Women still fall short of top corporate posts
ARMED with a hard hat and a briefcase, Linda Alvarado is waging half a revolution. Ms. Alvarado, a tall, serious woman as lean as the steel girders she's inspecting, owns one of the larger construction companies in Denver. Eleven years ago she broke into a traditionally male industry, and in the process racked up another victory for female entrepreneurs.Skip to next paragraph
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But Alvarado represents a quandary as well as a success: Is corporate America losing some of its greatest talent because of outmoded ideas and subtle prejudices inherent in the system?
``I think women are rethinking where we are,'' Alvarado says. ``We've made great progress in a very short period of time, but now where do we go from here?'' There are isolated cases of female top executives in large companies, she says; ``but we need mass success. ... It's a slow process, unfortunately slower than most of us are willing to wait.''
In fact, millions have refused to wait. Nearly 3.5 million women own their own businesses today, and they are starting them at three times the rate of men. It's shifted the female ``revolution'' from the mainstream to thefringes of the economy, says Ellen Wojahn, former senior writer at Inc. magazine, who follows female entrepreneurship. The mainstream is losing out.
``Corporate America may have been cheated out of that [revolution] by the very numbers of women going into entrepreneurial pursuits. I think it's just stunning that so few women have moved up and that they are sitting right outside the vice-president's office, right outside that corner office they've wanted and yet it doesn't seem to happen.''
Origins of a revolution
Women burst onto the workplace during World War II, when men fighting overseas created a labor shortage in the United States. Women began building everything from fighter planes to cars, and in the process, gained unprecedented economic autonomy - autonomy that many were unwilling to give up when the men came home.
Since the war, the number of working women has quadrupled to 50 million, and they now represent 45 percent of the work force. The influx, says David Bloom, a Harvard university economist, ``is the single most important change that we've ever experienced in the American labor market.''
The change has not been without its costs, however. The ballooning labor supply held down wage and salary increases to a rate below inflation. After the 1973 recession, work went from being an option to a necessity for women, even married women.
According to research by economists Frank Levy at the University of Maryland and Richard Michel at the Urban Institute, the income of the average 30-year-old man dropped 26 percent between 1973 and 1983, with inflation figures in.
Over the same period, big-ticket items far outpaced inflation. For example, the average mortgage went from $413 a month (as measured in 1984 dollars) to $642 a month. While the average 30-year-old man was spending 21 percent of his income on housing payments in 1973, he was forking out 44 percent 10 years later.
So if families wanted to maintain their way of life - having children and possessions such as a house and a car - both spouses needed to work. Still, family incomes declined somewhat.
Big change not yet seen
To date, women have not fundamentally altered the way mainstream industry runs its business. The impact will come when women finally make the leap from middle to senior management.
That may take a while. Women now constitute 45 percent of the work force, but run only 2 percent of the companies. Of the Fortune 500 companies, only three are headed by women: Katharine Graham of the Washington Post; Elizabeth Claiborne Ortenberg of Liz Claiborne clothing; and Linda Wachner of Warnaco, an apparel company.
The disparities are just as stark throughout the economy, as indicated by Labor Department statistics (see above). Nonetheless, the seeds have been planted and subtle changes are taking root.
For one thing, the courts and Congress are dragging corporations, sometimes kicking and screaming, into a new era. In the last year, the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of women in several work-related cases. One will likely mean that women are promoted faster, often ahead of their male colleagues. Another opens the doors of men's clubs - in this case, the Rotary - where ``networking'' occurs.
A third ruling may compel companies to provide maternity leave if state law so dictates. For its part, Congress is working on a national - and highly controversial - parental leave policy.
Good for business
But companies are beginning to find that accommodating women is a bottom-line issue, says Kate Rand Lloyd, editor at large of Working Women magazine. ``The very top management is looking down the ladder, down the pyramid, and saying, `Hey, wait a minute, an incredible number of our good lower- and middle-management people are women and women are starting families, or have, or will. If we want to keep them, we have to start taking care of them.'''