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The Real Reason So Few Women Are in the Boardroom

By Marty Nemko

On average, women are rated as slightly better managers than men. Also, women better understand the female consumer’s mindset. That’s important because women make most purchases. So why are only 11% of Fortune-500 senior executives women?

The standard answer is “glass ceiling,” a term that evokes the image of a cabal of top male executives scheming to preserve an old boy’s club.

While vestiges of old-boy hiring may remain, most top executives at Fortune 500 companies are too worried about the bottom line to let any clubby cravings affect who they hire as senior executives.

The primary reason for the 11% figure is that men, on average, are willing to devote more time to their career. And time it takes. A study conducted by The Business Roundtable, an association of CEOs, found that the average CEO works 58 hours per week. Fortune 500 CEOs likely work even more.

Unlike in typical media portrayals, few male senior executives spend much time hang-gliding. In the real world, here’s how it more often plays out, as reported to me by my many clients who are male senior executives. Their exercise is more likely to be on a treadmill while doing professional reading. If he’s married, when wife urges him to do more of the domestic chores and parenting, he is likely to say something like, “I want to rise to the top and you want me to, too. I like my work and you like our lifestyle. That requires lots of evenings and weekends. I spend as much time with the family as I can.”

Most women make different choices. The October 10, 2004 lead story on 60 Minutes and the September 2003 New York Times Magazine story documented that a majority even of Ivy- and Stanford-educated female alumni did not work full time. Harvard Business School reports that only 38% of its female MBA graduates, during their childbearing years, work full-time.

Dr. Warren Farrell, author of the forthcoming book, Why Men Earn More (Amacom, 2005) found that a key reason men earn more than women is number-of-hours worked. In addition to providing abundant statistics, he interviewed a number of successful senior executive women. Each one stated that crucial to their success was their willingness to work longer than most women are. For example,

When I interviewed Lillian Vernon, (of Lillian Vernon Corporation), she said, “Many people who dream about their own businesses and don’t have one, are not prepared to work that hard—to think about their job while they’re getting dressed, showering, waiting for somebody— to think of every minute as an opportunity.”

Theresa Metty, senior VP at Motorola agreed, “Successful people don’t see after-hour ‘demands’ as demands, but as opportunities. The opportunity to surprise, invent, create…”

All this doesn’t surprise me. Having been career coach to 2,000 professional clients, 2/3 female, I know that more women than men prioritize work/life balance, wanting more time for family, home, friends, and recreation.

In the privacy of my office, many capable, highly educated women who, in public, may mouth politically correct mantras decrying the dearth of women in the boardroom, admit that what they’d really like is to work part-time if at all, and only on a pleasant job, so they can have ample time for home, family, friends, etc. Far fewer women than men are willing to work 58+ hours a week and to take work home or do extensive after-work professional development activities during evenings and weekends.

Steven Rhoades, author of the new book, Taking Sex Differences Seriously, cites study after study indicating that the main reason most women want ample family time is their biological drive to have children and be the primary family caregiver. Feminist activists argue that is social conditioning by “the male hegemony.” But if that were true, then why do women take on most family caregiving in every society from Iceland to New Guinea, in every era from ancient times to today, and in all political contexts from communist to capitalist? Women’s desire to prioritize family caregiving is mainly biological predisposition, not cultural brainwashing.

Some women argue that it’s men’s fault that women don’t spend more time at work. For example, Career Journal senior correspondent Perri Capell wrote, “If more women had men at home doing for them what women traditionally do for men, they might be able to stay at the office longer.”

Fact is, many women don’t do it for men. They do it for themselves. On average, it is women, more than men, who want to have children. So it is unfair of them to insist that the men share heavily in the child rearing.

It is the woman, on average, who cares more about having lots of time with children (And the data doesn't support the importance of that--after controlling for socioeconomic status, quantity of time matters little.Quality of time does). Even many wealthy women, who could afford and have access to high-quality child care, choose to forego that so they can be with their children. If quantity of family time matters more to women, it is unfair for them to impose that value on their husbands.

And regarding domestic chores, most men aren't as concerned about a tastefully decorated and sparkling clean home. On average, women care more about this.

It is unfair for women to force men to spend time on what the woman wants. If a man were to insist that a woman devote equal time to the things he cares about--for example, financial and tax issues, that fix-it/build-it project, or playing basketball, most people would think that unfair, selfish. Yet when women do it, we’re expected to consider it reasonable.

I predict that if women--before they got married--informed their career-minded future husbands that they insist he fully share domestic and child-rearing responsibilities and that they don’t expect to earn much money, many men would decide it isn't worth getting married. So, most women withhold those demands until afterwards.

