How To Create Gender Blind Companies

Charlotte L. Beers, chief executive officer. Jill E. Barad, president. Judy C. Lewent, chief financial officer. No one can say corporate women haven't made progress. But in getting to the top, these women have beaten the odds. The big question is this: Are those odds changing?

The answer depends on whether you subscribe to the "pressure in the pipeline" theory. It goes like this: Half the college and professional degrees awarded in the U.S. are now earned by women. As their numbers in the work force increase, their advancement will inevitably follow. And with 50% of entry-level managers female, no corporation will be able to compete in an increasingly competitive world by willfully ignoring half its talent.

It sounds logical. But if logic ruled, more women would already be in senior management--certainly more than the present measly 3%. The truth is, women are progressing, but not as fast as they should. What's required is a little consciousness-raising. Male corporate executives need to search their hearts and minds--and reexamine their practices--to understand why women don't advance at their companies. Even allowing for natural attrition--there is only so much room at the top, after all--something else is hobbling the female executive. That something is the discomfort that many men still feel in dealing with women in the workplace.

This unease may seem like the inevitable barrier between the sexes. But it can result in sexual discrimination--and companies need to overcome it. Are there attitudes and habits among managers that suggest they measure male and female performance by different yardsticks? Are there work and family policies that can be adopted to ease the responsibilities that burden mainly women? How about a review of raise and bonus procedures to eradicate inexcusable disparities in pay?

Demographics will make a difference. But demographics alone won't do it. Both men and women, employers and employees, have to fight the subtle devil of sexism. Our eyes must be opened if Corporate America is ever to become gender-blind.

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