Their progress into boardrooms and executive suites is glacial. What's the likelihood of change?

In Europe's corporate suites, Susan Wilson always stood out. Women rarely occupy high-level jobs, and it's especially unusual for a woman to make it to the top of a defense company. Wilson defied the odds. With business and economics degrees, she doggedly worked her way up the ranks of Ford Motor Co. in Britain and Spain, then joined British defense company Vickers PLC. In 1990, at age 38, she was director of quality, head of personnel, and the first woman board member at Vickers' defense systems company.

But Wilson's fairy-tale career ended abruptly in late December, 1994. In a cost-cutting move, her boss said Vickers no longer needed a quality and personnel director, even though the company was just beginning to deliver on its most important military contract in a decade: $1.45 billion worth of Challenger II armored tanks. He added that he and Wilson had a personality conflict that made it difficult for them to work together. So he dismissed her.

STUCK AT 1%. Wilson isn't talking, but in documents filed with an industrial tribunal, a panel that considers unfair-dismissal cases, she claims she was pushed out because she is a woman. The chief executive officer of the defense unit had created ``an increasingly macho culture'' that forced her to fight to be included in policy discussions, she alleged. Also, she claims she was laid off because she was pregnant at the time with her second child. A Vickers spokesman denies that Wilson's gender or her pregnancy played a role. On Jan. 9, a week before a hearing on her case was due to begin, Vickers settled. Neither side will discuss the case's details, but the amount was widely reported at about $150,000. Wilson now runs an economic development program in Newcastle.

Twenty years after adopting equal-opportunity laws, Europe is still a man's world. Women make up 41% of the European workforce, but only 1% of board members. This is far less than in the U.S., where women account for half the workforce and 10% of board seats. European women also are not moving into middle and senior management jobs as fast as American women. After a frenzy of downsizing, companies have slashed many of the jobs women aspired to, leaving them with both a glass ceiling and a sticky floor.

The slow progress into boardrooms and executive suites has many causes, from a lack of child care for working mothers to cultural preferences. It's partly because of a lack of persistence among women when the going gets tough. But there's bias, too. In survey after survey, men say they consider a woman's proper place to be in the home. Moreover, the demands of child-rearing and running a household, which both men and women agree are largely the woman's responsibility, are rarely accommodated with flexible hours or job-sharing arrangements. Most women don't seek flexibility in the belief that it would be improper to ask for special privileges.

The result is that European corporations haven't faced up to the demands that American working women have long placed on U.S. companies. Only in a few exceptional companies are significant changes under way. Yet the pressure for more flexibility and greater opportunities for women is growing. By 2000, women will make up 75% of Europe's new workers, according to the European Commission, and will hold half the graduate slots in Europe's business schools. Companies won't have much choice but to draw managers from a growing pool of working women, and to design programs that help retain women employees.

Even Britain, considered Europe's most positive environment for working women, is playing catch-up. After five years of campaigns by pressure groups, 41% of the 100 largest British companies today have a female board member, compared with 95% of the 100 largest U.S. companies. Overall, only 12.8% of British companies have a female director. At the retail chain Marks & Spencer PLC, until recently there were no women among 17 executive directors, even though women make up 85% of the company's 53,000 employees. After public pressure, the company named its first female executive director in January.

In some cases, Britain is losing ground. Four years ago, the country boasted six chairwomen. Now it has only two, according to Crawford's Directory, a British management database. Female managers overall earn 68% of what male managers do, barely up from 66% in 1991. ``There are very few women in positions of line authority,'' frets Yve M. Newbold, chief executive of board recruiters Pro Ned Ltd. and board secretary for 10 years at Hanson PLC. ``It's not going up or down, it's just nudging along the bottom.''

CHILDREN, CHURCH, COOKING. It seems most difficult for female executives to make it to board level in their own companies. In France, 25% of the top 200 companies have a female director. But only two of the 200 have female board members who are also managers within those companies: Patricia Barbizet-Dussart at retailer Pinault-Printemps-Redoute and Veronique Morali of real estate holding company Fimalac. ``The women who manage to slip into the system [as board members] are usually the wife or the daughter of the owner,'' says Jean-Michel Quatrepoint, who edits a newsletter about French corporate management.

Below board level, Europe's women aren't doing any better. Women now claim about 2% of senior management jobs, ranging from Britain's 5.8% to Germany's 1% and Italy's 0.5%. At this level, American women aren't faring that well, either, with some 5% of senior management slots. But experts believe American women have a far better chance of breaking through the glass ceiling. Says Sheila Wellington, president of Catalyst, a nonprofit women's research organization: ``Women are achieving significantly higher positions in the U.S. compared to most other countries in the world.''

