Throwing Stones At The `Glass Ceiling'

The Labor Dept. has made official what many employees have known for a long time: A "glass ceiling" of often subtle attitudes and prejudices has blocked women and minorities from climbing the corporate ladder. On Aug. 7, Secretary Lynn Martin unveiled plans to begin investigations of federal contractors to ensure companies are doing all they can to remove race- and gender-based obstacles to upper-echelon jobs.

The move follows an 18-month study of promotion practices at nine large corporations. The probe found that the height of the glass ceilings varies from company to company, some not far above entry-level positions. Minorities hit plateaus at lower levels than women. Martin says problems were most severe at companies where the chief executive had not taken an active role in advocating strong affirmative-action policies. "It's quite clear that if the person at the top is not interested, it won't work," Martin says.

The Labor Dept. conducted the study so that it could understand how managers make promotion decisions. Now, its Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs will begin full-fledged enforcement. The office already conducts affirmative-action reviews of entry-level hiring by 250,000 contractors that do $200 billion worth of business with Uncle Sam. Last year, it scrutinized 6,033 companies. Martin said Labor will do far fewer glass-ceiling investigations because they're far more complex and time-consuming. But they'll be backed by the same penalties, including disqualification of companies that refuse to correct discriminatory practices.

FLEXIBLE. Employer groups had worried that Labor wouldn't understand differences in corporate cultures and that it would issue standardized remedies for everyone. But Labor officials vow that the solutions they'll suggest will fit a company's traditions. For instance, one unidentified company that was studied requires all senior executives to have 25 years' experience. Rather than demand that the company promote someone with less experience, Labor tried to ensure women and minorities were being groomed for those roles down the road.

Such flexibility will come as a great relief to corporate management. "If they had come with a template, it would not have been well-received," says Susan R. Meisinger, a Society for Human Resource Management lobbyist. "It sounds like they will be helping companies figure out what to do."

The Labor report identified several barriers that help explain why women account for only 6.6% of corporate executives and minorities hold a paltry 2.6% of executive jobs. In some cases, companies used headhunters who failed to pursue qualified candidates who weren't white men. Recruitment practices often relied on word-of-mouth and employee referral. Such networking by white men usually excluded female and minority candidates.

GOOD TIMING. In many cases, the study found, women and minorities were not given the crucial early training that could make promotion possible. Also, women and minorities were frequently passed over for the high-visibility special projects that could let them make their mark. And in companies where mentoring played an especially prominent part in giving employees a leg up, white males often sought to help people like themselves.

The Bush Administration has released its glass-ceiling report at the same time it is battling Democrats over other politically charged race- and sex-discrimination policies. President Bush has threatened to veto a civil rights bill that would make it easier to pursue discrimination cases in court. And he is pressing his nomination of Judge Clarence Thomas, a foe of affirmative-action programs, to the U. S. Supreme Court. The timing may be coincidental, but the glass-ceiling initiative won't hurt a bit as critics of his civil rights record bear down on Bush.

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