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BREAKING THROUGH

How do some companies help women get ahead while so many miss the boat?

The floor plan of the Chicago hotel conference room provided a compelling metaphor for the problem at hand. Seated in rows were 80 women, all partners at Coopers & Lybrand. Before them, atop a stagelike platform, presided eight senior members of the management committee. All eight were men. All eight were white.

Didn't these guys get it? Chairman and Chief Executive Nicholas G. Moore and his seven colleagues were there because Coopers' women wanted to know why, after a decade of gender-neutral hiring at the firm, females still made up just 8% of the 1,300-person partnership. Why weren't women responsible for more of the firm's key clients? Why did they head just 3 of 70 regional offices?

Answers came quickly in the ensuing exchange. Some men believed female partners didn't want to travel. Astounded, the women countered that in fact they were eager to get out and meet clients. Even though men said they were open to lunching with female counterparts, women said they felt excluded from such informal gatherings. Opinions also diverged over whether the road to partnership favored men. ''If you're in an environment mostly dominated by a male culture, many of the things you must do to succeed are more comfortable for men than women,'' says Linda A. Hoffman, a 39-year-old partner who co-chaired the gathering. Recalls Moore: ''That surprised me. But there were enough women who said it that I believe it's an issue.''

The watershed confrontation last April launched Coopers & Lybrand on a series of initiatives aimed at narrowing its gender gap. Two women now sit on the 14-person management committee, there's formal training and mentoring for up-and-comers, and a portion of partner bonuses is linked to performance on diversity issues. In a June 21 memo, Moore even proclaimed that 30% of new partners by the year 2000 would be women--up from 17% this year.

Women may be forgiven for asking: ''So what?'' They have, after all, heard such pronouncements from employers before. For all the bravado of the past decade, women in most organizations aren't much further along. The glass ceiling hasn't been shattered. Instead, throngs of women are abandoning Corporate America, pouring their energy and talent into smaller companies, self-employment, or families.

The failure is borne out in study after study. A report released last October by Catalyst, a nonprofit research group, found that only 10% of top jobs at the nation's 500 largest companies are held by women. When the field is narrowed to the elite tier of chairman, president, CEO, and executive vice-president, the portion drops to just 2.4%. Some 105 of these 500--companies as varied as Walt Disney, Whirlpool, and Exxon--have no women corporate officers at all. ''This count documents that the view held in some quarters--that this is a 'been there, done that' issue--is not right,'' says Catalyst President Sheila Wellington.

TARNISHED IDEALS. The results reflect, in part, the deterioration of societal supports that once promised women progress in business. Attacks on affirmative action--most recently, California voters' approval of a referendum barring preferential state hiring--have lessened the pressure once firmly applied to business by government agencies or shareholder activists. So most simply haven't stuck to strong diversity goals. Of the 24 ''Best Companies for Women'' featured in BUSINESS WEEK's Cover Story of Aug. 6, 1990, just four--Merck, Avon, Gannett, and Pitney Bowes--have women in more than 25% of corporate officer's posts, according to Catalyst.

Amid the detritus of failed initiatives and abandoned ideals, however, a few companies are achieving success in the battle to get women into the executive suite. Swimming against the tide, they have backed sound strategies with effort, money, and long-term commitment. The results are compelling. Women now hold 5 of the top 11 jobs at Pitney Bowes Inc. Motorola Inc., thanks to zealous planning for succession, now boasts 38 female vice-presidents, up from just two in 1989. Avon Products Inc. has women in 44% of its most senior posts and in 4 of 13 board seats. ''Women are in the pipeline in droves,'' says Avon Chairman and CEO James E. Preston.

These companies understand three crucial axioms. First, this isn't about morality, or even morale: Putting women in senior posts helps bring more talent in the door, a key to long-term profitability. Second, the best women will become harder to attract and retain, so companies that start now and stick to their plan will have an edge down the road. Lastly, more women at all levels means that businesses can serve their increasingly female customers better. ''If we don't have people of diverse backgrounds in the back, how in the world can we satisfy the diversity of people coming in through the front door?'' asks William R. Howell, who was J.C. Penney Co.'s chairman until this year.

That's why Penney, Motorola, Colgate-Palmolive, and Dow Chemical, among others, have committed serious resources and credibility to setting women on the right track. They are pairing female fast-trackers with senior-executive mentors outside their own companies and are devising novel succession strategies. Some companies even lay down quotas mandating minimum numbers of women in the senior ranks. ''We are not going to get to where we need to get to with diversity issues unless we push it,'' says David T. Buzzelli, a vice-president and board member at Dow Chemical Co., who is an adviser to the company's women's network.

