Something Toxic on the Ceiling

Liz Ryan
 


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I got a phone call from a magazine writer who was working on a story. Turns out that Stanford University put out a research study looking at what barriers exist for women in the corporate world. They talked to something like 1,000 of their MBA grads - not new grads, but people who went through Stanford over many years - and asked them what was keeping women out of the top ranks of corporations. Here's what they reported:

There is no glass ceiling. Women themselves are opting out of the top jobs, for lifestyle reasons or because they don't want the pressure.

So, asked the writer, “What do you think about that?"

Have you ever heard a person sputter on the phone? That's what I did. I couldn't find words for a moment.

"Bleeping brilliant!" I said. “That is magnificent - there is no glass ceiling, it's we ourselves who are opting out of senior leadership roles because, you know, there's so much pressure. That's perfect, because companies who accept that wisdom can dismantle their mentoring programs, save the money that they might be spending on their high-potential women, and stop wringing their hands when women in senior roles bail at the next-to-highest rung of the ladder. "

He laughed, either in sympathy or amusement at my apoplexy, or both. Now mind you, I haven't seen the study, so I'm one degree removed from the conclusions (much less the data), but here's my take on the notion that women opt out of senior leadership spots rather than being kept out of them by their leaders:

Yes - we do. We leave. Because of the pressure? Oh, give me a break. Not because of the pressure - because of BS level that comes with the territory.

Think about senior-level roles in corporations these days. I don't think that there are more politics in actual politics than there are in major corporations. It's a tough way to live - watching your back, attending to your alliances, spouting the party line and fighting your battles behind the scenes. Generally I stay away from sweeping generalizations about one gender or the other. But I feel comfortable saying this: women have a lower threshold for idiotic, posturing, political, inauthentic behavior, day in and day out. Women have a cognitive dissonance alarm that gets louder and louder day by day so that they finally conclude, “This isn't me. I can't keep doing this. I can't keep my mouth shut, go along, and play the good soldier for one more day, much less another fifteen years until retirement. " And that's just it - they're done.

They blow the whistle, like Sherron Watkins did at Enron, or they just take off. Can't take the pressure? Are you kidding me? Women who make it to the next-to-the-top rung of the ladder, the ones who are even in the position to decide between sticking it out and leaving, have already taken more pressure than most guys can even comprehend. They've smiled at enough gratuitous comments - walked the tightrope between telling the truth and drinking the company Kool-Aid - and slashed their way through enough uncharted territory to write a best-selling novel, or two. The most senior women I know are uniformly tough, articulate, smart, and incredibly flexible - they wouldn't have survived the last twenty years of corporate life any other way.

So why do they leave? Because they look at that top spot and say, It's not worth it. There is nothing there that I need, and the cost - to myself, to my family, to my relationships - is too high. It's not the blasted pressure! It's the internal compass that says, Enough. Can women run corporations successfully? Of course they can. But so many corporations don't hold enough promise, enough room to mature, to evolve, to be the sorts of places that successful women want to run, that the grass is simply greener in too many other places. At home, with kids or horses or whatever stirs you. In a startup venture, writing a novel, or starting a foundation for Somalian children. The need to be in control doesn't always overcome the need to do something important and useful, plus the need to be herself, and so the women depart. Wimps!

If I were a CEO looking at this study, I would say, This is wrong. If women truly are leaving corporations at the point of the pyramid just below the tip, that's a waste. We hired them, we trained them and entrusted big chunks of the business to them, and now we've lost them, so something is clearly amiss. Aren't our customers women? Aren't our shareholders women, and don't we believe, on the evidence and in our guts, that women should help to run this organization? So what is happening internally here that is turning them off, and how do we fix it?

That's the takeaway I'd love to see from this study. Let's not conclude,

There's no glass ceiling, so if women are leaving our organizations, what can we do about it? Oh well - better get back to work.

Let's say instead,

If the barrier isn't made of glass, but rather some toxic chemical that women won't expose themselves to, let's get rid of it and clean up our act. After all, if something is noxious to women, can it be healthy for anyone?

Send your views, observations and musings on women and the workplace to Liz at lizryan@worldwit.org.

Liz Ryan is a former Fortune 500 HR leader, a workplace expert and the founder of the global online network WorldWIT (http://www.worldwit.org ). She writes the workplace column for Business Week online, her own Business Mom and Job Jungle blogs at http://www.worldwit.org/blogs.aspx , and speaks internationally on women in the workplace, work and life, and the post-millennial corporate lifestyle. Liz lives in Boulder, Colorado with her husband and five children.

If you're looking for advice or have questions related to your job, just ask Liz! You can email Liz at lizryan@worldwit.org.

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