Everything you didn't learn in school that will help you survive the world of work. A place for newbies, for working moms, for seasoned professionals and "free agents" to share strategies, tips and tales from the trenches.

Aug 6, 2005

Today’s glass ceiling

guest lecturer, Emma Davidson

My family consisted of two immigrant parents. Both came to the States in their early twenties, all because they wanted to create a better and easier life for their children. I was the first of three and the only girl. In fact, out of all the cousins on the East Coast, I was the oldest and the only girl for 20 years. There was a lot of pressure put on me – my parents, grandparents and all the aunts and uncles had dreams for me. To go to college, meet a nice man, get married and have babies.

What they didn’t expect was that I was going to be part of the most significant driving force in my generation. That force is the Generation-X working women. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we make up 51 percent of the total employment in executive, administrative, and managerial occupations. In 1983, women in our same age group only represented 38 percent of the higher profile jobs. Not only have we grown in numbers but we have advanced up the corporate ladder at a faster rate and across many more industries.

Hear us roar
We still have a long way to go, but thanks to our predecessors who broke many barriers for us we now have more opportunities available, and without a fight or question that we’re capable. It is now expected for us to develop a solid career, maybe two. We finally have permission to achieve what we dream – and we go for it in full force. We are even breaking many barriers of our own and exceeding expectations.

We have gone into careers once thought impossible for us to succeed in.
We are shaping the way employees are managed.
We are starting small businesses at a faster rate than men.
We are changing the way we all work, flex-time and telecommuting are now commonplace.
We are fighting for ways to balance a personal/home life and careers.
We can be feminine and still be respected at work.

We have shown that we are qualified and tough enough to be at the executive table. What the business world has learned is that women are stronger managers and more efficient workers. I was impressed to hear from two leading life and career coaches, Dr. Martha Beck and Suzanne Blake that the executive men are trying to acquire many of the traits that most female executives naturally have.

Where have all the mentors gone?
But what I’m sad to see is that many brilliant and talented women are also leaving their jobs. Going are these great mentors – for both men and women, the mentors that can keep shaping a shift in better management and better work/life balance. One of our generation’s barriers is the ability to maintain our leadership roles while having the time to relish our successes with our many loved ones and time to really recharge our own batteries.

As much as we shape, influence and grow the companies we work in, corporate expectations of their employees remain unchanged. The traditional corporate culture of the more you work, the more you’ll succeed is still the constant – regardless of how efficient the employee. Lawyers are a good example. In order to achieve partnership level, you have to put in years of working 80+ hour weeks. If you choose not to, then you will not succeed and will get pushed out of the firm – regardless of your talents.

As the primary caretakers of our families, most women cannot work those hours and take care of the children, the household and in some cases their ailing parents. Even after we build our skills, gain great credibility and acquire much success we need to take a break. Whether it’s to have a child, take care of a family member or ourselves. Eventually we realize that we really can’t ‘do it all’ even though many of us drive ourselves mad by constantly trying – the “super woman” expectation cannot be maintained (at least I haven’t figured it out).

Regardless of our skills and experience many women decide to either leave their career or stay at a level that is well beneath their capabilities. This allows us to leave our work day at a decent hour, without guilt, (and not take the work home) to take care of ourselves and families. The result, a male dominant senior management team.

As hard as we have worked to advance our stance in the working world, we get to a place and realize that the traditional ‘work like a dog’ expectation is unacceptable. It’s unhealthy. The higher we get, the more tired we become, especially those who go home to a family. Where are the rewards to our hard work? Why is it that there’s a low percentage of women at the senior executive level? How do we get there when corporate expectations don’t change? Talented women are leaving those companies because they have had enough and have realized there’s more to life than just work.

A pause on the ladder
Fortunately, it’s not all gloom and doom. Because we’re driven and we know that there are alternatives to the ‘norm’, we naturally take matters into our own hands. Talented women across the nation are starting their own companies, and we’re doing it at a faster rate than men. The Census Bureau's latest study, Survey of Minority-Owned Business Enterprises, found that women owned 26 percent of the nation's 20.8 million non-farm businesses – translating into 5,417,034 firms. As a result we employ 7.1 million paid workers, and have generated $818.7 billion in sales and receipts. Many women leave their current jobs to start their own business so that they can find that work/life balance. There is hope out there.

A few months ago, I was at a “women in advertising leadership forum” where Lisa Hall, President, COO and one of the founders of The Oxygen Network, was one of the keynote speakers. I was inspired by the fact that there are companies like hers that allow employees to live their lives and not make them feel bad about it. It’s okay to go to your child’s school play or meet with your significant other. What also stuck with me was that everyday when her kids get home from school she gets a call from them and regardless of what she is doing or who she’s meeting with she’s answering her cell phone to check in with her kids. Of course my immediate thought was who do I send my resume to?

Unfortunately, the company where I work is run by partners who do not understand the concept of having a personal life. One of my colleagues has two young children and when hired she arranged to have a 4 day work week. She’s continually asked to work 5 days a week “just for the time being” and is expected to manage a work load equivalent to 5 days – in the advertising industry this is an average of 60 hours a week. And, her compensation is based on the 4 day/32 hour week.

I feel bad for the pressure that she feels from the partners and the guilt she feels when she works late. But I also support her for trying to stand her ground as much as possible and battling the partners to get them to realize that maybe they need to hire another staff person to accommodate the constant growth in business. Its people like her that hold their ground that will help us shift expectations and demonstrate we have a lot to offer and should not be disregarded.

Sure we still have many barriers to break through. There’s the issue of still getting paid less than our male counterparts. We get penalized for taking a break from our careers to have/raise children. We’re intelligent, hard working, determined and never is a concept to accept. I plan on doing my part to keep the momentum going.

My dream is that we always find new ways to push the boundaries of corporate expectations so that we can enjoy our successes, our families, ourselves and without guilt. Let’s continue to lead by example and evolve corporate cultures and expectations for the benefit of all of us. If we push for our rights to work, lead, mentor and grow on our terms, then perhaps our daughters will have a better chance at really having it all.

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