Iowa Alumni Magazine | August 2007 | Features

Women Mean Business

By Tina Owen
What's the outlook for the fabled glass ceiling—and career-minded women —in today's changing world of work?
Archambeau After some hard knocks in the business world, Kathleen Archambeau has written a book designed to help other women climb the corporate ladder.

When Hillary Clinton strode onto the Iowa Memorial Union's River Terrace and greeted thousands of flag-waving supporters gathered to hear her speak last month, perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the whole event was how unremarkable it all seemed. Just another politician swinging through Iowa to shake hands, kiss babies, and deliver the usual pre-election schtick.

Amidst the business-as-usual atmosphere, it was easy to forget that Hillary Clinton was doing what no other woman had done before—run as a serious contender for President of the United States.

One reason this historical feat doesn't seem so remarkable is that successful women are everywhere. After all, billionaire media mogul Oprah Winfrey has earned a reuptation as the most powerful woman in the world. In 2006, Nancy Pelosi became the first female Speaker of the House of Representatives and the highest-ranking elected woman in U.S. history. Women regularly appear on the Fortune 500 annual lists of top-earning executives, thanks to their roles as corporate officers at big-name firms like PepsiCo, Google, Avon, eBay, Hewlett-Packard, DuPont, and Procter & Gamble.

Women are doctors, engineers, world-class athletes, scientists, pop megastars, astronauts, and university presidents. The glass ceiling—that invisible barrier that prevented women from reaching the highter echelons of companies and industries—must be smashed to smithereens by now.

Not necessarily.

Admittedly, woman have come a long way in just 67 years, since the 1940 census revealed that females held positions in only 11 of the 451 job categories, with 90 percent of them working as nurses, clerical workers, domestic servants, and the like. In addition, women now make up a greater percentage of the entire workforce than ever before—some 70 million of them, representing 46 percent of the labor force.

Yet, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, women in full-time management and professional jobs in 2006 earned about 77 percent of what men did. Even the Fortune 500 high-fliers lag far behind their male counterparts, who typically bring home two or three times as much money. Despite their successful forays into other industries, women also still dominate in lower-paying domestic, clerical support, and administrative jobs.

UI business professor Nancy Hauserman, 76JD, says that the issue of women's progress in the workforce is "a very ambiguous situation. It's like a kaleidoscope—depending on how you look, the view will be different." As for the statistics showing that more women work now than ever before, Hauserman says, "It's as if we're saying that there's a number that's enough, that 'better' is enough - and it isn't."

With millions of women now working in so many career fields, it's difficult to generalize about their experiences, but personal stories can offer some revealing insights into persistent issues of prejudice and discrimination.

When she worked at an international computer sales company in California's Silicon Valley, Kathleen Archambeau, 77MA, endured the tyranny of a boss with a reuptation for ruthlessness that rivaled Attila the Hun's. More than happy to take advantage of Archambeau's skills as his executive assistant, he blocked her desire to move into sales. Every day, he would engage in a baiting ritual designed to erode her self-confidence. "I don't know what it is about you," he'd say, looking her up and down, "but I just don't think you're gonna make it in sales."

When Archambeau finally stood up to him, he angrily assigned her the worst sales territory and gave her unfair targets compared to the rest of the salesmen. He obviously expected—even wanted—her to fail in the high-pressure, male-dominated field. Archambeau not only tripled existing sales, but doubled the company's market share in her territory. "My boss never once congratulated me," she recalls.

For Mary Parks Stier, unreasonable bias occurred outside the workplace. Promoted to president and publisher of the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Stier, 78BA, had enjoyed the full support of her colleagues at the Gannett media company. The members of the local Rotary Club were another matter entirely. When asked to consider admitting her as a member, "half the club said, 'If we invite her, I'll quit,'" remembers Stier. "The other half said, 'If we don't invite her, I'll quit.'"

In the midst of the resulting furor, Stier wasn't even sure that she wanted to belong to the club. But when some friends pointed out that she should do it to help open doors for other women, Stier changed her mind and became one of the first two female members of the Iowa City Rotary Club.

Both Archambeau and Stier parlayed their experiences into positive ones. Archambeau drew upon her 20-year career in international computer sales and marketing and as a training consultant to write a book of practical advice for women in the workforce. Released in 2006, and soon to be made available as an iTunes download, Climbing the Corporate Ladder in High Heels shows women how to have a career and a life.

Now, as president and publisher of the Des Moines Register and with responsibility for another 25 daily newspapers in the Midwest and South, Stier is one of Gannett's top executives. She often recounts the story of her run-in with the Rotary Club to inspire women at various speaking engagements around the country. "Don't give up your power," she urges. "Find your brilliance, your passion, and your unique gifts."

