Quarterly Journal on Management
From the publishers of THE HINDU BUSINESS LINE
Vol. 2 :: Iss. 4 :: November 1999
Porus P. Munshi
GLASS Ceilings and Maternal Walls are blocks faced by women in organisations. Glass Ceilings are invisible barriers that prevent women from reaching the top positions in management. They operate usually through Double Binds or Catch 22s that effectively tie them down. Maternal Walls are the career problems women face when they choose maternity, because a child and a career are seen as mutually exclusive - at least for women.
Having a child forces women to drop out of the organisational race for a period. Their return is not as easy as one would like to think it is. First, her old position may have been filled. Next, in technology sensitive industries, her knowledge may have become dated. Third, she may now have a new boss to whom she has to prove herself all over again - this time with the handicap of also having to care for a demanding infant.
The cost of employing women in management is greater than the cost of employing men because women tend to drop out when they have babies and the cost incurred in terms of time, effort and money spent in grooming them for a senior position goes waste. When Felice N. Schwartz made the above assertion in the Harvard Business Review (Jan-Feb l989), she created an uproar. Especially because she is the President of Catalyst - a non-profit organisation that promotes the productive utilisation of women in corporations and the professions.
Is this assertion true? Schwartz goes on to clarify that there are 2 types of women in management: I. The career-primary woman, and II. The career-and-family woman. We can add a third type: III. The homeward-bound woman. The first kind is as committed, driven, and as willing to sacrifice family for career as any man. These women are the potential top executives - CEOs and COOs. Even if they choose to have a baby, they're quite content leaving the baby in someone else's care and return to work as soon as possible after delivery. All obstacles should be removed from these women's path. They are potentially among the organisation's greatest assets because they will be the mentors for the next generation of women who enter.
Currently, women in management are handicapped by not having mentors to guide them and canvass for them in senior management. If a woman has a male mentor, gossip usually links them both romantically, and any canvassing on her behalf is seen in this light. This can create stresses in the mentor-protege relationship - especially if both are married. A top female executive, on the other hand, is an ideal mentor for a young woman because she can not only effectively canvass for her, but can also understand the kinds of problems her protege faces as these are likely to be the same kind that she's faced herself.
The third type of working woman is usually the one that men use as the brush to paint all women with. These women work for about 6-7 years, from age 22 to about 28/29 and then leave to have a baby and never return. This type is increasingly in the minority, but since prejudice operates through generalisations, this serves as the standard. Even if only one woman leaves to have a baby and doesn't return, it becomes generalised to "All women quit once they have babies. For example, take X. She left to have a baby and didn't return".
The second type - the career-and-family woman is now becoming the majority. These women return after having a baby, and now want to focus on both home and career. They're willing to make sacrifices on both fronts, but usually end up with enormous guilt and stress. They work lesser hours than their colleagues at work and spend less time with their baby at home than other mothers do. And yet, they have absolutely no time left over for themselves. They're caught in a vicious circle of work and home. At work when they leave early, they're resented, and at home, they don't get enough time to meet their child's requirements.
Current organisational practices being more male oriented, don't take this category's needs into account. This is a mistake because some of the most talented, creative and productive people are found here. The organisation loses a lot of potential high- fliers who choose the 'mommy-track' and get demotivated because their new needs are just not being met.
While Glass Ceilings and Maternal Walls affect both types of women in varying degrees, the type-II usually has to face the brunt of both blocks.
The Double Bind
The following passage from Yes Minister (Johnathan Lynn, BBC) demonstrates the double bind in operation:"In principle, we (top male civil servants) were all in favour of equal rights for the ladies...the problem lay in recruiting the right sort of women. Married women with families tend to drop out because they cannot give their work their full single-minded attention and unmarried women with no children are not fully rounded individuals with a thorough understanding of life... it is rarely possible to find a married woman with 3 children who is prepared to devote virtually her entire life night and day to a government department." Very convenient - for men.
The Double Bind is a term coined by Gregory Bateson who gives the following necessary ingredients for a double bind situation (Towards a Theory of Schizophrenia; Bateson et al; Behavioural Science; vol.I, no.4; 1956):
1) Two or more persons, of which one is the designated victim -
women in our case
Let's consider an example : A woman wanting to go home early to nurse her baby. i) Primary negative injunction: if you don't stay behind to help, you are contemptible. ii) Secondary injunction (non-verbal): In the first place, women should be at home nursing babies, not working over here. iii) Tertiary negative injunction: a) After all that we've done for you, how can you say you don't like it here? (guilt, thanklessness) b) You know how much we value you and want you to make a career with us (we love you, don't go away). The poor woman is damned if she goes, condemned if she doesn't, and is not permitted to change the situation.
