Women in Business: Glass Ceiling? What Glass Ceiling?

There has been a good deal written about the difference between men and women in the workplace. Men are said to be more decisive, more logical, and better able to make tough decisions. Women are said to be more intuitive, more communicative, and more compassionate. Popular books like Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus and Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps support these perspectives.

A new book on the subject by Leonard Sax, Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know About the Emerging Science of Sex Differences, provides some interesting scientific evidence that there are differences hard-wired into our brains.

I don’t believe that women are more compassionate, more intuitive, or better communicators than men. Nor do I believe that men are more logical, stronger, or more decisive. There are obvious differences in how the sexes behave socially – and some of those differences (how we compete and how we communicate) may seem like inborn qualities. I don’t think they are.

I believe that women are generally better than men at dealing with details. And I believe that men are, in general, more imaginative. I doubt that this is hard-wired. It seems more likely that it’s learned. But this I know for sure: The really good business leaders – men and women – are constantly striving to improve themselves in all the critical business skills:

  • Logic
  • Intuition
  • Attention to detail
  • Communication
  • Decisiveness
  • Compassion

If I had the opportunity to advise a young woman on getting to the top, here’s what I’d tell her:

1. Find a mentor. I’ve said this before, but there’s nothing like a mentor to help you get ahead. Find a woman in the position you’re aspiring to, and ask questions about how she got to where she is.

2. Be a mentor. You will not only develop your own leadership and communication skills, you will also get a fresh perspective on your company by seeing it through your protege’s eyes.

3. Always present yourself as confident and professional – in the way you dress, speak, and carry yourself. .

4. Make up your mind to work hard. There are no shortcuts to success. Get to work early and stay late. Meet all deadlines. Exceed all promises that you make. Ask for extra work in areas that could advance your career. And stay up-to-date on your industry.

5. The business comes first – before your feelings, before your frustrations, even before your personal ambitions. So long as you are taking paychecks from your company, be loyal to it.

6. The office is not a battleground. You can’t get to the top simply by killing off your competition. Respect your colleagues. Help them. Trust them. Focus on the work. Learn valuable skills. Become extraordinary and then become invaluable. You will accomplish much more by becoming more and giving more than you ever will by being competitive.

7. Stay away from office politics. Politics is a system that is based on power. Business is based on profits. Sometimes, the two can work hand in hand. But, ultimately, they have different ends.

8. Use your charm, not your sexuality. If you get your ideas about business ethics from television, you may believe that it’s perfectly okay to use your sex appeal to achieve your goals. It’s not. Be strong. Be pleasant. Be positive. But don’t be seductive. Whatever short-term favors you get for trading in your dignity will be more than offset by the ill will you will create among both men and women in your workplace.

9. Don’t cry. Martha Stewart says it. So does Donald Trump. There is a reason why crying has never been acceptable in the workplace, and it has nothing to do with glass ceilings or gender barriers: Crying is an emotional response to a problem that has to be solved with brainpower.

10. Don’t try to be a man. Some women believe that to be successful in business they need to be tough – a quality they associate with masculinity. In fact, most of the successful men I know in business are very seldom tough.

Conventional wisdom has it that women in the U.S. work under a glass ceiling, that they get paid less for the same work, and that the really good jobs go to the men. Fact is, more and more women are making their way to the top.

A recent cover story in Forbes magazine surveyed 50 women who are running some of America’s biggest and fastest-growing companies, including:

  • Meg Whitman, 49, chairman and CEO of eBay
  • Anne Mulcahy, 52, chairman and CEO of Xerox
  • Brenda Barnes, 51, president and CEO of Sara Lee
  • Oprah Winfrey, 51, chairman of Harpo
  • Andrea Jung, 47, chairman and CEO of Avon
  • Pat Woertz, 52, EVP of Chevron, Global Downstream

These are not sinecures. These are positions of real authority. The 50 named on Forbes’ list of America’s Most Powerful Women are in charge of maybe a trillion dollars worth of business. (The top six, above, account for $240 billion.)

So much for the glass ceiling.

My prediction: This trend will continue. In another 20 years, women will have as many top-of-the-food-chain positions as men do. Maybe more. Here’s why:

  • Except for the well-publicized but relatively small fundamentalist groups in America, our society is becoming increasingly more open to not just women in the workplace, but women in charge. Polls seem to bear this out. And my experience confirms it. I know six or eight women who, as CEOs, are the primary income earners of their families. Television, movies, and magazines – the media is full of images of women in charge. It’s no longer controversial.
  • Big businesses are behind the trend. Fortune 500 companies that aren’t already run by women have plenty of women working on the second (vice presidential) tier. Those women, like their male counterparts, are doing much of the critical thinking and making many of the tough decisions, as well as developing networks of power and influence. In other words, they are ladies in waiting.
  • Fast-growing smaller companies will be even more open to female leadership (or less resistant to it). When you can see how – with the right leadership – your company could double in a year and then double again, you aren’t going to play gender politics when it comes to picking your next CEO.

But the single most important reason why women will continue to populate the top spots is this: They are good at business and getting better all the time.

Are they better than men? Who knows? But they are good. Good enough.