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Women and work: There’s always a job for social engineers

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From page A2 | May 15, 2012 | Leave Comment

Are these attempts at social engineering ever going to end?

Apparently not when it comes to women and the workforce.

To review: Women now make up the majority of recipients of undergraduate, graduate and even doctoral degrees awarded in the U.S. each year. On average, young college-educated women in most major cities out-earn their male peers, often significantly. The list goes on.

Still, The Wall Street Journal convened a conference recently on Women in the Economy. “Unlocking the full potential of women at work” was the title of a white paper commissioned by the Journal for the conference. Produced by Joanna Barsh and Lareina Yee of the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, it’s well-researched — and fascinating. But probably not for reasons Barsh and Yee want it to be.

Sure, it had some interesting findings, including that women don’t typically ask to be promoted into “stretch” roles like male peers do, nor are they as likely to seek mentors at work.

Note to my daughters: Be prepared to step it up in these areas if corporate success is what you want.

But are women allowed to want what they want?

The authors note that while there is still a gender disparity in corporate America at the highest levels, the vast majority of the companies they researched seek to advance women, even into those highest levels. That’s just good business sense. So, for the most part, the authors weren’t beating up on American business.

However, they were busy subtly beating up on women. For instance, most men and women midlevel employees, they found, desire to get to the next level in their organization. But 36 percent of men and only 18 percent of women answered yes to the question, “If anything were possible, I would choose to advance to C-level (CEO, CFO, etc.) management.”

Uh-oh. Wrong answer for the gals.

The authors found that in spite of an investment in women at many firms, frequently “. . . women opted for staff roles, quit, retired or even settled in. Hard-won advances to the executive committee were often followed by departures.” Note some key information: Firms are investing in women and trying to get them to go higher and further. Still, women often freely choose to say “no, thanks,” sometimes after they’ve gotten to the top itself. And that’s a problem, say these authors.

But a problem for whom?

Barsh and Yee reiterated what they found in a previous report, that there are four main “stubborn barriers” to women’s advancement, including lifestyle choices. So, for instance, a woman’s choice to forgo pursuing the brass ring so she can spend more time and energy on her family — a choice no matter how well-informed and free — is now a barrier to be overcome, and a stubborn one at that.

A second is structural. The authors say that sometimes a CEO’s commitment to women was not borne out by the number of women advanced at the firm. But what if that’s the choice of the women, and not the CEO? The third and fourth barriers are individual and institutional mindsets: “Used to successful executives being — and acting like — men, leaders inadvertently hold women to the same standards of behavior.” That is, expecting them to actively pursue “stretch” roles, which they don’t do as often as the guys.

Ahh, now we’re talking. We agree that men and women are different.

What the elites don’t like is how these differences often play out. In fact, the authors note that these four barriers are deeply intertwined and “even harder to eliminate than we had thought.” Ouch.

Look, many women simply choose to slow down or change their work life in favor of their families. Ironically, when a man does the same, the elite culture praises him. Women, well, that has to be fixed.

The conclusion said it all: The authors note that helping talented women develop and advance helps companies, and no doubt women, too. “But,” they write, “too many women don’t want to reach the top. Many love what they do and believe they are making a difference where they are.”

To certain folks, this is a problem to be solved, not a cause for celebration. So then, we do know one thing for sure: When it comes to gender differences, there will always be jobs for the social engineers.

Betsy Hart is the author of the new ebook, “From The Hart: A Collection of Favorite Columns on Love, Loss, Marriage (and Other Extreme Sports).” Reach her through hartmailbox-mycolumn@yahoo.com.

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