Let's examine some of the more common double binds in operation.
Career/Husband-Baby double bind
When a woman marries, she's watched closely because it's expected to be just a matter of time before she leaves to have a baby. In effect, from the time she marries, most organisations don't look at her prospects as being stable for more than a year or two. On the other hand, if she doesn't marry, she's considered to be a frustrated spinster. And if she's assertive, confident and assured, there may even be rumours of her being a lesbian dyke.
As Kathleen Hall Jamieson says (Beyond the Double Bind; Oxford University Press;1995), "Historically, the childless woman was assumed to be defective, either an asexual spinster or a lesbian. The childless married (working) woman was presumed to be so power-driven and selfish that she deliberately sacrificed her child bearing role for her profession."
American Gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Brown on the problems of being a female candidate (1993): "If we are single, they say we couldn't catch a man. If we are married, they say we're neglecting him. If we are divorced, they say we couldn't keep him. If we are widowed, they say we killed him."
The following extract from a recent article (The Hindu; Science and Technology supplement dated August 19, 1999) on Indian born French Scientist Prof. M. A. Vijayalakshmi, illustrates the double bind in operation in more ways than one: "Prof. Vijayalakshmi... had to break all the shackles of religious, cultural and traditional restrictions for women... Getting wedded to science but to no one else, she served science with tremendous zeal and dedication....she treats her students like her children..". Perhaps it was necessary to add that last line to make it clear that Prof.Vijayalakshmi is no 'power-driven and selfish scientist who has deliberately sacrificed her child bearing role for her profession.' We can't imagine a similar line being added on for a man.
Speak Out/Keep Quiet double bind
When women complain about their situation at work or about the problems they're having with their immediate superior, they're seen as being the complaining type. 'She's always complaining' is the common refrain, and usually no steps get taken to amend the situation. If she doesn't complain, she has to continue in a situation she's powerless to change. This affects both her productivity and loyalty to the organisation.
Young/Old double bind
As men grow older, they get more powerful, more respected. As women grow older, they become 'menopausal'. When young, they are 'girls' and when older, 'menopausally frustrated'. There's a very narrow width of age acceptance for women. Below 30-35 they're girls, and above 42 they're supposed to be well on their way to menopause, and consequent permanent decline. This attitude is not limited to organisations. Recently a daughter who has both parents working in senior positions told me that she considers her father to be strong and mature, but her mother to be 'getting cranky and senile because she's approaching menopause'.
Middle age (45-55) is called the Command Generation because at this stage, people are at their most powerful - emotionally, financially and professionally. This Command is denied to women because of the supposed effects menopause has on them. As recently as 1970, US Congressional committee member and physician Dr. Edgar Berman said that the "raging hormonal influences" caused by the menstrual cycle and menopause should exclude women from executive responsibility. He goes on to say, "All things being equal, I would still rather have had a male JFK make the Cuban missile crisis decisions than a female of similar age who could possibly be subject to the curious mental aberrations of that age group." Most people today may not be this outspoken, but the same biases remain.
Masculine/Feminine behaviour double bind
Women in organisations cannot act like women nor can they act like men. If they act like men, they are considered to be unfeminine. If they act feminine, they are considered to be weak. A very narrow bandwidth of acceptable behaviour exists. They have to be lady-like and refrain from doing the things men do to gather power and control. Assertiveness and aggression is valued in men but not in women.
Further reinforcements of the Glass Ceiling Glass Ceilings are reinforced by emphasising the differences between the sexes and by playing gender-roles. Some of the ways in which this is done are attribution, presumed male ability and transactional analysis.
Attribution: Women rarely get credit for what they do. It's always either a fluke or an accident, or somebody else did it and she took the credit. If a man gets promoted, it's because of ability. If a woman gets promoted, she slept her way to the top.
In a classic experiment in 1968 (Michele A.Paludi & Lisa A. Strayer; What's In An Author's Name; Sex Roles; Mar/Apr 1985), men and women were asked to evaluate the intelligence, persuasiveness and style of a set of essays. The subjects were told that the essays were written either by John T. Mckay or J. T. Mckay or Joan T. Mckay. Although they were identical, Joan's essays received consistently lower ratings from both men and women than John's. The experiment was repeated in 1985 with the same results.
