More than One Way to Turn the Tide

June 25, 2006

The Linda Hirshman Responds diary gave rise to a rich comment thread. In it, Brave teases out a piece of Hirshman’s message that resonates with me. She paraphrases Linda’s beef thusly:

And if there are no professional women hitting up against the glass ceiling, demanding that corporations change, there isn’t much hope of the change trickling down to affect other types of companies that follow what the larger corporations do. These are the women who have the power in corporations to make real changes, to change HR policies and benefits for real. If these women opt out of the work force, this tells men (and women for that matter and perhaps more importantly because those that reach the higher levels often forgo having children to get there) in power that there is “no need to take these demands for change seriously.”

To that, I’d say yes, no, and maybe. As usual, I think that’s plenty true, but there are other forces at work that will necessarily contribute to the tide turning. Here’s a few:

1. Shift in male attitudes spurred by the women in men’s lives.
My sister works in an industry with a notorious glass ceiling (biotech/Big Pharma), and she has reached a relatively high position within the company. She is pregnant with her first child, and has been extended all manner of sensitivity and flexibility, especially during her first trimester when she was so sick and tired. This treatment did not stem from corporate policy or from a critical mass of females at the highest levels, but rather from her supervisor–a married family man with enlightened views. I can only guess the forces that contributed to his modern mindset, but I’d venture the women closest to him (wife, mother, daughter, sister) were influential. The point I’m trying to make with this anecdote is that I believe change will happen in the way that Brave describes, but in many other ways beside, including a shift in male attitudes, “midwived” by the women in their lives.

2. Proliferation of women-owned businesses.
Women may indeed be opting out (in some sectors more than others) but many opt out to begin their own companies. There has been a meteoric rise in female-owned businesses. Since 1997, women have been starting their own businesses at twice the national rate. One in 11 adult women is an entrepreneur and one in seven employees works for a women-owned business. That’s nothing to sneeze at. As an aside, I listened to a roundtable discussion about female entrepreneurs, which was broadcast on the radio. One woman spoke about the research done into why people start their own business. The top two reasons cited by women were work/family balance and introducing a product/service for which they perceived a need. Oddly, “making money” did not rate as a top reason among the women surveyed, although that was a top reason among men.

3. Corporations/institutions wanting to maintain their competitive edge.
Skim this article for an itemized list of stats reflecting that women in top management and on boards leads to greater efficiency, accountability, productivity, and increased profits. I’ll highlight a few: 1. More women executives result in increased corporate earnings. 2. More women in management increases corporate insight to customers (makes sense…women are the primary consumers!) 3. More family-friendly corporate policies result in increased corporate growth and retention of both genders. Companies will ultimately ignore these trends at their own peril. Although the change will not happen fast enough for my tastes, I do believe that companies will adopt more family-friendly policies as a competitive adaptation. Eventually, the myth that family-friendly workplaces are less productive will be laid to rest. Strangely, it may be the free market that induces top execs take the “demands for change seriously.”