A 2004 study by Catalyst, a women’s advocacy organization, found that women aspire to senior executive positions at the same rate as men. But a woman (or a man) can’t have it both ways. If she wants a moderate workweek, for the reasons I will outline below, she cannot fair-mindedly aspire to the boardroom.

Corporations, governments, and non-profits need plenty of good 20 to 40 hour-a-week workers, but not in the top spots. Here’s why.

Imagine you were the CEO of a company and were considering two employees for a senior position. Candidate A had—over her or his 20-year career--worked 50 to 60 hours a week, and in spare time, made great efforts to keep upgrading skills. Meanwhile, Candidate B worked 40 hours a week, and in spare time, focused on family, home, friends, and recreation, and had taken years off to raise children—thereby losing professional contacts and currency with the latest information and technology. You’d almost certainly hire Candidate A. Fact is, more men than women are like Candidate A. That, and not a sexist glass ceiling, is the main reason why women represent only 11% of senior executives in Fortune 500 companies.

But let’s say that you, the CEO, did what feminist activists advocate: install a family-friendly workplace that prioritizes work-life balance, and hired many women who had worked only 40 hours a week and taken years off to raise children. You might hire lots of people like Candidate B. If so, your company would likely go out of business.

Here’s why. Your competitors would hire lots of Candidate A’s. That would result not only in those senior executives--the company’s more important people--being more productive, but their supervisees too. Dedicated, passionate leadership is infectious.

A company with such committed employees is an exciting, passion-filled place. The argument that working more than 40 hours a week is ineffective and leads to burnout is not true. What leads to burnout is meaningless or too difficult work in a passionless workplace, not additional hours of meaningful, doable work in a passionate environment. Some of the most alive people I know work long hours. The argument that working more than 40 hours a week leads to burnout is unsupported by sound research. Such rhetoric is a shoot-from-the-hip pitch that feminist advocates use to sell work-life balance to employers. We all know how being around dedicated people makes us more energized, not less.

A workplace with long, hard-working passionate people results in the company’s products being better or more cost-effective, which makes thousands of people--the customers--happier. Aren’t you grateful when your home, TV, car, etc., is wonderful, reliable, and didn’t cost too much? Creating excellent products, in turn, causes a company’s profits to grow, which allows the company to invest in more innovation, provides money to the thousands of shareholders who entrusted their savings to the company, and increases the sense of pride and passion among the company’s employees.

Meanwhile, your employees, mostly Candidate Bs, zealots for work-life balance, in the short-run, will appreciate being able to leave work earlier than workers at your competitors’ companies. When, in the middle of a brainstorming meeting, someone says, “Sorry, I have a parent-teacher conference. I have to leave,” and you say, “Fine,” everyone will smile at how family-friendly their workplace is. But inside, those with passion about their work will feel that passion just slightly diminished. Each such event—for example, every time an employee takes advantage of the Family Leave Act-- diminishes your workplace’s passion just a little more. A number of your employees, who had taken years off to raise a family, are less up-to-date and lack current professional contacts. In the intermediate term, your employees will be working for a company in decline because their competitors, filled with more passionate, dedicated, more knowledgeable, better connected employees, are producing a better product. And in the long-term, such companies are far more likely to go out of business, leaving your boardroom with 0 percent women and 0 percent men.

The media’s headline message is, “Hire more women and make the workplaces more family-friendly. Stop demanding that executives work 50 to 60 hours a week. Be more like France that mandates a 35-hour average workweek.” The media is far less eager to trumpet the fact that despite France having a better educated population and 35-hour work week, its unemployment rate is more than twice the US rate and there’s talk of changing the law. Advocating “family-friendly, work-life balance” workplaces will likely create different headlines a few years from now: “More jobs offshored to India. “More companies open new facilities in China.” “Unemployment soars.”

For the reasons stated at the outset, if I were a CEO, I would certainly want to hire women in senior positions, but only those with a proven track record of having put in long hours at work and in professional development, and who could be counted on to continue doing so. Those are the same criteria I would use to evaluate male candidates.

Women, if you want to be considered for the boardroom, it doesn’t cut it to say you’re working smart so you needn’t work long hours. There are plenty of men competing for those slots who work both long and smart. You can’t have it both ways: either plan on working long and smart or accept a lower-level job in exchange for work/life balance.

There would be plenty of room in my company for women and men who want to work a moderate workweek, but not at the top. I don’t care whether my executives have a y chromosome, but I want their priority not to be work-life balance, but rather, helping my company to ethically develop the best products in the world.

Dr. Marty Nemko is a career coach in Oakland, CA. 400+ of his published writings are free on www.martynemko.com.

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