A Pregnant CEO - In Whose Lifetime?

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MY daughter recently graduated from college. She looks forward to a career and to children of her own at some point. What makes me angry is that she must seriously consider that when and if she has children, it will have an impact on her career. Some of the men who will make the decisions relating to hiring and promoting her will discriminate against her because she is a woman and has the potential to become a mother.

This issue is not just a feminist issue, a liberal issue, a fairness issue. Ultimately it is a question of American business competitiveness. To the extent that we in the United States deny women the opportunity to develop in business to their full potential, we are ruling out contributions from some of the most capable people in the work force.

Women, whose contributions are more than equal to those of their male counterparts, still must manage a career, childbearing, and child care with little support from the society and their companies. We should be encouraging men to participate more fully in the care of children and families. Instead, we continue policies that encourage women to drop out of work and men to drop out of family.

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Because we see the personal pain created by the recession, some of us tend to look around for someone to blame. So we round up the usual scapegoats - foreign competitors, too much government, or too little government. Even immigrants are back on the list again.

We have to look within our companies and ourselves to identify the problems and find ways to unlock the strengths that will allow us to compete and win. Nowhere is the inadequacy of the American business response to the problems it faces more obvious than in its unwillingness to tap the potential of thousands of talented women who are ready and qualified to step into leadership positions.

I am not suggesting that just having more women in top management will cure all the ills we face, but it will help. Maintaining barriers to women is an example of how we are not playing to our strengths as a nation - one of which is a work force that is flexible, adaptable, and productive.

This lesson is indelibly etched in my memory from an experience I had with a group of workers in a plant in Oklahoma City. We had major quality and cost problems with a component that was assembled in the plant. Some of the managers were considering moving the operation to Asia. Most of the workers were women. Many of them were minorities and single mothers. I very much wanted them to be able to keep their jobs. So we challenged them to come up with a solution in their own way.

We worked with them to organize into teams. They then took over. They found ways to streamline the assembly process. They reduced scrap costs. They asked for and got training so they could maintain and calibrate equipment. They even shopped the malls on weekends to get a better price on Q-Tips than our ace corporate purchasing department could get.

They did a superb job of solving cost and quality problems. Today they are the most competitive supplier in the world of this particular component.

Today, more than 70 percent of all American women between the ages of 20 and 54 work outside the home. Forty-five percent of all American workers are women, and by the end of the century a majority of new entrants into the work force will be women. Yet a recent Labor Department study showed that among executives and top officials, less than 7 percent are women.

Why? We all know very well that it has nothing to do with ability, education, ambition, or availability. There are so few women in senior management, according to both male executives and female aspirants, because of stereotyping, preconceptions, lack of career planning, exclusion of women from key line-management jobs, and their exclusion from informal networks of communication. In short, because of discrimination.

In a 1990 Catalyst study of women in corporate management, most CEOs surveyed perceived women as equally prepared or even better prepared than male counterparts in terms of education, technical training, management skills, and interpersonal skills. But women were not considered to be equal to men in career commitment, risk-taking, and initiative. "Career commitment" is a euphemism for "What if she has a baby?"

Well, what if she has a baby? Surprise: Work goes on. Women executives redistribute the work among colleagues, stay in touch by phone, fax, and modem. It is very much the same as when a male CEO becomes ill, or breaks his leg skiing, or has an accident and is out of the office. If CEOs (male or female) have not built depth and quality into their management team so that they are not indispensable, then we should all suspect there is a terminal case of the "CEO disease" at work.

If women must choose between having children and being a significant part of their care, or being paid 65 percent of what a male counterpart is earning (who is also 20 times more likely to be promoted into a top job), it is not difficult to see why women might leave their companies to seek better opportunities elsewhere. If companies want stronger career commitment from women, they should hasten to correct pay inequities and create equal opportunities for promotion.

Many companies and state and local governments have passed legislation that exceeds what has been proposed at the federal level. But the coverage of the work force is still limited - 60 percent of all working women and an even higher percentage of working men are not covered by family-leave policies. This decade will bring more uncertainty and less traditional job security than American workers have experienced since the 1930s. In this very different world, a career will not be an unbroken line, a rise s teadily through the ranks. It will include a series of side trips - for education, different work experiences, parenthood, personal development.

Women should not feel they need to change - to become more like men. But institutions, companies, and men need to change so that women have a fair shot right out of the starting blocks. Women should be allowed to take the positions they have earned throughout the society, including those at the top.

If we can make that happen, it would be the best possible graduation present we can give to all of our daughters.

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