Promoting, Retaining Women at the Top

More managers are learning how to distinguish between performance and work-force diversity issues

WHEN 5,000 employees at Deloitte & Touche, the third-largest accounting firm in the United States, take two days off from their regular routine to attend a seminar, they will not be talking tax returns. Instead, they will be coming together to discuss the ways men and women can learn to work together as colleagues.

The seminars are part of a larger, recently launched program called, "Initiative for the Advancement of Women," designed to propel talented women into high-level positions and keep them there.

"This is not touchy-feely and this is not male-bashing," says Ellen Gabriel, a Deloitte & Touche partner and director of the program. "The seminars examine gender issues ... and give employees a better understanding of the dynamics [of the workplace] and how they impact men and women. They will make us recognize the assumptions we all make. They will get us to answer the question: `What am I going to do to change my behavior?' "

Deloitte & Touche is not alone in its assessment that diversity management is no longer optional. In a survey of 785 mid- to large-sized US companies, the Society for Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Va., found that almost 70 percent of the respondents hired more women last year than they had in any year in the past.

Many of the companies say career advancement and retention of women are primary challenges of diversity management. "We have more women managers, but few women officers and 1 percent on the board of directors," a respondent said.

Although one-third of the survey respondents said their organizations conduct diversity training, fewer than one-third said the programs were effective.

"A critical part of making this work is to get managers to speak with one voice," Ms. Gabriel says of Deloitte & Touche's effort. "They have to be accountable for the results and we have to articulate a vision of where we want to go. We expect improvements. We expect to have more women in leadership positions and more people involved in flexible work alternatives. Along the way, we will measure where we were a year ago and where we are today."

Today, 74 of Deloitte's 1,500 partners are female. Of the 20 directors that sit on the company's board, none are women. But this year, 19 percent of new partners are women, up from an average of 11 percent over the past three years.

One of the starting points of better diversity management is at the very top: the corporate board. Women represent only 5.7 percent of corporate directors at large companies, according to Catalyst, a New York research organization that works with businesses to effect change for women. Of approximately 11,700 directors of the Fortune 500 and Service 500 companies, only 664 were women in 1992.

"I think there has to be a desire ... on the part of the CEO and the company to really go after this in a concerted way," says Lois Rice, who sits on six corporate boards and is a visiting scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "The number of women in top positions in most industries is very limited. But there are enough exceedingly well-qualified women that their numbers could be increased."

Women still have to use "guerrilla tactics" to break through to the top spots in a corporation, says Wendy Reid-Crisp, director of the National Association for Female Executives in New York. "Society has undergone radical changes and management positions are radically different," Ms. Reid-Crisp says. "The fact that so few women are there proves how tight the door is shut at the top."

In 1989 The Prudential Insurance Company of America, based in Newark, N.J., compared the results of an opinion survey of its own employees with those at other large firms. The company concluded it had to open its door wider to women, minorities, and "anyone who is different," says June Hanson, senior consultant of diversity management. "Our objective became better communication. We hadn't done very well [in the past] in that area."

Prudential, to avoid being perceived as exclusionary, does not have a special development program for women. But in 1990 the company introduced a two-day awareness education program for its management staff. A follow-up survey conducted six months after the program began revealed attitudes had indeed changed.

"Managers are now saying that they can distinguish between a performance problem and a diversity issue," Ms. Hanson says. Now rather than letting the person go, they are saying, "I need to manage this person better."

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