One Giant Step for a Woman, One Small Step for Womankind

"The feminist victim myth ... received a resounding blow last week with the appointment of Carly Fiorina as the new president and CEO of Hewlett-Packard." -- conservative author Diana Furchtgott-Roth (Investor's Business Daily, 7/29/99)In the last months of the 20th Century, business reporters discovered a feel-good phenomenon -- the shattered glass ceiling for women in corporate America. At the epicenter of this "great news for the ladies" trend story -- which spanned the national, regional, business and Internet media -- was Carleton ("Carly") Fiorina, chosen in July 1999 as the CEO of the global computer giant, Hewlett Packard.As the first female CEO of a Fortune 50 company, the third of a Fortune 500 company, and the first woman to head a DOW 30 tech company, Fiorina is certainly a trailblazer--but she's far from representative. Yet to many news outlets, Fiorina's selection "signaled the beginning of the end for the glass ceiling that many women believe keeps them out of top posts."(Cleveland Plain Dealer, 8/10/99) The way Time saw it (8/2/99), Fiorina's appointment was "arguably more important" than Sandra Day O'Connor's nomination as the first female Supreme Court justice or Geraldine Ferraro's bid for the vice-presidency.We learned that HP's head honcho "cracked" (Christian Science Monitor, 8/4/99), "crashed" (Time, 8/2/99) and even "shattered" (New York Times, 8/22/99) the glass ceiling, proving that corporate America welcomes women at every level. Put succinctly, "ambitious women can eye Fiorina's coup and dream they might not ever have to bump up against a glass ceiling." (Chicago Daily Herald, 7/22/99)The broken glass refrain ran through coverage like a broken record, fueled by the constant repetition of Fiorina's own denials of workplace gender discrimination: "I hope that we are at a point where everyone has figured out that there is not a glass ceiling," she said at a press conference announcing her new position. To Fiorina, gender bias is "a luxury companies can no longer afford. Everyone has figured that out."Fiorina later contradicted herself, telling NBC's Today show (11/16/99) that while she doesn't believe she's ever been held back because of her gender, she "experienced, in my career, everything you would expect me to have experienced. I've been harassed. I've been called a bimbo. I've been told 100 times I couldn't do something.... But I never believed it. It was their problem, not mine."Women's belief in or disavowal of corporate sexism was a significant theme permeating coverage. A female Air Force retiree explained women's professional situation this way: "The only glass ceiling that exists is the glass ceiling in [a woman's] mind." (Riverside, Calif. Press Enterprise, 10/1/99). Those women who think bias is more than a psychological illusion were criticized repeatedly by a trade magazine as "professional gender advocates" who cling to the "feminist victim myth" and refuse to recognize that "women may never reach parity with men at the highest level of corporate America for one simple reason: Many do not want to." (Investor's Business Daily, 7/29/99, 10/4/99).Reporters Confused After riding around the Comdex computer conference with Fiorina for his NBC Nightly News series "Breaking Through: Women on the Job" (11/15/99), Tom Brokaw concluded, "In the high-tech jungle, she gets no extra points for gender. Only the strong and the smart survive, man or woman." The seeming implication: Now that women are breaking through to the highest echelons of corporate power, they no longer require, nor are they given, "special treatment." But women who complained that glass ceilings held them back professionally never asked to be (nor were they ever) rewarded for being female - they simply demanded not to be denied equal opportunity because of gender.This type of confusion about women's professional experiences carried over into reports of the current status of women in corporate America. News outlets, ever-eager to affirm the notion of an equal corporate playing field, were far more likely to pronounce the glass ceiling shattered than they were to explain the concept itself. The phrase "glass ceiling" was adopted to describe invisible, institutional barriers that have historically held women back from advancing up the corporate ladder. Whether overt (i.e., business deals conducted at men's clubs, pay inequity, etc.) or covert (i.e., seasoned female executives losing promotions to men they trained, sexual harassment, etc.), collectively these barriers have resulted in a real dearth of women at the highest levels in business.Certainly, the role of women in the business world has not remained static. Over the years, family-friendly policies, codes against sexual harassment and efforts to capitalize on female talent have contributed to a growing number of women in senior management. Also noteworthy are the 9.1 million women-owned businesses, which, though often small, collectively employ 27.5 million people, according to the National Foundation for Women Business Owners.Yet despite these steady gains, women are still vastly underrepresented in upper management. Women make up 46 percent of the U.S. labor force, yet as recent studies by the research firm Catalyst show, they are only approximately 11 percent of Fortune 500 corporate officers, occupy only 671 of 6,064 Fortune 500 corporate board seats, are just 3.3 percent of corporate top earners, and receive on average 75 percent of men's salaries.The situation is no brighter in the technology sector, which Fiorina describes as "too competitive" to get bogged down by bias. Contrary to much ink spilled about women benefiting from the Internet's supposedly non-hierarchical, gender-blind sensibility, technology companies have actually been quite slow to promote women. Only 7 percent of top officers in Fortune 500 tech firms are female, and research by executive-search firm Spencer Stuart found that women hold a scant 2 percent of corporate board seats in 200 top Internet companies (Time, 8/2/99; CNN Morning News, 11/12/99).Many news outlets were quick to mention one or two of these statistics, only to gloss over them in favor of the all-important theme of unfettered female advancement. Fortune's cover story ("These Women Rule," 10/25/99) ranking and praising the top 50 most powerful female executives --Fiorina weighed in at #1 -- included a paragraph that began with the Catalyst and Spencer Stuart findings, but by the third sentence asked, "But as this year's Power 50 shows, [women] have made significant progress. What's fueling it?" (Fortune's answer: female power-brokers are making great strides largely due to "a talent shortage" among qualified men.)The New York Times similarly obfuscated statistics: "With more than a quarter of Hewlett Packard's managers women ... it seemed incontestable that the glass ceiling that stops the rise of female executives at so many other companies had been shattered." (8/22/99) The Times gave credit