Project Management Institute

How can we get rid of the glass ceiling?

Glass Ceiling—Myth or Reality?

The term “glass ceiling” is only used here because it is such a well-known phrase describing the stigma that prevents women from advancing fully toward their potential in corporate America. There is definitely a barrier that exists. I would describe it more like a cone of silence (perhaps ignorance) surrounding many male business leaders today. I have seen it at work time and time again. For years, with a previous employer, I saw many wonderful people (women) struggle and finally give up and leave the company after advancing to the point of starting to really contribute strategically to the organization. They did not feel appreciated, listened to nor part of the “team.” Although I am in a profession that boasts close to 50% women in our ranks, the number of female executives in many companies, in fact most companies, is way below that level. I left that same company, for a lot of reasons, one of which was their lack of appreciation for half of their employees. The company was professionally immature in my opinion, lacking the insight to see what they were missing. Their male managers could not see the value in their female leaders and I use those titles purposely. Leaders are found everywhere in companies—not just in the executive suite.

I vowed never to be part of an organization again that supported, directly or indirectly the view that women are less than equal in the boardroom. So I worked for myself for awhile before starting my own company with two partners, one man and one woman. Our company today has 23 employees—14 of them women. Three of our six senior managers are women. This is not an accident but a deliberate growth strategy. I want the best team I can get—and that means having more women than men.

The field of business gender equality is not my area of expertise. I am not a researcher, a psychologist, or human resource specialist. I am also not a sensitive “touchy-feely” guy who grew up with a bunch of women around me. What I am is a simply a man, a businessman who uses common sense (which by the way isn't very common) as a guide to doing business. A man who trusts his inner voice and does smart things—things like treating women equally, which also happens to be the right thing to do.

There is nothing new or revolutionary presented here. What this paper represents is an assembly of a lot of other people's research together with what I have been seeing in today's workplace, combined with some of my personal beliefs, and put it in understandable common sense terms for both women and men to take and internalize to their particular situations. When I speak of women and men in this paper, I am referring to the average member of the particular sex and in no way am I implying that a vast majority support the views I am presenting. I am comfortable saying, however, that on average women and men behave, think and feel the way I describe it here.

Why is Equality Between Women and Men Such a Difficult Concept?

How can we remove some of the roadblocks in the minds of many men in leadership positions (e.g., stereotypical thinking, rigidity and tradition)? How can we remove some of the roadblocks in the minds of the many women who should be in leadership positions but are not (e.g., “I better not rock the boat” or “I have to change in order to be successful”)? Konrad Lorenz once said: “I believe I have found the missing link between animal and civilized man—it is us.” We, as a society, are collectively standing in the way of progress toward equality. When will we become “civilized”?

Let's try to look at why we are where we are today. Up until about 4000 B.C. women and men were very much equals in the home and community in the world. They both gathered food and raised their children. In fact, many native North Americans, like the Navaho Indians, to this day, treat women as superior—their “sages” are the female elders. They are also a matrilineal society, tracing their decent through the female line. Around 4000 B.C. was the generally accepted time that the agricultural revolution began—the “plow” was invented. Animals started to be used to help raise crops and do other work. Muscles, male muscles, started to become more important for our ancestors to survive. Might started to be right. Women became the second sex, often treated as chattels—possessions of men. Ancient Greeks and Romans thought women were stupid, that their smaller heads (therefore brains) were not capable of rational thought, thus they were not able to be philosophers or teachers.

Over the past 6,000 years, men have been raised to believe that they are, and must be, the primary bread winners in the family. They are taught to be dominant and rigid in their thinking. Today, we are bombarded by the television marketers who teach us to be good boys (rough and tumble with loud aggressive toys) and girls (quiet, serene and content with dolls and play kitchens). Just watch any television channel for 30 minutes and you will see a dozen commercial advertisements showing blatant sexual discrimination and type-cast role models that were established years ago. This is simply unacceptable! Women, and men, should not allow this to happen. But happen it does. Don't we all get sucked into the scenes where Mom is making the lunches and cleaning the kitchen while Dad reads the paper with his coffee in the morning?

Where is the World Going?

