‘Masculine Norms’: Why Working Women Find It Hard to Reach the Top

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Women have been in the workforce for decades, but many will acknowledge that it is still a man’s world. According to the most recent data from Catalyst Research, women now make up nearly half (46.7%) of America’s workforce and hold 51.5% of management, professional and related occupations. Yet only 7.6% of the Fortune 500 top earners are women, and women make up only 2.6% of Fortune 500 CEOs. Many women say the corner office remains off-limits because the unwritten rules of the workplace continue to favor men.

Companies today “are building on masculine norms,” stated Anne Hardy, a vice president of technology strategy at SAP Labs, during a panel at the recent Wharton Global Alumni Forum in San Francisco. Managers need to think about how to create environments in which women can “thrive and grow,” she says, and which might inspire them to make a long-term commitment to a company or start their own.

But what would a company built on women’s norms look like? Women business leaders and Wharton experts say the workplace would probably function very differently — and have a different look and feel — if it were built by and for women.

Wendy McDevitt pictures the workspace resembling the corporate offices of Philadelphia-based Urban Outfitters (URBN), where she serves as co-president of Anthropologie, one of the company’s brands. A female-focused fashion and home accessory retailer, Anthropologie has created a workspace to reflect the kind of environment its customers want, McDevitt says. “We almost think of the customer first and then work backwards.” The result: koi ponds with running water, a farmer’s market, onsite chefs and bicycles that allow for quick jaunts between buildings. “We created a workplace that has a lot of light … and open space.”

Both the founder and CEO of Anthropologie’s parent company are men, proving that men can create an office environment with women’s preferences in mind, McDevitt points out. Likewise, not every workplace run by a woman would necessarily cater to women’s norms. “Personalities of women are very different,” she says. “Just because a woman is running a company or brand, that doesn’t mean that it would be run in the way that every woman in the organization would want it run.”

Yet a look at top women-run companies does reveal some interesting similarities, according to Marsha Firestone, president and founder of the Women Presidents’ Organization. The New York-based nonprofit, a membership organization for women entrepreneurs of private companies with annual revenues of $2 million or more, regularly polls its members about how they do business. The most recent surveys show that 100% of the 50 fastest growing women-led companies provide health insurance, 88% provide 401ks, 80% provide life insurance and 66% offer telecommuting. Nationwide, 62% of private companies offer health insurance and 47% offer retirement benefits, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics; 59% of private company employees have access to life insurance and just 5% have access to flexible workplace policies. “So what I have come to believe is that it’s not just anecdotal that women tend to be more nurturing,” Firestone says. “I think they are, and I think these statistics verify that.”

An office built on women’s norms would be more innovative around policy issues that relate to family, suggests Monica McGrath, a human resource consultant, executive coach and adjunct professor of management at Wharton. That doesn’t just mean offering flextime — it means helping women manage their child care responsibilities and family roles while also helping grow their careers. “If women do opt out, it’s not because they can’t handle their families,” she notes. “It’s because they feel they really can’t advance.”

Stereotypes and biases that keep women from advancing are “more subtle” than in the past and “possibly unintentional,” but they still exist, McGrath says. She recalls an executive management meeting she once witnessed as a consultant, in which a woman was being considered for an overseas post. Although she was clearly the most qualified for the position, one manager remarked that the woman probably would not want the job because she had two small children. “They actually thought that this was a sensitive remark,” McGrath points out. In the end, the company did offer the position to the woman, who happily accepted. “They were not planning to be discriminatory. A company based on women’s norms would be more sensitive to these issues.”

Coffee Stains, High Heels

The need to address women’s norms may be most acute in fields such as engineering, where men predominate. Research shows that women are more likely to leave an engineering career than other fields. According to the National Science Foundation, women make up 20% of engineering graduates, but only 11% of professional engineers are women. “There is little to no respect for women in male-dominated fields,” said one woman engineer in a recent report from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee called, “Stemming the Tide: Why Women Leave Engineering.” “I feel alienated,” said another of the survey’s more than 3,700 respondents, “in spite of my whole career trying to act like a man.”

Many women engineers who left the field reported that it was difficult to prioritize work and family if bosses were not sensitive to those issues, according to the report’s co-author, Romila Singh, a professor at the Lubar School of Business and associate director of the Center for the Study of the Workplace at UW-Milwaukee. Another sore spot: few promotions. Women who left engineering reported a lack of training opportunities, being passed over for challenging assignments or struggling with ambiguous roles that left no clear path to advancement. “They had tried many times to get to [higher] positions, and they kept getting stymied in their efforts,” says Singh.

Co-author Nadya A. Fouad, a professor of educational psychology at UW-Milwaukee and director of the Center for the Study of the Workplace, wonders if some advancement opportunities for women may slip by because they are communicated casually among men in informal settings, such as the golf course or even the men’s bathroom. “If you’re in the network, you know what those next steps will be” to take advantage of an opportunity, she points out, “and if you’re out of that informal network, you may just not know.”