Women now fill 108 of Dow's top 1,205 U.S. jobs--a 145% increase from 1990, the year before the company began encouraging managers to promote women at a rate at least equal to that of men. When Julie Fasone Holder, a promising manager, resisted a promotion to district manager, Dow strongly urged her to reconsider. ''My boss at the time said, 'We really need good women to be good district managers. And if you want to continue to move up, you have to do this job,''' she explains. Fasone Holder accepted--and since then has been given flexibility to meet family and community demands. Now a business director, she expresses no regrets.

Similarly, Hoechst Celanese Corp. has doubled the percentage of women in its most senior ranks since 1991. One tactic it used was setting numerical targets for its workforce. Colgate-Palmolive Co., which invests heavily in diversity training, has seen the number of its senior women executives climb from 27 in 1993 to 48 today. ''This is the next generation,'' says Lois Juliber, who was promoted in January to executive vice-president at Colgate-Palmolive, where she is widely regarded as likely successor to Chairman and CEO Reuben Mark.

How do these companies do it when so many others are missing the boat? Motorola's initiative began in 1989 with a detailed look at census data. The company predicted what the future demographics would be for workers in such fields as electrical engineering and computer science. It then set targets: By 2000, it wants management to mirror the share of men, women, blacks, Asians, and other groups in these lines of work. It won't say how close it is to meeting that goal. But ''we see the handwriting on the wall, and we have to get ready,'' explains Roberta W. Gutman, Motorola's vice-president and director of global diversity.

Simply establishing objectives, however, wasn't enough. So Motorola revamped its succession planning--focusing first, unlike other companies, on its most senior staff. Top managers now must supply names of the three people most likely to replace them. The first is the manager who would fill the job in an emergency. The second slot is for someone who could be groomed for the job in three to five years. The new third spot is dedicated to the woman or minority closest to being qualified for the position. Managers are expected to give that third person opportunities to get the experience needed to merit the promotion. As a result, women have moved into the first or second slots for approximately 75 of the company's 300 most prized jobs.

The entire process is completely confidential. Not even the chosen few know who they are. The secrecy, says Motorola, relieves pressure and averts personnel conflicts. Now, Gutman is rolling out diversity strategies worldwide. ''People will land at companies where they see visible evidence that people at the top look like them,'' she says.

SETTING TARGETS. Case in point: Karen J. Cassel considered five job offers before graduating in June from Stanford Graduate School of Business. The 30-year-old chose to join Pacific Telesis Group Inc., in part because she saw that 38% of the company's top 800 jobs were filled by women. ''The company had more women at higher levels than anybody else,'' recalls Cassel. ''They seemed to have all the respect and opportunities their male co-workers had.''

Hoechst Celanese has a similar agenda. By 2001, it wants 34% of its managers to be women and minorities. Those groups now represent 20% of middle management and 14% of senior executives. To bridge the gap, Hoechst has started at the bottom, aiming to raise the proportion of women and minorities in entry-level management from the current 37% to 43%. Target levels came from the gender and ethnic breakdown of students graduating in engineering and other fields from which Hoechst recruits. ''It's a bubble-up process,'' says Clyde Jones, director of equality.

In addition to its companywide diversity training, the chemical giant has formalized a mentoring program that pairs senior men with up-and-coming women and minorities. These young fast-trackers gain exposure to the company's decision makers, while the mentors learn to be more comfortable working outside all-male cliques. Managers have 25% of their bonuses tied to diversity performance. As a result, ''my management was willing to take some calculated risks [on me],'' says 41-year-old Linda J. Welty, who worked in engineering and sales before becoming a global business director for superabsorbent materials.

BROAD SKILLS. Colgate-Palmolive doesn't buy into quotas or even internal goals, but it's seeking the same result. For key female employees, it relies on initiatives such as cross-training--that is, exposure to different aspects of the business. Sydney S. Sherry, for example, began her career as an engineer. But the 32-year-old Harvard MBA has since acquired skills in manufacturing, marketing, and operations. Now, as manager of a 22-person plant making flavors and fragrances, she has done everything from configure budgets to drive forklifts. ''Colgate let me do things I had no business doing,'' says Sherry. The company ''bet on me and my abilities.''

Such support is reinforced consistently by CEO Mark and other executives. Employees who are unable to attend a mandatory two-day seminar on diversity, for example, must personally call Juliber, the executive vice-president, to explain their absence. Colgate also recently began spending $3,000 apiece to send selected women to WOMEN Unlimited, a New York outfit that teaches how to succeed in a male-dominated environment (page 70).

