Women and business – still an uneasy relationship

Every year, Fortune magazine celebrates women in the top echelons of corporate America by publishing a list of the 50 Most Powerful Women in Business. Their titles are impressive – CEO, chairman, president – and photos portray them as polished and confident.

What an inspiration they could be to the young women following them.

But what if those young women don't aspire to a corner office? Yesterday, a week after the Fortune list appeared on newsstands, a major national study of teenage girls revealed a surprising finding: While 97 percent of girls polled expect to work to support themselves or their families, only 9 percent want careers in business. Among boys, the figure is 15 percent.

"Girls of this generation are quite ambitious, which is exciting," says Fiona Wilson, a professor at Simmons College School of Management and an author of the study, which polled more than 3,000 girls and 1,200 boys in middle school and high school. She finds it encouraging that half the girls prefer professions such as doctors, lawyers, and architects. "We're not going back to the stereotype of their mothers' generation, where women were thinking about being nurses and teachers."

But why do girls shy away from business? The number of women applying to business schools has dropped off. By contrast, women make up half the students in medical and law schools.

Unlike boys in the study, who say they want to earn a lot of money, girls place great importance on helping others and improving society. But they don't see connections between those goals and business, which they equate with finance and numbers. And they're less confident than boys about their business- related skills.

Teen girls also place a high value on having enough time to spend with family and friends. In describing business, Professor Wilson says, "they used many images involving stress – images about dads having to make conference calls on vacation, and moms always being tired when they got home, or complaining about their bad bosses."

As it happens, mothers are the primary source of career advice for daughters. But parents' goals are often less well defined for girls than for boys.

"Mothers express their hope and aspirations for daughters in terms of wanting them to be happy and have a lot of options, but they don't translate that directly into business opportunities," says Connie Duckworth, head of The Committee of 200, a national women's business leadership group that commissioned the study.

Wilson calls the lack of women at the top "alarming," adding that the study doesn't offer a lot of hope that future generations will swell the ranks of women in leadership positions.

What would help?

At home, Ms. Duckworth suggests, parents should emphasize the variety of opportunities in business, and the good that business leaders can do.

Schools, too, can represent business more positively. Because most teachers have never worked in business, some express neutral or negative views of it.

Media images also need upgrading. Successful women on TV sitcoms tend to be doctors and lawyers. Positive role models of women in business are scarce in entertainment media.

For employers, the study underscores the importance of family-friendly programs. Teen boys and girls alike call work-family balance a key concern.

It will require more than an annual Take Our Daughters to Work Day to broaden girls' perspectives about business. Many remain ambivalent about wanting power in their future careers.

Even for the elite on Fortune's most-powerful list, "keeping power seems to be an especially daunting challenge," the magazine notes. When it asked them to identify their greatest strength and weakness, "virtually every woman said she felt pressed to soften the very thing that got her here: her powerful style."

Whatever a woman's style of leadership, Duckworth makes a case for women at the top. "To have an economy that is strong and vibrant, we need to be taking advantage of all our resources," she says. "Half the labor pool is women. At this particular time of crisis of confidence in business leadership, sparked by scandals, it's particularly important for girls and women who have an underlying motivation to save the world to bring their skills and ethical grounding to the workplace."

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