Post by Karen Wright, contributing Women On Business writer
“Men support the strongest among them, but women tend to attack the strongest among them.” I heard these words from a female business consultant and friend over lunch. My gut response was a furious, “That’s a blasphemous lie!” But hot on the heels of that impulse came the disturbing realization that, to a degree, she was right.
We tend to think of woman as instinctive nurturers. Yet the few women I’d seen who inhabited executive offices were generally indifferent and sometimes openly hostile to other women reaching up to grab a foothold. In defense of their actions, I imagined all manner of reasons for such seeming betrayals of sisterhood. Did they fear being accused of favoritism? Maybe they honestly felt that the women aspiring to advance were simply less qualified than the competing men.
But sometimes my thoughts weren’t so charitable. Could it be that women executives were in fact coldheartedly protecting their exclusive and coveted turf? Did they fear competition from women who might shine brighter? Or maybe their sentiments were as dispassionate as “no one helped me get here; if you want it, you’re on your own too.”
Certainly, not all women who achieve power seek to prohibit other women from doing the same; many women of influence work with and mentor promising female talent. But the simple truth is, after a half century of striving, women still hold embarrassingly few positions of leadership in the United States.
Currently, according to CNN Money, only ten Fortune 500 companies have women CEOs, as do only 20 Fortune 1000 companies. A dismal 2% of the United States’ most successful businesses have women at the helm. On the political front, the 2007 CRS Report for Congress discloses that women hold a mere 16% of US Congressional seats (sixteen Senate and seventy-three House positions). To date, no woman has received major party support in a Presidential nomination, although the 2008 elections may be a first. In 1984, as Democratic Presidential candidate Walter Mondale’s running mate, Geraldine Ferraro became the only woman to ever achieve party support as Vice President.
The feminist movement of the 1960s and 70s banged its head against the corporate glass ceiling, claiming the ‘Old Boy’s Club’ was intentionally withholding equal opportunity and giving unfair advantage to men. Women demonstrated in protest of their second-class status, and men circled the wagons. The unrelenting male message was that a woman’s place is in the bedroom, not the boardroom. Women were understandably frustrated and angry; their actions achieved visibility for subtle inequities and blatant inequalities, but significant change remained elusive.
In the 1990’s women in business gained significant ground in lower management positions, but International Labour Organization expert Linda Wirth concluded that in spite of this progress, “Almost universally, women have failed to reach leading positions in major corporations and private sector organizations, irrespective of their abilities.” Why?
In the 21st century, is it still a man’s world? What is the basis for women not achieving leadership positions in significant numbers in the U.S.? Are women inherently inferior leaders? Are they simply not as educated or experienced as their male counterparts? Is the ‘Old Boy’s Club’ still barring the door? Are successful women who inhabit the prestigious corner office protecting their hard-earned status from female competition?
We may have come a long way, but the underlying reason women still struggle to achieve parity in business or political arenas may be a personal failing. Ultimately, we each individually determine the level to which we will rise in life, far more than any external force. It seems all too human to take credit for successes, while laying blame for failures. As women, we have faced difficult challenges in achieving respect and recognition for our contributions to society, and we have much to be proud and thankful for. But the old barriers are not as formidable as they once were. To climb those final steps up the mountain of equality, we must examine our belief in self. Pogo said, “We’ve found the enemy, and (s)he is us.” All true power begins within. It’s time we put away the remnants of blame and seek a more empowering truth. Our passion and desire require faith and belief to catalyze change.
Stay tuned for the conclusion of “The True Meaning of Equality” from Karen Wright coming to Women On Business in one week!