Monday, May 02, 2005

Executive Women: Boredom

The New York Times > Business > Your Money > Behind the Exodus of Executive Women: Boredom: "OMEN now outnumber men in managerial and professional positions, and most companies have installed policies that aim to help their leaders balance the demands of job and family.

Yet three decades after a woman first became chief executive of a Fortune 500 company, fewer than 2 percent of the biggest corporations are run by women. Executive recruiters and corporate boards could be forgiven for asking themselves why.

The answer, experts are beginning to conclude, has less to do with discrimination in the corporate suite or pressures at home than with frustration and boredom on the job. "Men will grit their teeth and bear everything, while women will say: 'Is this all there is? I need more than this!' " said Mabel M. Miguel, a professor of management at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Deborah Merrill-Sands, dean of the all-women Simmons School of Management in Boston, said that despite years of work, "the majority of corporations don't have a sense of how to retain high-potential women."

Big companies are starting to respond. Industrial powerhouses like General Electric, Procter & Gamble and I.B.M., as well as partnership firms like Booz Allen Hamilton, Ernst & Young and Deloitte & Touche, have all begun programs aimed at keeping women professionally engaged.

The results are starting to show, as more women who skipped out on companies that did not offer them intellectually challenging work resurface at companies that do.

Consider Zara F. Larsen, 48, who learned long ago to use e-mail messaging, telecommuting and other tools to juggle family responsibilities and work. She rotated through four major assignments in 10 years at United Technologies. Last year, feeling that her career had reached a plateau, she quit to pursue a doctorate in management. "I was no longer getting the intellectual stimulation I needed," she said.

An "irresistible" offer from Raytheon Missile Systems wooed her back to the corporate world: Take time to pursue your degree, the company said, but also be our director of enterprise effectiveness, responsible for shrinking costs, speeding up processes and otherwise changing the culture.

Such a tale should not surprise corporate executives. A decade ago, Procter & Gamble, plagued by an attrition rate that was twice as high for women as for men, asked the women it considered "regretted losses" - high performers whom it wanted to retain - about why they left.

The answer was that they did not feel valued. "Many said they didn't realize they were regretted losses until they were contacted for the survey," said Jeannie Tharrington, a spokeswoman for the company.

Deloitte had a greater comeuppance when it surveyed women on the partner track who had quit the firm in the 1990's. "It turned out that more than 90 percent of them were still employed, just not by us," recalled Cathleen A. Benko, who runs Deloitte's high-technology sector and its Initiative for the Retention and Advancement of Women. "So much for the idea that women stay home to run families."

That may surprise some people, but not the researchers at Catalyst, a nonprofit consulting business on Wall Street that focuses on women in the workplace. "All our research shows that women have the same ambitions to get to the top as men," said Ilene H. Lang, Catalyst's president.

But it is only in the last few years that companies have been acting on the knowledge. And their retention numbers are rising accordingly. Here are examples:

Procter has been training women in time management, in part to enable those with family pressures to accept "line" jobs - work that involves direct profit-and-loss responsibility for specific brands. By enabling women to accept those high-pressure and career-oriented spots, Ms. Tharrington said, Procter improved its retention of women by 25 percent over the last five years and increased the number who move from midlevel to senior jobs.

At I.B.M., women now hold 19 percent of executive jobs worldwide, and Jeannette Horan, a vice president, says she thinks she knows why. Ms. Horan, 49, worked for five companies before landing at I.B.M. in 1998. At each one, she said, "I'd get an itch to develop more skills, to make more of an impact, and I always had to move elsewhere to do that." In her seven years at I.B.M., she has had three assignments - all at her request - and expects to shift responsibilities again when she wants a new challenge.

G.E., like many other large companies, has women's networks, coaching and mentoring programs, and family-balance policies. But Susan P. Peters, vice president for executive development, says G.E.'s insistence that "everyone has quantity and quality to their work" may be most responsible for the fact that 15 percent of its officers are women, up from 9 percent in 1997.

Jeanne M. Rosario is a case in point. While rearing her two children, she worked truncated hours and even turned down a big promotion. But, she said, G.E. never put her on a mommy track. "They gave me as much work as I could handle; they always let me be the one to say, 'No more!' " she said. Ms. Rosario, 53, is vice president for commercial design and services engineering at G.E. Transportation, making her G.E.'s highest-ranking woman in technology.

In one sense, industrial companies have it easy because they have multiple routes to the top, many of which do not require being at a customer's beck and call. That makes them better able to provide scheduling flexibility with intellectually rigorous work.

That is trickier at professional firms, where the road to partnership has generally been closed to anyone unwilling to spend whatever hours - or go to whatever places - clients demand. Few firms are changing the rules for making partner. But many are loosening up on the time period usually associated with "up or out" policies.

Booz Allen Hamilton, for one, has a "ramp up, ramp down" policy that lets fast-tracked employees take timeouts from client work without scuttling their careers or moving to boring work. "You usually have about four years to make partner, but they froze my clock," said Ilona Steffen, 34, a principal at Booz with two small children. For now, she oversees market research studies, but says she expects to resume client work - and her climb toward partner - in a few years.

Ernst & Young, which maps high-profile assignments against a roster of partner-track employees to make sure that women are getting their fair share, has nonetheless eased up on up-or-out timetables.

When Alisa L. Kennedy became pregnant with her second child six years ago, she said, she resigned from Ernst because she worried that responsibilities at home would make her feel "inconsequential" at work.

Ernst wooed her back with a special project that let her move gradually into full-time work. Last year, 22 percent of Ernst's new partners were women; Ms. Kennedy was one of them. "Maybe it took a year longer to make partner, but so what?" she said. "Ernst let me take the reins to my career."

NOW Ernst wants people like Ms. Kennedy to spread the word. It has asked women partners to tell their stories at its women's leadership conferences, and it encourages employees to seek advice from others - including senior men - who work flexible hours.

"We have high-level men who routinely tell their staffs, 'I won't be around Monday afternoon; I'm going to my son's school,' " said Wendy Hirschberg, the firm's gender strategy leader. "That in itself tells women coming up the ranks that it is O.K. to have a life."

When left to their own devices, successful women say, they find ways to balance life and work - particularly because their clients or bosses may well be doing the same.

Ms. Benko of Deloitte says she remembers one week when her husband was out of town at the same time her main client's daughter was home from boarding school. "We took my kids and her kids to her weekend home" in Monterey, Calif., Ms. Benko said, "and they played while we worked."

Too often, management specialists say, women are denied this kind of choice - often by men who think they are acting in the women's best interests.

"Male executives who won't assign a high-maintenance client to a woman with kids think they are empathetic," said Dr. Candida G. Brush, the director of the Council for Women's Entrepreneurship and Leadership at Boston University, "when they are just being patronizing."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I had always thought that it was more of a discrimination against executive women. Very interesting post. I guess it makes a little sense. I have left 2 jobs just out of sheer boredom.