I firmly believe that as we move deep into the 21st century and beyond, we will return to gender equality. Our new economy today is looking for brains not brawn. Machines are taking over much of the manual labor for us. The biggest growth industries today are knowledge and service-based. We do much less physical work today than our parents and grandparents. Intellectual skills are taking over as the in-demand, must-have-to-succeed tools of today. Suddenly, women are competing, and winning competitions with their male peers in the workforce. We men don't like that very much. We have 6,000 years of history on our side—what is the world coming to? Where will it end? How can we possibly survive in this new world order?

What I say to that is, “Get over it!” It's about time we are seeing clearly what half of the world's population is capable of doing, producing and leading. Why do we celebrate with such intensity news throughout history of women leaders (e.g., Joan of Arc, Florence Nightingale, etc.)? It is because we believe the myth that it is an abnormal occurrence! It is not abnormal—we are shortsighted to see it that way! Women have such an arsenal of personal weapons in their “tool boxes.” Women have an innate ability to “read” other people; their body language, and their minds. They have a greater capacity to read gestures, postures and facial expressions. They decode emotions much more clearly than men. Women have great empathy and are emotionally sensitive. They are socially “smart” and superior listeners. This alone is a huge advantage in the workplace. It is the good listener who is the best communicator. They have better memories (something I am reminded of almost every day by my wife, daughter or female co-worker) and put things and people into a more contextual view. Related to this, they have a gift for networking and negotiating, and a preference for cooperating, reaching consensus and leading via egalitarian teams. They have a keener sense of touch, smell, taste and hearing. Has this built up over centuries of having to care for their young and having to be more “in tune” with their environment? Quite possibly; in any case, it is true today and corporations should be taking full advantage. They also have a (most times) healthy curiosity about them, which tends to serve them well in that they probe until answers are found, or challenges are met, or issues are resolved. They are more patient than men, tend to have the ability to do and think about several things at the same time.

I have long observed that men can be very rigid and “know it all,” especially around women. They generally think they are better, on average, than women in most (nontraditionally female) professional arenas. Many men do not think women are as good as they are in the boardroom or on the project team. It is a mental block, often subconscious, that will not allow them to think of people as collections of expertise and experience, but rather men and women! Men have to be trained back to the understanding that women are their equals.

Women, on the other hand, unfortunately, will often try to act “like men” or use their “womanly charms” instead of being themselves and being true to themselves. They are forced into unnatural and uncomfortable acts to prove to others they can do the same job. Women need to understand men better. They need to appreciate, but not accept, that 6,000 years of environmental pressures cannot disappear overnight. They should not try to “be like men” but rather have the freedom to choose how to act. And they deserve to be able to earn the respect of their peers—all their peers.

What is Today's Workplace Like?

There are fundamental differences between how women and men look at the world in the workplace today. The concept of power for example is very different in women and men. To a man, power means rank and status: independence and competition are everything. For a woman, power means a network of vital human connections: cooperation, sharing and creating win-win situations are the rule. For me, power is more than doing what you want or what you are able to do; it means wanting to do what is right. Men are very different at work than at home. They feel they have to “perform” a certain way on the job and can only relax when away from it. Women are much more consistent, regardless of where they are and what they are doing. Women take a long-term view toward solving complex societal ills. This is one reason why they do not gravitate toward political office nearly as much as their male counterparts. Men enter politics to network, have a career and make money. Women enter politics to try to make a difference. The%age of women in municipal politics is quite high in North America but as you move toward regional and federal politics, the numbers drop off dramatically. That is because at the municipal level, issues are so much more real; people feel they can influence decisions easier than in the federal arena. Federal politics generally rewards short-term thinkers and supports short-term goals. Men like to win. They see the world as having winners and losers—there is no in-between. Women do not look for glory for the most part; they lead quietly, quite often as volunteers or behind the scenes (or behind a man).

One illustration of how differently women and men think is the following: in a fitness survey I read recently, men, when asked how they rated against their peers on a scale from 1 to 100 where 50 represented the mean, gave responses that averaged “90.” Women, in the same survey rated themselves a “70” on average. Although both are optimistic (don't we all think we are better than average), women are more realistic. I came away from that survey thinking the same would hold true if the question were “How would you rate yourself as a project manager (or general manager or leader in the workplace regardless of job position) against your peers (implying male and female)?” To my surprise, when I conducted that very (unofficial) survey (see Appendix B), the results were quite different. Male project managers rated themselves about 70 while females rated themselves about 75. Once I thought about this for a while, I realized that the results were in fact reality. Women know they are better, on average than men in these areas just as I have come to realize in my own personal experience.