With increasing numbers of European women in business and professional schools, it's widely accepted that the next generation of female managers will experience fewer problems. That may be wishful thinking. In Germany, for example, the social structure is still so oriented around the woman as homemaker that it's difficult for women to take an outside job. Elementary schools send children home for lunch. Few companies provide day-care facilities. Shops by law must be closed evenings and by early afternoon on Saturdays. Networking groups are often closed to women.

Only in November, 1994, did Frankfurt's Rotary Club allow female members. Says Gertrud Hohler, a Berlin-based communications consultant and director of Britain's Grand Metropolitan PLC: ``We have on our shoulders all that history. The rules are all man-made--that women are for children, church, and cooking.''

To be sure, few male executives admit to rejecting a woman on the basis of her gender, and few dispute that women offer valuable managerial skills. But privately, they worry that their company will invest time and money to train a woman only to see her marry, become pregnant, and leave. The return rate among new mothers is far lower than in the U.S., but it's unclear whether this is because women believe they won't be promoted. Many women think they must delay marriage to preserve their careers. They also often postpone having children or resign their positions to have children, rather than trying to combine work and family.

What is the likelihood of change? Both men and women managers have ruled out U.S.-style affirmative action as the way forward. Mandatory quotas are seen as degrading to women and as requiring companies to hire and promote less-than-qualified people. Women overwhelmingly say they want to land a job or promotion on their own merits and not through government fiat or bullying.

The European Court of Justice agrees, for different reasons. The court last October shot down one form of affirmative action, mandatory hiring quotas, that had been adopted by the German state of Bremen. Bremen had set aside 50% of public-sector jobs for women, but when a male gardener was rejected in favor of a woman because of the quota, he sued. On Mar. 27, new EU legislation was proposed to encourage less rigid policies for hiring and promoting women.

FEAR OF HELPING. Already, in a small number of companies, a subtler remedy has begun to take hold. A five-year-old British program, called Opportunity 2000, has quietly convinced companies to set voluntary numerical goals for promoting women. Among its 300 member organizations, 32% of all management slots are filled by women. Some of the organizations are government authorities, which have been more disposed toward female managers than the private sector. The results compare favorably with the 10.7% of management slots women occupy in British businesses overall.

Opportunity 2000 helps companies get over their fear of goal-setting by stressing the economic impact of helping women. Says director Liz Bargh: ``We put equal opportunity in financial terms for them.'' For example, she encouraged Rank Organization PLC, an entertainment and leisure company, to let new mothers phase in their return to work as a way of cutting recruitment and training costs. After five years, Rank saved $1.5 million by increasing its retention rate for skilled women from 20% to 80%.

That's just a start. Anglo-Dutch consumer products giant Unilever PLC is also trying to boost women in management. It has only five among its top 100 managers worldwide, even though it sells its products to a largely female audience. ``It's still not adequate. The lack of women in senior management is a drawback,'' says Chairman Morris Tabaksblat, whose company is an avid participant in Opportunity 2000.

On the Continent, there are also promising signs. La Compagnie de Suez in December named Christine Morin Postel, 49, to manage a $3 billion property portfolio at Credisuez, its real estate division. She had spent 14 years at Lyonnaise des Eaux-Dumez. ``When you see me coming, you have to be ready for things to move,'' she warns. Though there are still few female CEOs in private business, French women have assumed powerful positions in the medical and legal professions, the military, small business, and government.

Scores of women have set up their own businesses, too. Fed up with slowly climbing the corporate ladder, German women have been starting up companies, especially in service businesses. One-third of all German start-ups are now woman-owned, up from 10% in 1975. The generational change among the country's Mittelstand--its small- and medium-size family-owned businesses--also will help German women. Many of these companies will pass to a new generation by 2000 and will fall into the hands of daughters.

As more women move into top positions in European corporations, their styles could influence the way business is done. ``Female ways of managing--consensus decisions, the ability to handle several projects at a time, and strong interpersonal skills--will be more appropriate in the next millennium,'' says Roger Young, director general at Britain's Institute of Management. Editor Quatrepoint believes women managers might push for more transparent decision-making in European business. ``They could improve the governance of our large corporations,'' he says.

But as is so often true in Europe, change is agonizingly slow. A decade ago, many highflying women were confident that they could make it to the top levels of their corporations (page 43). Now, it seems that it may take generations for European women to attain true equality of opportunity. If that's the case, European corporations are losing valuable executives and paying a heavy price.

By Paula Dwyer in London, with Marsha Johnston in Paris and Karen Lowry Miller in Bonn


Updated June 14, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1996, Bloomberg L.P.
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