CELIA ELLINGSON has spent the last year in a mentor relationship that few businesswomen get the chance to have.
Ms. Ellingson participated in Minnesota 100, a program that links middle-management professional women with executives from other companies in a mentor situation. Ellingson, marketing director at the Minneapolis office of the accounting firm Arthur Andersen, was matched with a male vice president of marketing and sales at a local gas company. Since June 1992, her mentor has offered advice and helped her define her professional goals.
"It's a very safe way to have a relationship with someone outside your own company so you can talk about career issues and get support or feedback," she says. "He helped me ... in sorting out what might be important to me in a career path."
Lack of mentors for women trying to climb the corporate ladder is one reason they are unable to shatter the glass ceiling - the invisible barrier keeping women out of top jobs, says Gayle Holmes, who helped create the Minnesota 100 program two years ago as part of her company, Minneapolis-based Holmes and Mahoney Inc.
"When there are men at the top, it just makes sense that you hire and nurture and coach and champion people who look like you, act like you, think like you," Ms. Holmes says.
"So that's another male."
The glass ceiling has been pushed higher over the last 10 to 15 years. But at the senior management or chief-executive-officer level it remains almost as thick as it ever was.
Women held just under 3 percent of CEO and senior management positions in Fortune 500 companies in 1989, according to Korn/Ferry International, a recruiting firm. That figure has risen from 0.5 percent in 1979.
But Korn/Ferry surveys in 1982 and 1992 also show that the number of women holding the title of executive vice president more than doubled in that period from 4 percent to 9 percent. And those at the senior vice president level went from 13 percent to 23 percent. Men still outnumber women as executive vice presidents by nearly 3 to 1, however, the surveys showed.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the number of women in managerial positions jumped 76 percent from 1983-1992. The 76-percent figure lumps together women in all management positions - from CEO to local retail-sales manager. Experts say the increase reflects growth at the lower- and mid-management level.
"There's been a lot of progress for women in middle management - there's a critical mass of them," says Bickley Townsend, vice president of advisory services at Catalyst, a New York organization that tracks women and work.
Over the past several years, the Department of Labor has released two studies on the glass ceiling based on a review of nine Fortune 500 companies. The studies identified several reasons why these women are not making it up the final rungs of the corporate ladder.
Besides lack of mentors to help guide them, job training programs and recruitment practices tend to favor men, the studies show.
Holmes adds that many women on the fast track decide they do not want to pay the price to reach the top. Such an achievement often means putting in long hours and trying to balance family responsibilities on the side.
"The man who says `yes' to taking on the challenge of being a CEO still has a stay-at-home wife and that's the sanity for that man. But very few women have house-husbands yet," Holmes says.
"There's no flexibility at the time women may be trying to combine their careers and their family," Ms. Townsend adds, especially when performance is often measured on face-time - how late an employee stays at the office or how many weekends he or she works.
The Labor Department's Glass Ceiling Commission has been reactivated under the directorship of Joyce Miller to research the issue further. And companies are slowly addressing the problem. Some are creating career development programs to prepare women for leadership positions; others have instituted incentive compensation programs that hold managers responsible for developing and advancing women and minorities.
"Companies really do want to be seen as progressive, and there's a huge business these days in benchmarking, where they all are trying to find out what the best practices are in other companies
and learn from each other and borrow," Townsend says.
Holmes says that male executives are more willing to recognize the problem and work on solutions than they once were.
"It's a rather new reality in part because their daughters are hitting the business world and saying, `Dad, you can't believe what it's like out there.' "
Still, progress is slow.
"There are people who say women just haven't had time yet, give them more time," Townsend says. "But 20 years ago 15 percent of all managers were female so you'd think by now 15 percent of top managers would be female. And instead it's 3 percent."
Not only do companies need to take the initiative to move women up, but women themselves need to be more vocal about the barriers that keep them from advancing, she says.
While some observers forecast that it will take decades before women finally break the glass ceiling, others are more optimistic. In their 1992 book, "Megatrends for Women," best-selling authors John Naisbitt and Patricia Aburdene say many senior male executives are poised to retire this decade. "Just below them is a cadre of female talent age 35-45 that will break into CEO and senior executive positions by decade's end," they predict.
"In some ways [the glass ceiling] is a misleading term because it suggests that it's invisible and solid and hard to do anything about," Townsend says. "We don't see it as invisible or unbreakable. We see it more like lots of little panes you can dismantle one by one."