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Dr. Peggy Drexler Headshot

Do Corporate Women's Groups Matter?

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I was talking to the young daughter of a friend. She had just earned her MBA from a top school and was about to take a job with a big-name technology company.

I told her: "I have a good friend there. It's great place for women. She's president of the Women's Leadership group." Whereupon I offered an introduction.

After an uncomfortable pause, she said: "I'm going to sound arrogant. I just got top marks at a school that most people can't even get in. I was picked over something like 300 candidates for this job. I beat out a lot of men to get it. I don't think I need extra help. In fact, a lot of women I know see those groups as a distraction -- just a place to go to complain. I've even heard that being too active in them hurts your relationship with male co-workers."

When you add up all the recent gender scorecards, she has a point. Given world-shaking female progress, why women and not a club for left-handers?

Numbers of women equal or are surpassing men in virtually all the professional schools. New Census figures show that working women are, on the whole, better educated than men. Female managers at the entry and mid level are roughly 50-50 with men.

Men were disproportionately hammered by the recession -- some call it the "mancession" -- because they were concentrated in hard-hit industries and their higher-salaries made them a target of opportunity for the cost-cutters.

We're starting to see the term "gender fatigue." We've been talking so long about female equality in the workplace that it feels like arguing that women should have the right to vote.

No doubt, we've traveled some distance from the days when women who joined corporations were simply tossed into the steno pool to tread water -- until they married, left, and never returned.

But why, despite the progress, are companies still losing talented women at a rate that has caused the thought-leaders to invest in ambitious efforts to retain them. The ultra-cynical might say it's an investment that is nice to trot out for class-action suits. More realistically, companies see a talent drain in an era of globalization. Some ten years ago, McKenzie & Company labeled the competition for the best talent a "war."

Like most ideas that quickly acquire their own buzz words, the "opt out revolution" that hit the headlines several years ago, and had women fleeing corporations in droves, has been overstated. Women leave for many reasons -- family being the main one.

Still, says one Catalyst study, a third of women who left corporations departed because they didn't feel they were taken seriously. Many are quitting to start their own businesses. The entrepreneurial urge can strike anyone. But according to California's Cheskin Research, women are striking out on their own at twice the rate of men.

Blatant discrimination has legal recourse, and most companies have evolved to a state of gender-blindness in policy and practice. But large organizations have been devising exclusions for those who don't fit the mold a lot longer than we've been trying to defeat them. Culture is subtle.

Writing in Salon, Caryl Rivers says that the much-heralded moves of women into top spots isn't always what it appears. "Women's gains," she argues," are hard-won and easily lost." She points to a Yale study that found that small mistakes were more likely to knock a woman out of a senior position than they would a man -- a phenomenon known as "the glass cliff." Carly Fiorina may have tumbled off one at HP. A team of British researchers also found that women tend to be appointed over qualified men to positions at the top when there was a high risk of failure.

As in physics, for every expert opinion there is an equal and opposite expert opinion. But, still, there are indications that, differences company to company duly noted, the reality of gender equality in American corporations falls short of the sunny pronouncements.

Or as I told my friend's newly "MBA'ed" daughter: "Before you write off a women's leadership group, ask a few of the members: "Why do you need it?"

A decade or so from now -- with fairer representation of women in top leadership positions -- that question may finally be irrelevant. Until then, it can't hurt to ask.