Such resources are crucial: Typically isolated in male cultures, many women have little grasp of the corporate ''rules.'' Coopers & Lybrand's Hoffman says that once she became a managing partner, she noticed that men routinely asked for promotions and raises--far more often than women did. And men gave themselves higher evaluations than women did during reviews. ''I started to see these subtle things that influence whether you succeed or you don't,'' she says.

TRANSFORMATION. With the firm's new formal mentoring program, Coopers partners are expected to shepherd women and minorities through career land mines--such as when to push for that promotion or how to get on key committees. Says Allison T. Levin, a part-time fast-tracker at Coopers & Lybrand: ''My boss right now has been like a dog with a bone. He's watching me, monitoring me, and giving me the exposure that I need.''

J.C. Penney has put in place similar supports as part of a companywide transformation. In 1988, when the retailer moved its headquarters from New York to Plano, Tex., 1,000 management jobs suddenly opened up. At the same time, Penney was trying to turn itself from a mass merchandiser into a retailer more focused on women's fashion. Former Chairman Howell sensed the opportunity--and the need--for change. ''I can pick out a competitive assortment of dresses,'' he says. ''But a woman would do it more from her taste level and knowing what women want today.''

Before implementing specific initiatives, Penney conducted 10 focus groups in 1990 to determine its employees' attitudes about gender. What it discovered was a litany of stereotyped perceptions: Women weren't serious about their careers, men said, because of family commitments. White males in upper management, women said, were uncomfortable socializing with women and minorities. And women thought they had to behave like men in order to advance.

BACKLASH THREATS. With these results in hand, Penney mounted its campaign. The company set numerical targets and created formal mentoring and networking programs. Women tapped as upper-management candidates regularly have lunches and roundtable discussions with senior managers. The results are striking: Women now represent 26.6% of middle and senior managers, up from 18.9% in 1990. Ultimately, management wants that number to hit 46%.

Not surprisingly, such gains can create tension. When one group is targeted for advancement, other groups gain ammunition for charges of favoritism or double standards. The threat of a white male backlash unnerves many employers. One successful female at Motorola, for instance, says she knows that some men wonder whether she truly earned her promotions. ''If they [men] think you have your position for any reason other than merit, they'll sabotage you every time,'' she says.

Some companies counter the threat of antagonism by routinely opening up to all employees the networks or support groups aimed at specific factions. Silicon Graphics Inc., for example, encourages men to attend events put on by its women's-issues group; the U.S. Labor Dept. invites men to apply for the Women's Executive Leadership Program. One reason, observes Judy B. Rosener, professor of management at the University of California at Irvine, is that companies often believe specialized programs ''cause more problems than they solve. This is a way to quiet things down.''

More than that, though, such inclusion recognizes that men and women need to communicate better to work effectively together. Indeed, the ascent of women, where it occurs, is as much a result of changing men's psyches as those of women. Men are far more likely today to share duties at home, freeing up their wives to devote more time to their careers. With 60% of women in the workforce, moreover, men have acquired greater sympathy for the difficulties their wives and daughters have in juggling work and family and in climbing a male-built corporate ladder.

Despite such support, women's progress through Corporate America's labyrinth will undoubtedly remain incremental. Spooked by the demands of an ever-shifting business climate, some companies will abandon their commitment--particularly when sustained success stories are hard to find and a business payoff is tough to quantify.

At Corning Inc., for example, some ex-employees and outside diversity experts say the issue has lost prominence since former Chairman and CEO James R. Houghton began giving up control several years ago. Although women comprise more of Corning's top earners, diversity seminars are offered less often and management has been distracted by financial problems, they say. Corning strongly disagrees. U S West Inc., meanwhile, no longer specifically evaluates employees' performance on diversity matters. Its sensitivity training, once mandatory, is now optional, and its diversity training staff has been cut in half. U S West says the cutbacks don't reflect a decreased commitment: Women, it points out, constitute 29% of the top 1% of earners, up from 21% in 1990. Nonetheless, Chairman Richard McCormick admits, ''we haven't made startling progress.''

Such retreats bode ill for continued gains. With women fleeing big companies in search of flexibility and control, those left will be hard-pressed to achieve the critical mass to alter their companies markedly. ''There are still mountains to climb,'' says Johnna G. Torsone, vice-president at Pitney Bowes. And most likely, true progress will take many more years. But in at least a few corners of the corporate world, change has started to arrive. Some guys, at least, are getting it.

By Linda Himelstein in San Francisco, with Stephanie Anderson Forest in Dallas and bureau reports



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Updated June 15, 1997 by bwwebmaster
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