Gender Wars and the (Woman) C.E.O.
When my mom started college in the 1960s to pursue a B.A. in Math, she was told by her advisor that “Women don’t major in Math at this university. Choose something else.” And so, she did.
Yes, we’ve come a long way since “math is just for men.” It’s doubtful that many Americans in the 21st century still consider female doctors and female lawyers as something particularly “radical.” Indeed, professional opportunities have grown exponentially and women have seized them furiously. But we’re fooling ourselves to believe that women and men are now occupationally on par, particularly in the corporate world in which the gender gap remains glaringly static.
In a recent (and very long!) New York Times article entitled: “How Suite It Isn’t: A Dearth of Female Bosses” women aspiring to become C.E.O.’s attest to having their careers repeatedly stalled by men for reasons that have nothing to do with their professional aptitude, but everything to do with their appearance, their personalities, their desire to have children, and breast cancer. Would a man who had fully recovered from prostate cancer be denied professional advancement? Unlikely. But, according to the NY Times article, a woman who had been treated for breast cancer certainly might.
The article also highlights women of a watershed generation who moved into senior corporate roles but soon learned that every decision they made –- business or personal –- was met with far more scrutiny, far more criticism, and far more skepticism than the decisions made by their male counterparts. Many of these senior corporate women attest to not being invited to conferences or going unrecognized in business meetings. Their names alone –- Carol, Irene, Patricia –- signal to men that they’re probably just executive assistants or secretaries. ‘Peter’ runs meetings and makes important decisions. ‘Peter’ has power. ‘Emily’ brews coffee and answers the telephone. Right?
Interestingly enough, many women who have made it to the top also shoulder some responsibility for the dearth of female C.E.O.’s. There is little consensus among them over how to approach the topic of women in power, or, in fact, whether the issue should even be addressed. Representatives of nearly all of the chief executives contacted for the NY Times article said that their bosses were either “too busy” or did not want to participate in an article about female C.E.O.’s. They said that these executives preferred to be acknowledged for their accomplishments, rather than for their gender.
So what does this suggest? Are women C.E.O.’s just playing the man’s game? Do they have any interest in redefining the corporate world to make the road a bit less bumpy for their female successors? Does their personal success distort their understanding of the broader reality?
At Wellesley (where I attended college), many of my peers believed that they could be anything and everything they wanted. They didn’t fear that being a woman would factor into whether or not they’d get a job. And then we graduated. Some of my friends got jobs in investment banking. Some became paralegals. Many couldn’t get jobs at all. It didn’t take long before they realized that unlike a Women’s Studies class (where we were valued for our insights even in our pajamas), appearance often carries more value than brains, particularly in the business world. If you don’t look “pretty” you might not get the job. And if you’re too pretty, you’re reduced to just that: pretty.
Unlimited access to high-powered professions is often equated with equal treatment. But the reality seems to suggest that gender does, indeed, matter. And even though we’d like to just be the C.E.O. -- not the Woman C.E.O. -- there is still a long road ahead before credentials alone will bear more weight than the gender or appearance of the person who holds them.