On Management

Dec. 21, 2004
Women reach for the top

I considered writing about women in leadership roles last year as I watched Pat Summitt coach the University of Tennessee Lady Vols to an undefeated season and their third straight NCAA basketball championship. At the time, there was some talk about whether she could coach an NBA men's team, but the typical male reaction was: "No way! A lady coach a bunch of guys? How ridiculous!" It is a good thing that this kind of logic no longer widely infects business -- or women would still be relegated to cooking, housework, and childbearing. Pat Summitt wrote a wonderful book last year entitled Reach for the Summit (1998, Broadway Books), in which she spoke out as an advocate for the roles and talents of women. There is no doubt in my mind that she would excel at nearly any job she undertook. The same goes for many working women I have known, as well as many stay-at-home moms who manage family and household challenges with the skilled aplomb of a company president on a good day. The good news is that women are growing in prominence in the world of business, and rightfully so. During the last 40 years, the percentage of women in the U.S. workforce has grown from just over 30% to nearly 50%. Better yet, the relative magnitude of their responsibilities has grown even more. But they still have a way to go. More than 95% of all "secretary" titles -- where that job still exists -- are still held by women. Women hold only about 30% to 40% of managerial and supervisory jobs -- and this statistic is misleading because many traditionally female career fields such as nursing are still dominated by females. Among women aged 16-64, about three-fourths now work either full- or part-time. This is good news for equality and bad news for child-raising. As more mothers return to work, more children are raised in daycare centers, by baby sitters, or by harried, too-busy parents. I suppose this is an unfortunate tradeoff that each family must make. However, it is my belief that companies ought to seek out qualified women and promote them at every opportunity. (Notice I did not say promote them if male candidates are more qualified -- just where there is an equally qualified woman.) The reason is a simple, but often abused, word -- diversity. I don't mean diversity for the sake of political correctness; I mean diversity of viewpoint, perspective, style, and input to decisions. Female-owned businesses number 8 million and are growing much faster than the rate of all businesses -- often in what used to be male-dominated fields. However, some leading companies have only one or two women at senior executive levels -- or none at all. This is a shame, because the decisions of those corporations are made without adequate benefit of the female perspective. Studies have shown that women have brainpower equal to men, but a different style of leadership -- perhaps a better one in the collaborative, participative world of the 21st century. Studies also have shown that as women have children their career commitment declines, as do their earnings. The more children they have, the less time for a career. Smart companies will find ways to enable women to contribute by working other than traditional office-bound schedules, permitting them to be good mothers to their children and still be successful in the corporate world. The technology to do this is now available. And the need is there. Let's put aside all the biases, stop focusing on such negative issues as sexual harassment, and concentrate on a new paradigm of flextime and workplaces that permit women to be strong corporate contributors and good moms concurrently. Pat Summitt does it by bringing Tyler, her 8-year-old son, to games and to many other team functions. (Her husband, R.B. Summitt, is a bank executive, so he doesn't play Mr. Mom all the time.) It is refreshing to see a woman at the absolute top of her field. Hopefully, it signals a growing trend in business, too. John Mariotti, a former manufacturing CEO, is president of The Enterprise Group, a consulting business. He lives in Knoxville. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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