for this rise to outgoing CEO and "middle-aged white guy" Lewis Platt, whose "gender-blind ethos" shows that "a little direction at the top can go a long way."An accompanying graph was supposed to illustrate his shattering success: "While many women are finding it hard to advance in corporate America, the percentage of women managers at Hewlett Packard continues to climb." But if a reader actually looks at the graph, a different picture emerges than the one the Times wanted to tell. From 1967 to 1987, women managers did climb dramatically, from about 2 percent to about 26 percent. But from 1987 to 1999 -- the period during which Lew Platt took over--the climb dramatically leveled off, with the number of female managers rising just about 2 percentage points in the last 12 years. At that rate, women are sure to reach parity at HP... round about the year 2131.With so few women in corporate senior management, and so many in low-wage jobs without benefits and with poor working conditions -- about half of all women who work full time earn less than $25,000 a year, and 7 million women earn only the minimum wage -- there is still a long way to go before the glass ceiling for women in business is truly shattered. This is especially true for women of color, who face what Catalyst president Sheila Wellington calls a "concrete ceiling" in corporate America, and what columnist Julianne Malveaux describes as the "sticky floor" of poorly regulated sweatshop-style workplaces. According to Catalyst, African-American women are the second-lowest wage earners of all minority groups, earning approximately 40 percent less than white women, and only approximately 58 cents for every dollar their white male counterpart earns (Black Enterprise, 8/99; In These Times, 11/28/99).So what is the story, here? In mid-summer, when they first noticed Fiorina, many outlets wanted to run with the "Hey, the boss wears a skirt!" angle; the CEO wanted no part of it. "My gender is interesting," she told reporters, "but it is not the story here."By late fall, the business press seemed less startled by Fiorina at HP's helm, and loaded headlines like "Silicon Valley Girl" (U.S. News & World Report, 8/2/99) began to taper off. Several solid business stories began to appear, focused on Fiorina's creative technical and financial goals for her company. With headlines such as "New CEO charts changing direction for HP" (Los Angeles Times, 11/16/99), these articles tended to give little or no mention to Fiorina's unique status as a female CEO.Ideally, there should be a journalistic middle ground, one that would acknowledge the novelty of Fiorina's advancement while also delving into topics generally broached in typical business stories: What skills does the new executive bring to the company? What is her background? Her vision? How is she unique? Answers to these questions would paint a well-rounded picture, rendering her gender neither invisible nor all-important.It is important to document women's progress in the context of reality -- and the reality is that steady, incremental gains have been the result of women's continual struggle toward professional parity. In their treatment of Carly Fiorina, media outlets have distorted the reality of women in the rank and file of corporate America. It may be true that "women who see no barriers are less apt to place limitations on themselves" (Houston Chronicle, 11/1/99), but that does not nullify the existence, or the effects, of external barriers to women's success. When women are as likely to be chosen as CEOs of powerful firms as men are, when women finally achieve pay equity, and when economic stories about women are not hooked to their gender before their business savvy, then we'll know the ceiling that holds women back has been eradicated.Jennifer L. Pozner is happy to report that there is no glass ceiling at Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting -- www.fair.org/womens-desk.html -- the media watch group for which she serves as Women's Desk Director. Pozner would like to note that another woman has joined Fiorina in the Fortune 500 head-honcho club. When Andrea Jung was appointed CEO of Avon in November, she became the first Asian American woman and the fourth female to head a Fortune 500 company. (However, the number of female CEOs at elite companies remains a static three, with the February resignation of Jill Barad from the top post at Mattel.) So, for those who are keeping count: only 247 more women CEOs 'till equity!*Research assistance by Glennda Testone and Anne Verschoor. ***SIDEBAR: Why reporters talk to "white guys in suits"Amid the initial rush of congratulatory shattered glass stories came a number of excellent columns calling for critical analysis. (The London Sunday Times, 7/25/99, is a good example.) One notable business story came from reporter David Greising (Chicago Tribune, 7/25/99), who warned CEOs at other major companies not to take at face-value Fiorina's disavowal of workplace biases. This would be dangerous, Greising wrote, because "if [corporate leaders] throttle back on diversity and advancement programs that are only now becoming commonplace in business -- then one large step for a woman could become a giant leap backward for womankind."Greising offered this telling explanation of why he disagrees with Fiorina's denials of workplace gender discrimination:I see the glass ceiling all the time. In nearly two decades as a business journalist, I have never interviewed a woman CEO of a major company. I can remember interviewing just a couple dozen women executives running profit centers at major companies. That's not a choice I have made. My job is to interview people in power. Normally, the companies I work with have a big say in choosing whom I talk to. The vastly overwhelming number of people in power are white guys in suits, so that's who I talk to.While most reporters do regularly seek out interviewees of their own choosing, Greising's individual experience of excluding women from decades of economic reporting is mirrored throughout the mainstream and business press. A December 1999 Women, Men and Media study of coverage of women and the economy between September 1998 and August 1999 found that women are only 12 percent of all experts quoted in financial stories on network newscasts. According to the study, women fare no better in print coverage of the economy: male sources outnumber female by approximately 7.5 to 1 in Business Week, 7 to 1 in Newsweek, and 5 to 1 in Time.We will always get a skewed vision of women in business as long as journalists like Greising are instructed to filter the news through the perspectives of the "white guys in suits" who control corporate America. If news outlets encourage journalists to interview only "people in power," it is hardly surprising that the experiences of those denied power by institutional biases -- for example, women held back by the glass ceiling -- are so often misinterpreted, discounted or denied.

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