Forty percent of the women surveyed by the center had already left the engineering field. Many who left did so because they could not see a clear way to advance, the authors found. Women also reported being overloaded with work or given conflicting information about their job. Women who stayed, on the other hand, were given clear job assignments, afforded clear opportunities to retrain, and got support from colleagues and supervisors to take on challenging roles. “Organizations interested in retaining their women engineers need to offer targeted training programs aimed at strengthening not only technical skills but also developing overall leadership skills such as strategic planning and performance management,” the report concluded.

Sluggish advancement sends women packing in other fields as well.

“We know that women leave jobs at a higher rate than men,” says Deborah Small, a professor of marketing and psychology at Wharton. “Part of it might be that they get upset because they find out that someone else got a better deal than them, or they think that they should have been offered something” but were not given the opportunity.

Yet according to Small’s research, women’s difficulties may be due in part to a failure to negotiate. Small has found that women don’t initiate negotiations as much as men do. “It’s not that they’re not as good at negotiating,” she says: It’s that they don’t initiate the negotiation in the first place.

This could be a problem, since negotiation may be more prevalent in today’s workplace than in the past, Small points out. Employment contracts are less fixed and standardized, and perks such as flextime might be open for negotiation long after an employee starts at the company. In a more negotiable work environment, says Small, “it may be that women are at a disadvantage because they are not noticing or not taking the opportunities to negotiate for themselves.”

Would a workplace based on “women’s norms” make negotiation less prevalent, or make negotiable opportunities easier to recognize? It’s impossible to say, Small notes. Today’s workplace norms are “not just male norms; they are the norms.” Indeed, it is unclear that a workplace designed entirely by women would necessarily be better for women. A lot of research shows that stereotyping and gender bias in the workplace is perpetuated by women as well as men, she says.

Take something as simple as clothing. New research from Wharton hints that gender bias — from men and women — may even crop up in response to a stained shirt. Alison Wood Brooks, a doctoral student in Wharton’s operations and information management department, examines the double standard behind perceptions of how men and women dress. Her current research targets cleanliness and hygiene — specifically, how people react to a food or coffee-stained shirt — and found that men and women with stained clothing are perceived differently. Preliminary results indicate that people appear to react more negatively to women than men.

Brooks plans to expand her research beyond coffee stains to other wardrobe elements, and wonders if the “backlash” that women seem to experience in her stain research will appear with other clothing choices — for example, casual dress vs. formal, trendy vs. conservative, appropriate vs. inappropriate. “I think the idea of backlash really pertains to every aspect of women’s office life,” she says. “Women don’t ask or negotiate out of a fear of backlash. And it’s the same with any aspect of what they wear.”

Women face more ambiguity than men about what clothing is appropriate in the workplace, or what messages their clothing might send. Traditionally, men’s workplace norms call for a suit, but this doesn’t translate well to women’s clothing. Even women’s suits don’t offer a perfect equivalent. Brooks says she is conscious of this in her own department, where the ratio of men to women is about 8 to 1. “They just wake up in the morning and put on pants and a shirt, and they’re good to go,” Brooks says.

Her challenge is finding outfits that strike the right note: professional but not awkwardly formal, conservative but not uptight, relaxed but not inappropriately casual. Every item of clothing — from the height of heels to the length of a skirt — could inadvertently send the wrong message. “There’s so many things that I think about, and I know the men in the office don’t think about those things because they don’t have to,” she says.

Meanwhile, at Women’s World Banking, where about two-thirds of the employees are women, president and CEO Mary Ellen Iskenderian agrees that an office built on women’s norms would take life cycles more seriously, and suggests that even the 9 to 5 routine might be reconsidered if women were running the show. “Women are more about just getting the work done,” she says. “In this organization, we have any number of young mothers who work a day, go offline, get the kids to bed and then appear again later in the evening.”

The nonprofit’s microfinance mission is women-focused, and women dominate the organization’s New York offices, but Iskenderian doesn’t believe that only women should rule the world. With a board composed of 10 women and one man, she says she is keen to recruit a couple more men. She believes at least three would provide a balance, citing studies of male-dominated boards that suffer communication problems when there aren’t enough women “One woman … is seen as a token, two are seen as in cahoots,” she says.

It is when the third woman arrives that all three become accepted as part of the larger group. Iskenderian has discovered the dynamic holds true when it’s the other way around. “I have become a greater proponent of gender diversity than I ever was before,” Iskenderian notes. The predominance of women on the board creates “a tremendous desire to move towards consensus…. It’s a very fruitful forum for ideas and discussion, but what is hard is driving to a decision. I think the group dynamic is a more productive one when there is diversity.”

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