A recent Business Week article (Nov. 20, 2000) states that women rate higher than men on the vast majority of management metrics (see Appendix A). The results are not even close— in all cases, women are ranked higher in 80–90% of the studied categories. The fact is; many men don't want to believe that. That is why the following statistics are true: approximately 45% of all management jobs are now held by women but only two Fortune 500 companies have women CEO‘s and only six of the top 1,000 companies enjoy women leaders (as of this writing).

The Business Week article that goes on to state that women are not only as good, but better on average than men in most aspects of management. In my area of expertise—Project Management, that is for sure a reality. Women are more conscientious—they deliver on promises more consistently than men. They are better “students” (they ask for help willingly), display more common sense and have far better intuition. Women are more flexible— they juggle priorities better than men and don't complain as much when all does not go well. And, most importantly, in any 24-hour time span, women, again on average, do much more than their male counterparts. This includes the workplace and home life. Home life, because it is a very important factor in the holistic view of one's life. Men are not equal contributors in many relationships. Women and men have been trained for generations to believe that women must do most of the work in the home or with the children.

The Scandinavian countries are much more progressive than North America with respect to gender equality and parental sharing I am told. When you look closely however, the gap is still very large. Although 44% of men in Sweden take parental leave after the birth of a child, the average leave is 43 days versus 260 for women. Although two thirds of the public sector workers and one third of the private sector workers are women, only 3% of senior executives in Sweden are women and a 10%–30% wage gap exists across the board for all jobs. This is true around the world, not just in our own backyards!

What Are the Key Opportunities for Improvement?

Many people (i.e., male CEO‘s) think that the cost of employing women managers is higher than that of their male counterparts. They point to the fact that the turnover rate is two and a half times higher among women managers. They worry about how to cover for someone off on maternity leave. They see challenges instead of opportunities. They see a clash of perceptions, attitudes and behavior with the policies and practices of their male led corporations.

They do not understand that far more executive men have children than executive women—90% of executive men and only 35% of executive women have children by the age of 40! So why is having children a woman's problem? The problem is that men don't see child rearing as an equally shared task with their spouses. If they did, their priorities, focus and tactical objectives would be much different than they are today. I struggle with this all the time myself. It is hard work remembering that 6,000 years of history does not make something right. Being retrained does not come easy. Men need support through this transition—support from their workplace peers and bosses and support from women! Change will happen much sooner if we work together than if we merely point our fingers at what we don't like and talk about it instead of acting upon it.

Maternity is one area where men and women are very different. Male bosses need to understand this and support it. Our traditions and socialization must change. Corporations need to more fully support childcare initiatives. They need to provide flexible work schedules including part time work. They need to support teleworking so women (and men) can work from home when family needs dictate they cannot be at the office. The wrong thing to do is to give up the investment in motivated, trained employees just because they decide to have a baby. Men work on average 32 years after leaving school—women for 27, mostly due to maternity leaves. Is it smart to give up on the contribution of so many excellent employees for the sake of five years out of 32?

Many men today see children as a commitment, an investment, or an obligation and rarely share childcare equally and almost never share housework equally. I consider housework the final frontier for men—forget outer space!

Women have to stop being judged harshly for being too assertive and career-oriented (the criticism is that they are too much like a man) or for being cooperative and having a healthy life “balance” (they are said to have no commitment). Men, on the other hand, are praised for being aggressive and career focused but ‘marked down’ if they put family on par with their career. This is a terrible double standard. I say we need to give women more opportunities, not fewer! They will rise to the challenge. We need to recognize the challenges women face today and support them through those challenges.

A Few Concluding Thoughts

Men's shortsightedness and insecurities are the most important reasons why women have been kept out of corporate boardrooms and other leadership positions for generations in my estimation. Asking for help is a sign of strength not weakness. Women have figured that out and men have not. Involved (enlightened) men are the ones who make a decision about what they do. Involved men are better managers, more creative team players, more respective of female colleagues and are more emotionally flexible. Others are going along by instinct, defaulting to behaviors passed down from generation to generation. They sway with the forces of their environment and their upbringing. They blindly accept, like a religion, that what their ancestors did must be right.