Just Like a Man - the ultimate compliment Most men think that the ultimate compliment that can be paid to a woman (in terms of her professionalism) is to call her a man. As Golda Meir writes (My Life; G. P. Putnam's Sons; 1975), "A story... once went the rounds of Israel to the effect that Ben-Gurion described me as the 'only man' in his cabinet. What amused me about it was that obviously he...thought that this was the greatest possible compliment that could be paid to a woman. I very much doubt that any man would have been flattered if I had said about him that he was the only woman in the government".
This kind of attitude assumes that in a man, ability is in-born but a woman has to work hard to acquire it. By virtue of gender, a man will be expected to have no trouble with a given task, while a woman will most probably fail. The Set-Up-To-Fail syndrome that plagues a number of organisations usually begins with such assumptions.
Transactional Analysis: In TA terms, "The behaviour of any individual in a group at any given moment can be classified into one of 3 categories... Parent, Adult, Child" (Eric Berne; The Structure and Dynamics of Groups; Lippencott;1963). Men tend to group together, and with unconscious mutual consent play Dominating Parent to the woman's Adapted Child. When men talk to each other, they talk as Adults. When they talk to women they often talk as Parents.
Women often respond by playing the "Why Don't You...Yes But" game (for a detailed description see Eric Berne's Games People Play). In effect, women usually come out with a problem and invite solutions/suggestions. To each suggestion she responds with a "Yes But...". In this, she plays a Child, but the usual outcome is that the 'Parent' never succeeds at being Parent because each suggestion is turned down. "While each move...brings its own little pleasure in rejecting the suggestion, the real pay-off is the silence ... which ensues when all the others have... grown tired of trying to think of acceptable solutions. This signifies (to the woman) and to the others that she has won by demonstrating it is they who are inadequate." The consequence of this is usually that the losers (men in this case) resent their loss and tend to label the woman as a 'Whiner' - a part of the problem; not part of the solution. Thus, both get a payoff: The woman at having put the men down and the men at having their opinion of women as ineffective complainers confirmed.
Thus, again, gender roles get played here when management is supposed to be androgynous or non-gender specific. What should the organisation do to help women employees achieve their potential? Be sensitive to the double binds discussed above. Each limits the contribution an individual woman manager can make. It is a biological fact that only women have babies and it is a sociological fact that for a long time only men worked in managerial positions. Management has therefore been organised and run by men for men. Today, with more and more women entering management, there has to be a basic shift in organisational methods and practices to accommodate their differing needs, without necessarily cutting down on productivity or profitability.
Restructure work patterns for type-III women. They need more flexible time arrangements, and perhaps, part-time work. With part-time work, organisations actually benefit. They not only get the person's experience and knowledge at reduced cost - most women are ready to take a cut in earnings for more flexible working hours, they also get her loyalty.
Institute job sharing where two people are responsible for one job. As Felice N. Schwartz suggests, (Harvard Business Review; Jan-Feb 1989), "Two contacts means that the customer has continued access to the company's representatives without interruptions for vacations, travel or sick leave. The two people holding the job can cover for each other.
Restructure organisational hierarchies as Schwartz suggests in her book Breaking with Tradition (Warner books; 1992). Present hierarchies are in the form of a pyramid, where the philosophy is: 'Lead, Follow, or Get Out Of The Way '. Get out of the way usually means leave the organisation. There's no time for resting, catching your breath or recuperating. If this structure is replaced by the jungle gym, it will allow people to step off on a branch for a while and then come back into the mainstream. A number of companies abroad are allowing employees, both male and female, to do this. As a matter of fact, some corporations like Xerox send employees on one year paid sabbaticals and even pick up the tab. Employees are encouraged to travel, visit foreign countries, go for study courses, whatever. The idea is that when they return, they will be richer for their experiences and will thus contribute more to the organisation's growth. An AMA survey of top HR executives finds that they consider flexitime and sabbaticals to be more effective retention tools than cash payoffs (HR Focus, Jun 1999).
Finally, look at things differently. The present rules and methods of working exist because they have always existed in this way. That doesn't mean that things can't be different. As Abraham Maslow says, (The Farther Reaches of Human Nature; The Viking Press; 1971), "Blindness to future possibilities, change, development, or potentialities leads inevitably to a kind of status quo philosophy in which 'what is'... (is)... taken as the norm.". According to Maslow, failing to see potentialities for further development because of the way something exists now, is like 'failing to see that a child can grow into adulthood given a chance'.
In conclusion, women in management face a set of problems that hamper them. As more women work, old management practices will necessarily have to change to accommodate their needs. The organisations that don't change will lose these skilled, creative employees who will be snapped up by competitors who do change. As the economy becomes more knowledge and service based, the cost of these losses will soon become unacceptably high.
The author is a Chennai-based HR consultant. He can be contacted at email@example.com.