ONE of the best known - and least popular - corporate inventions of the past decade has been the ``glass ceiling.'' This mythical structure supposedly gives women a tantalizing view of the executive suite, while blocking their ascent to it. Long the subject of magazine articles and the object of controversy, it has now become the concern of lawmakers. A bill introduced in Congress last week, the Glass Ceiling Act of 1991, would create a 21-member commission to study ways ``to promote upward mobility of women and minorities to executive management and senior decision-making positions in business.'' Commission members would include business and academic leaders, plus representatives from women's and minority groups.
As welcome as the legislation is, there may be some irony in the prospect of members of Congress telling corporate leaders they must admit more women to top positions. Capitol Hill is, after all, still a male bastion. Women hold only two percent of seats in the Senate and six percent of seats in the House.
That ratio became glaringly apparent earlier this month during televised Congressional debates on the Gulf crisis. For three days, C-Span viewers watched as a roomful of predominantly white men, a majority of them wearing what is apparently the unofficial uniform of Congress - blue suit, white shirt, red tie - took turns stepping up to microphones.
Only occasionally did the presence of a woman on the podium break the men's-club atmosphere of the proceedings. ``I recognize the gentlewoman from California,'' the Speaker said at one point, introducing Democratic Representative Barbara Boxer. Later he recognized ``the gentlelady from Ohio,'' Mary Rose Oakar, among other Congressional women. Each time, the words ``gentlewoman'' and ``gentlelady'' sounded awkward and unfamiliar in the midst of all the usual references to gentlemen.
Yet the perspective of these ``gentlewomen'' added an important, often humanitarian dimension to the debate. ``We have spent more on Desert Shield so far than we spend in one year on Head Start, cancer research, AIDS research, Alzheimer's research, and childhood immunizations, all combined,'' Representative Boxer noted. For her part, Representative Oakar posed a rhetorical question: ``Whose sons' and daughters', fathers' and mothers' lives will be on the line when war breaks out? America's.''
In the roll call that followed the debate, 40 percent of Congressional women voted to authorize the use of military force in the Gulf, thus assuring skeptics that women do not automatically represent the pacifist vote.
In the corporate world, women's elevation to top management positions depends on promotions determined by those above them. In politics, they face a different set of obstacles: the entrenched power of incumbents, the formidable cost of campaigns, the whim of voters. But in both spheres, the absence of greater numbers of women produces the same results: decision-making by an elite group that does not necessarily represent the views or interests of a broad range of people.
Despite this still-small representation of women in the highest political and corporate positions, there is reason for optimism. Pollsters predict that the 1990s will be the ``decade of women'' in politics. And Judy B. Rosener, a professor at the Graduate School of Management at the University of California, Irvine, and co-author of the new book, ``Workforce America,'' sees evidence of a ``second wave'' of women making their way to the top.
Writing in last month's Harvard Business Review under the title ``Ways Women Lead,'' Ms. Rosener states: ``Women managers who have broken the glass ceiling in medium-sized, nontraditional organizations have proven that effective leaders don't come from one mold. They have demonstrated that using the command-and-control style of managing others, a style generally associated with men in large, traditional organizations, is not the only way to succeed.'' Another path to success, Rosener observes, is the ``interactive'' approach these women favor, drawing subordinates into decisions as well.
If Rosener is right, future photographs of corporate leaders and televised hearings in Congress will reflect greater diversity. An old Chinese saying claims that ``women hold up half the sky.'' That task should become easier when glass ceilings disappear.