Both Archambeau and Stier had these unfotunate incidents in the 1980s, and equal opportunity and sexual harassment legislation have since undoubtedly improved the situation for many working women. Hauserman wryly points out, though, that sexual harassment and discrimination lawsuits continue to be filed in large numbers. Just a few months ago, a Massachusetts jury awarded a female pharmacist $2 million in support of her discrimination claim that Wal-Mart fired her when she asked to be paid on par with male colleagues.

Michel Even in male-dominated industries, women like Chris Michel, executive director of HR at Ford, are finding that gender discrimination now throws fewer obstacles in their way to career success.

John Fraser, 96MBA, director of the executive MBA program at the UI College of Business, still feels the need to warn female business students of a harsh truth: "You have to work harder than your male counterparts," he tells them. "If men make a mistake, they'll get a second chance. You only get one."

Fraser explains, "Of course there's a glass ceiling. It's always been there, and it's a challenge. There's no magic wand to change our culture overnight. All we can do is give women every opportunity to excel and advance their educational skill sets."

For many women in today's workplace, overt biases are relics of the past. By the time Archambeau switched careers in 2003 to become a university professor and educator, she'd noticed a welcome change in that no longer were "men the only ones signing the checks for their companies' products and services," and more women had taken control of their careers by starting their own businesses.

Women are also breaking down barriers in industries previously seen as reserved for men. Chris Michel works in an industry that's got "male-dominated" written all over it—not just manufacturing, but automotive manufacturing. Now executive director of HR for Ford in America, Michel, 91BBA, 93MBA, has worked in auto plants in the U.S. and in Eastern Europe for the last 13 years. As a member of the team that developed Ford's innovative "Way Forward" business plan, she's dealt with tough issues such as company restructuring and lay-offs. And throughout it all, she says, she's never been treated differently on the basis of her gender. "I don't have any horror stories," she says. "I like to think that's a sign of progress."

She's particularly proud of Ford's policies, such as job sharing, telecommuting, child care, and flexible schedules that support working families. Michel could have used such support 22 years ago, when she became a mom and wasn't eligible for maternity benefits through the company she worked for at the time.

Even today, women often face the biggest challenge to their careers when they decide to have children. After all, the U.S. lags far behind most industrialized nations in terms of maternity—let alone paternity—leave. Many women can't afford to take the full 12 weeks' maternity leave guaranteed under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)— whether for financial reasons or because of fears that a long absence will harm their career prospects.

"Some companies hesitate to invest in MBAs for women who they think are going to go off and have kids or won't have the same passion when they come back," says Fraser. "Women fall behind when they have kids; it's like being an ex-pat. You go off to do an international job, but when you come back, you speak a different language, you missed everything that happened while you were gone, and no one has any need for the skills you leaned while away."

Stier A mother-of-two and publisher of the Des Moines Register, Mary Stier is an example of how more women are able to enlist the support of their employers to achieve a better work/life balance that benefits everyone.

Women still often fall foul of an unwritten rule of business that the federal Labor Bureau identified as "ideal worker" perception. In a 2003 report to Congress, bureau staff noted that many employers still expect that "an ideal worker places highest priority on work, working a 9-to-5 schedule throughout their working years, and often working overtime. Ideal workers take little or no time off for childbearing or childrearing, and they appear—whether true or not—to have few responsibilities outside work."

Despite the fact that more men now help with housework, child care, and elder care, such attitudes disproprtionately affect women, who most often have primary responsibility for home and family.

Because many workplaces still maintain the same policies, practices, and structures that existed when most workers were men who worked full-time, 40 hours a week, says the report, women often miss out on promotions or have to trade off career advancements or higher earnings for more flexible schedules.

Like many women seeking to balance work and family life, Cathy Cornish Passmore, 93BBA, decided to refocus her priorities after she had her third child. After switching to a three-quarter time position as a senior financial analyst at Rockwell Collins in Cedar Rapids, she's grateful that she works for a supportive eployer. More companies, like Rockwell Collins, are embracing the concept of worker moms, and they're realizing the advantages—for everyone, not just women—of flexible working conditions. As Passmore points out, companies that accept childbearing as a fact of life get happier and more dedicated employees in return, because women don't feel guilty about being away from their kids.

Passmore believes that being a mom also makes her a better employee. Juggling so many different responsibilities at home and at work, she's better able to set priorities and make decisions—and she doesn't sweat the small stuff so much. "I know that I only have so many hours a day to do a certain number of things, so when I come to the office, I get straight to business," she says. "As a mom, you become more focused, assertive, intense. You have to manage your time."

Passmore is realistic about the effects of devoting more time for her family—to be able to take her kids to baseball practice or concerts in the afternoons. "It wasn't a step down, but I did put the brakes on my career," she says. "But in five years time, when my kids are older, the situation might change."

As Archambeau points out in her book, perhaps "women can have it all—just not at once."