Leadership is hard work and trying to change the attitudes of our current leaders around these ideas—believe me—takes a great deal of leadership. It's hard for many women who juggle so much to get on top of their profession and hard for men who dare to be different. I am not trying to offend anyone in any way—quite the contrary; I hope my words and actions will spark an awareness in others that perhaps we men have been unfair to women for far too long and it is time to fix it!

For me the picture is so clear. The glass ceiling must be removed—from above. For women to be true equals in Corporate America, it is men that must change the most not women. Old, stuffy attitudes and exclusive networks are much of what stands in the way of equality today. Men have got to give their heads a shake and realize their oversight in not recognizing the value that exists in half the population. Most men are very quick to point out how invaluable their wives’ intuition and wise counsel are to their own success. Why is it that they can't say the same about their female colleagues in their organizations, churches, associations and political parties?

Male CEOs need to be flexible in their thinking; they need to be able to build consensus and learn to listen. They need to be able to admit that they don't know everything. Male and female executives need to realize that networking can be more than “the old boys’ club.” Alliance-making in business is very important and can be accomplished anywhere, not just at the “club,” or on the golf course.

I challenge each of you to look deep within yourselves and your organizations. Gather your own data. Draw your own conclusions based on the facts in front of you. If you do not see gender inequity—bravo, you are very fortunate! If you do see evidence of 6,000 years of history lingering on, and I suspect you will, don't just accept it! Work at fixing the situation. The easy way out is to do nothing—that's what we all have been doing for too long. If two people are doing the same job—pay them the same. If you want the most rounded team possible—fill it with men and women of varied backgrounds and experiences. We are on the verge of a much better society—let's not stand in our own way! Let's be that civilized “race” Lorenz spoke of!

Appendix A—Business Week Article Supporting Material

Where Female Execs Do Better: A Scorecard

None of the studies set out to find gender differences. They stumbled on them while compiling and analyzing performance evaluations. Each X denotes a separate study or category of a study and indicates which group scored higher.

Men WOMEN
Motivating Others XXXXX
Fostering Communication XXXX*
Producing High-Quality Work XXXXX
Strategic Planning XX XX*
Listening to Others XXXXX
Analyzing Issues XX XX*

* Indicates women's and men's scores in these categories were statistically even

Data: Hagberg Consulting Group, Management Research Group, Lawrence A. Pfaff,

Personnel Decisions International Inc., Advanced Teamware Inc.

One study (Hagberg Consulting Group, California) evaluated 425 executives, each by 25 people, women executives won higher ratings on 42 of 52 skills measured.

Janet Irwin (California Management Consultant) performed a study that discovered that women ranked higher than men on 28 of 31 measures.

Personnel Decisions International (Minneapolis) looked at 58,000 managers found that women outranked men in 20 of 23 areas.

Larry Pfaff (Michigan Management Consultant) examined 2482 executives from a variety of companies and found that women outperformed men on 17 of 20 measures.

Appendix B—Mike Musial's Leadership Survey

Question

Think about how you plan, organize, control and lead your various activities, either in a formal project management setting or just as part of your job (if not a project manager). I would like you to rate yourself on a scale of 0 to 100 where 50 is the average person in your peer group (i.e., if I picked 100 people like you in the world, half would be higher than 50 and half lower in terms of basic project management capabilities). Please do not rate your self against the general population, but rather against your peers.

Results
Mean Sample size
Male average 70.5 42
Female average 75.7 32

The sample audience was a group of peers, PMI members, co-workers and acquaintances mostly located in Atlantic Canada with a few responses from the United States.

References

Articles

Kimmel, Michael S. 1993. What Do Men Want? Harvard Business Review.

Schwartz, Felice N. 1989. Management Women and the New Facts of Life. Harvard Business Review.

Sharpe, Rochelle. 2000, Nov. 20. As Leaders, Women Rule. Business Week.

Books

Fisher, Helen. 1999. The First Sex (The Natural Talents of Women and How They Are Changing the World). New York: Random House Inc.

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank Alanna Campbell, my wife and mentor whose ideals, ethics, and education (BSc in Physical Education with a minor in Psychology; MEd in Adult Literacy) have contributed greatly to my personal enlightenment and hastened my transition to a better place.

I wish to thank Maura McGowan, friend and co-worker for keeping my “red” side showing—challenging me with a different perspective and making me think about all the important little things.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
November 1–10, 2001 • Nashville, Tenn., USA

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