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.
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.'''
So taking care of the kids is becoming a corporate problem. Day care is likely to become the company benefit of the 1990s. Vangie Deshields, a secretary at the accounting firm Touche Ross & Co., spends about a fifth of her salary on child care. She is divorced and carries the entire financial burden of her son, Marcus - a situation she says is common among her friends.
``If [companies] want to have valuable workers, meaning dependable, hardworking people, then they should make that effort to just help us out, to ease our minds during the day; single working parents especially wonder about their children,'' she says, noting that she has ``no hesitation'' about leaving work when something is wrong with Marcus. If Touche Ross had child care on premises, she says, she would take less time off.
Only a handful of companies have this, and only 2,000 to 3,000 (out of about 6 million) provide some kind of help with child care (such as vouchers).
But supply and demand will soon weave their handiwork, Dr. Bloom says. Companies developed a thirst for plentiful labor during the years that baby-boomers and women swelled the work force. Over the last three decades, the labor force increased by 2 percent a year.
Now the well is going dry. Over the next 20 years, he says, the labor force will grow at only about a half percent a year.
``We're already seeing it,'' he says. ``You see lots of signs in store windows saying `Help wanted,' especially at places like McDonald's, places that hire young workers, because that's where [the shortage] has started. And we're going to see that filter through into older and older levels ... and that's when employers are going to have to start responding to the particular needs of workers.''
Why influence has fallen short
Women will not only change what companies offer but the way they operate, business-watchers say. As they reach upper ranks of management, many see a shift toward a consensus-style management, along the lines of the Japanese.
This has taken a long time to take root in corporate America, however - in part because of women themselves. ``It's been easier for a woman to succeed by doing everything possible to deny her femininity and to walk into a business context and become something of a eunuch,'' says Ms. Wojahn, the writer.
But when they run their own businesses, she says, women are more likely to express their individuality through their management styles. The ``feminine'' imprint has been slight even in the entrepreneurial world, however.
That's because women-owned businesses tend to stay small, while male-owned businesses are more likely to grow large. A key reason is that women generally choose service industries - restaurants and boutiques, for example - and men are more likely to choose manufacturing industries. It's easier to get a loan when one is buying hard assets (machinery and the like) and it's easier to grow when you have a larger financial base (the loan) to expand from.
But many women in business also choose to stay small. ``Women have other ways of keeping score,'' Wojahn says, ``such as whether their employees seem to be happy. A woman who has children at home may also keep score on whether her kids are in good shape and getting good grades, while she's managing to do what she wants.''
`The secret weapon'
If women think change has come slowly in the US, they should look overseas. In Japan, women have made barely a toehold in the business world, and it's an indisputably menial one at that. Even Europe is ``no less than 20 years behind us,'' says Joan Helpern, chief executive officer of Joan & David shoes.
Ms. Helpern, who runs her nearly $100 million company with her husband, David, spends about half of her time in France and Italy, where her shoes and purses are made. In Italy, she says, women are often the power behind the throne. But for signing papers, getting financing, they need the signature of their husbands, sons, brothers, or fathers.
The situation is worse in larger companies. Many Italian women consider a job in a bank a major professional achievement. ``That doesn't mean the president of a bank. It means a teller working in a bank. That's a different way of looking at things from the way in which we look at things here,'' she observes.
The speed and relative ease with which the American economy has absorbed its female population can't be understated, says Muriel Siebert, who owns a discount brokerage firm.
``I think that the women are this country's secret weapon,'' says Ms. Siebert, who 20 years ago became the first woman to buy a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. ``If we did not have that core of intelligence and training, we would not be able to compete with the Japans and the Germanys, where they are not utilizing the brains of half of their population.''