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Women Senior Execs Take A Wallop in the Downturn

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Two weeks ago, I delivered a keynote speech for a Fortune 500 company that, in the mid-1990s, was slammed with a high-profile class-action lawsuit alleging discrimination against 45,000 female workers. The suit said the company denied them equal pay, management opportunities, promotions and desirable job assignments. It alleged that some bosses demanded sexual favors from women. In the end, the company settled for more than $80 million.

Back in the day, no one would ever have heard the name of that company and “women’s leadership” spoken in the same breath. Now they are having events celebrating the cause. Was it a great event? Sure. But the CEO wasn’t there, nor were any of the highest-level executives who determine whether women’s leadership is an annual event or a corporate mission.

That’s a problem.

A recent Catalyst study of fast-track MBA graduates found that “A startling 19 percent of senior women lost their jobs versus just six percent of men.”

Okay, wait a minute. That’s three to one. What makes that number even more alarming is that women were already in short supply at the senior levels. The survey, done this spring, is a “snapshot” of what is going on with a group that represents our best and brightest talent among MBA graduates from 1996 to 2007. A Catalyst spokesperson said that the study showed the recession has hit men and women equally – but not women in senior leadership. Those women took a wallop.

“That is an astounding number,” said Maureen McGurl, former Executive Vice President of Human Resources for Stop and Shop, which employed about 85,000 people. She thinks that part of the problem is that women tend to rise into staff positions as opposed to operational ones, and those positions are more expendable.

 “Companies are so focused on making numbers month to month and quarter to quarter that development programs are taking a back seat,” said Joan Toth, executive director of the Network of Executive Women. “Leadership tends to hunker down and hire in their image or hire who they know rather than take a risk on people who may be in ‘stretch’ assignments. And, who they know are white men.”

Corporate leaders, who are mostly male, are turning back toward the tried-and-true. It’s not that they are saying, “Let’s freeze out the women and the blacks and the gays so us white boys can handle things.” They’re saying, “Who can help with this?” And they look around and see who’s around them, and well, it’s mostly white men.

“They are thinking, ‘Who do I work with? Who do I golf with? Who do I have a relationship with?’ While women have done a good job of cracking into it, they haven’t fully done it yet,” said McGurl, now president of Sutton Place HR Consulting Group. “I don’t think anyone is out there thinking, ‘I’m going to whack all these women.’

But women are getting whacked.

“Women need to be more aware of the threats that are out there and more strategic in sustaining their careers and their advancement,” said Lillie Richardella, CEO of the International Women’s Forum’s Leadership Foundation. “If change is going to happen, they are going to have to push the envelope and push themselves forward. Sitting back and waiting is not the answer because they’ll be sitting and waiting for a pink slip in this economy.”

Or in any economy. The good news is that women are playing ball. The bad news is, they aren’t in position to hit the homers. We can laud the many, many successes of women, but power still belongs to white men. Every year, Catalyst issues a report on how women are doing in the Fortune 500. It barely changes. Right now, women hold fewer than 15 percent of the seats on Fortune 500 corporate boards and only 15 women are CEOs at Fortune 500 companies. Let me twist that around. Men hold 97 percent of the top CEO jobs and 85 percent of the top board positions. If women don’t hold those senior positions, nothing is going to change.

How does that play out in the office?

How can women advance in a crazy climate like this? By pushing harder than ever. By networking and making friendships with the people who matter. By overperforming and overdelivering. We’ve come this far because we’ve only begun to learn to network and propel one another. Now it is time to leverage our friendships and brainstorm ideas and strategies that can propel our companies.

“In this environment, you need to change your mindset and think like the CEO of your pyramid,” said Kathleen Guion, executive vice president and division president of store operations for Dollar General Corporation. “That means taking a look -- a hard look -- at every potential opportunity you have to improve the business. Deny the status quo and rethink what this new environment is going to mean, not only for the next 18 months, but for the ‘out’ years…The world is a different place. What’s critical these days is understanding what that new world is about and how you are going to fit into it.”

Don’t share small talk. Share ideas. Contribute. Inspire others to contribute. Lead. Work like hell and make sure those who can advance your career know what you are doing. Help other women. It doesn’t matter who gets “there” first. Someone needs to get there to help bring the next woman along. Otherwise, things will never change.