Elizabeth H. Dole, Martin's predecessor. Dole was disturbed by the low numbers of women in high places (table). Although the height of the glass ceiling varies by industry, and often by department within a company, sources familiar with the study say it's expected to show that the glass ceiling sometimes is just a few rungs above entry level.

Martin, who succeeded Dole in February, is stepping intoa mine field, which may be why she has yet to sign offon any recommendations. Glass-ceiling reviews present a challenge because decisions to promote one of many qualified people can be subjective. And companies use different criteria. "What happens if you want to send a man on a sales trip because he's the best person?" asks Susan R. Meisinger, lobbyist for the Society for Human Resource Management. "There's a fine line between the government telling you that you have a glass-ceiling violation and telling you how to manage your business."

The government has some time-tested techniques for measuring hiring discrimination. The Labor Dept.'s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs conducts affirmative-action reviews of entry-level hiring by 250,000 contractors with $200 billion in federal business. These involve complex statistical comparisons of the percent of qualified women and minorities in the available labor pool with the share in a company's work force. The department last year found discrimination in more than half of the 6,033 companies it looked at.

Studying practices in a company's upper echelons will be far more difficult. The agency is expected to discard number-crunching because there are too few managers, men or women, to make valid statistical comparisons. Instead, new enforcement guidelines are likely to focus on more subtle discrimination. Sources say the department has found that some companies, for example, provide better perks to white men than to women and minorities at the same level. Club memberships and big expense accounts can help a career by making it easier to meet or impress clients. The department also examined company-paid memberships at all-male clubs. "Neither the companies nor government ever looked at these issues before," says Detroit attorney Michael J. Connolly, a former Equal Employment Opportunity Commission general counsel.

DIFFERENT CULTURES. Employers worry that the feds might not grasp how corporate cultures differ. One may consider overseas assignments valuable stepping-stones. Another may not. Some headquarters control promotions, while others give operating units free rein. "We try to explain as best as we can what the organization is like and how things work," says Ronnie L. Miller-Hasday, vice-president for personnel at PepsiCo Inc., one of the nine companies in the pilot study. "It's hard to say whether they understand it."

Top Labor Dept. officials insist that they're aware of the subtleties. And Martin is likely to recommend enforcement guidelines that will recognize companies' unique characteristics while encouraging them to offer all top employees similar perks and opportunities. Martin also may order that glass-ceiling reviews be conducted by senior Labor Dept. officials rather than by low-level field officers.

Congress is mulling whether it should give the initiative another boost. Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) has introduced a bill calling for a commission to study the phenomenon and recommend solutions. Democrats are pushing a civil rights bill with a similar position. Whether lawmakers get out the hammer or not, the message is clear: If executives don't shatter the glass ceiling, the feds will try to do it for them.


Catalyst, a consultant in women's employment, surveyed CEOs and personnel officers at 1,000 leading companies about women in managerial roles. Here are some highlights:

79% of CEOs acknowledged that women face barriers to advancing to top management. Two big hurdles: Stereotyping and unwillingness to risk promoting a woman

91% of CEOs say companies should change their cultures to meet women's career needs

8% of the companies surveyed say women comprise more than 25% of senior management

40% of the companies report that flexible work arrangements aren't available to higher-level employees


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