Wednesday, April 5, 2006

Outstanding Women

Corporations and government are spending a lot of money trying to motivate, to attract, or to incent women to do something which, apparently today, a lot of women really do not want to do: work in the corporate world, rise to the top of the corporate ladder, and invest in profit-oriented careers.

Corporate and government investments in diversity programs abound. Everywhere we hear about new incentives designed to keep women in the workplace. We seem to want to pay women to stay around, yet women appear to prefer “getting out of business”. It reminds one of price supports paid to farmers in an attempt to keep uneconomic family agribusinesses in operation, in the face of global competition, because we have some historic or emotional attachment to the family farm.

As consumers and tax-payers in a democratic society, we should not like the idea of ever-increasing levies on our investable money, either in the form of price increase or higher taxes, going to support so-called family-friendly programs IF the incentives are not producing the intended results. If, after we spend a lot of money on such programs, women are STILL “opting out” of business career tracks, then we are not getting our money’s worth.

From Basic Economics by Thomas Sowall [p. 192]:

“Where the consumers do not value what is being produced, the investment should not pay off. When people insist on specializing in a field for which there is little demand, their investment has been a waste of scarce resources that could have produced something else that others wanted. The low pay and sparse employment opportunities in that field are a compelling signal to them -– and to others coming after them -– to stop making such investments.”

Women say they “value” family and charitable or community work more highly than mere for-profit work as they walk out our corporate doors. Are they telling us the complete story? Are women telling us the whole truth and nothing but the truth?

Why are women quitting? Why do we call it, euphemistically, “opting out?” Why would so many women toss away a career? Why do so many women consciously accept lower revenue opportunities in exchange for more personal hours? Why do so many women consciously give up leadership opportunities? Are women really telling us that they see no such opportunities or perceived benefits out there in the corporate world, anymore?

If women don’t like what they see in the corporate marketplace, are they telling us what they dislike about it? Women constitute a majority of financial officers and top financial management in corporations. Research points to extensive stock options post-dating, among a host of other corporate financial fraud, from 1995 through late summer of 2002 -- just after Sarbanes-Oxley was passed. Did women leave corporate financial positions because they saw this fraud and dared not to report it?

We see a similar pattern of female exodus from the near top levels of law, finance, accounting, securities and technology firms as well as academia. Did these women see the same problems, but refuse to deal with the bad news?

The past two decades have seen the greatest possible investment of American wealth in internal corporate diversity and inclusion programs, the greatest investment in the education of females, the toughest enforcement of anti-discrimination laws and the greatest outlay on internal corporate anti-harassment training. Yet, it appears that all of that is still not enough to entice women to stay the course and pursue corporate leadership roles, responsibilities, and opportunities.

Either all the investments had little or no traction, no benefit for women at work. Or all the investments were for products or services that were not enough to persuade women to stay at work. Which is the reality?

When women do quit the corporate track, where do they go and what do they do? The women who leave are not a uniform group -– they have many different economic preferences. Some women stay at home with children and provide the family support services.

A very large number of other women start their own businesses. What kind of leadership do they provide there?

Women entrepreneurs tend to enter the soft industry categories, tend to start businesses in low income sectors of the economy, tend not to form employer firms, tend not to hire as many employees when they do hire workers, tend not to pursue or gain corporate or government contracts, tend not to pursue or gain angel or venture funding, tend not to grow their businesses into larger firms, and tend not to accumulate investable wealth to become angel or venture capitalists.

Based on the evidence, it would appear that when women have the opportunity to make their own economic choices, they prefer the low value options.

Should we expect women to be creative enough to provide the full spectrum of child- and family-support services which women say they “value” so highly? Or might it be more accurate to say that women value only those child- and family-support services that are subsidized by corporations and government price supports?

Should we expect women to value child- and family-support services highly enough to be willing to pay for quality products and services out of their own or their spousal discretionary incomes?

Do women do that? Or do women expect to be able to maintain their current quality of life, personal consumption patterns, and the entertainment or discretionary expenditure levels of their spouses while “someone else” invests in the child- and family-support services which women say they require as a prerequisite for staying in the workforce?

Women spend and consume prolifically. Women drive consumption in the U.S. Do women value investments and the returns in the same way as the rest of the marketplace? Do women use the same measures of progress, quality of life, and productivity as the rest of the marketplace?

Women say they “value” family and children above achievement and economic incentives. Yet, today, children and family are woefully obese; US child mortality is high; US adult health is lower than in many European nations; the US educational system has declined to record lows; and prison incarcerations have reached all time highs.

Does this reflect the high “valuation” that women and we as a nation purportedly place on children and family?

It is easy to assume that all women act in the same manner, hold the same beliefs, pursue the same goals. Too easy. It’s also easy to assume that any and all financial investments made on behalf of the female gender are wise and worthy. Too easy.

Women are economic actors on the same stage as other marketplace performers. We need to examine and investigate their motives, behaviors, and preferences just as we would any other economic being.

And we also need to evaluate the costs, the benefits, the investment, and the returns associated with supporting this particular segment of the population in the manner to which they have delightfully become accustomed.