Friday, June 15, 2007

A Woman’s Place is in the Boardroom

A Woman's Place is in the Boardroom is a refreshing book on the subject of women rising to top corporate board roles. It focuses on what women can do, not merely what companies, or families, or society “need to” or “must do” on behalf of women. It quotes real men and real women at the top and learns lessons from their experiences. It focuses on solutions that include actions individual women can take, themselves, to change their career course to pursue true leadership roles.

The book was written by two English consultants, Peninah Thomson and Jacey Graham and published by Palgrave MacMillan in September 2005. Forbes used their title in an article about the Norwegian women-on-boards program in 2006, but failed to give them credit.

Thomson and Graham build their business case on a lesson taught by other talented executive coaches: “What got you to the middle is not what will take you to the top.” Women must take full ownership and responsibility for their climb up the ladder – it’s not up to others to assure your success or to make the trek safe, easy or comfortable – let alone balanced or absent all risk.

Women have the emotional intelligence and the acquired competencies to achieve top corporate roles, IF they so choose. Old fashioned effort, education and sacrifice are still elements of the drive forward. Newly acquired skills are also essential. These are among the refreshing words of wisdom found in A Woman’s Place:

Confidence in speaking about one’s own merits, willingness to speak up and stand out, risk management, willingness to strive and compete, ambition – all these are prerequisites for success regardless of gender. Thomson and Graham are part of a new breed of good women telling other good women the truth, not just the “old wives’ tales” and myths of a bygone era.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Walking Out On The Boys

Walking Out On The Boys by Frances K. Conley was reprinted in paperback by Farrar, Straus & Giroux this past March (9 years after its original publication in 1998).

The book describes the hostile, sexist work environment at Stanford University School of Medicine over the 30 year period during which Dr. Frances K. Conley was a highly regarded and accomplished neurosurgeon and tenured professor.

The book describes Dr. Conley’s growing awareness of the misogyny that was both pervasive and subtle at Stanford Medical School. Dr. Conley “walked out on the boys” on May 22, 1991 when Dr. Gerald Silverberg was appointed as acting chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery. She alleged that Dr. Silverberg was one of the worst offenders and resigned.

Stanford opened a sexual harassment investigation and rescinded his promotion, but kept him on staff as a full professor. The next year, Dr. Conley returned to the school and remained on staff as an Emeritus Professor until her retirement in 2000. Dr. Silverberg continues as an Emeritus Professor today.

Why reprint the book in 2007? Who “won:” Dr. Conley or Dr. Silverberg? Was the strategy of “a noisy exit” effective? Were there other, possibly more effective, strategies available to Dr. Conley? What can be learned?

Does the Stanford Medical School example have relevance to other scenarios? For example, another state university recently completed an internal diversity study and found that perceptions of the work environment differed dramatically between male vs. female professors. The women professors described what they called a hostile, unwelcoming environment. The men saw no problems at all. Women professors were leaving the university. Male professors were staying.

In another contemporary example, Sarah Steelman, Missouri State Treasurer, is seeking divestment of state pension funds from investments in companies that conduct business in countries that sponsor terrorism. The logic is similar although the specific issue is different. Should a public entity do business with parties known to actively and aggressively create hostile environments (terrorism)? Should a public entity allow the continuation of practices at an entity where it knows a hostile environment exists (academic discrimination)?

Both cases demand that we examine what might be effective means for dealing with such scenarios. Dr. Conley argued that “a noisy exit” was the only way to deal with the harassing setting at Stanford Medical School. Ms. Steelman argues that divestment is the best way. She is trying to persuade other states either to legislate divestiture or invest in her “terror free fund” which avoids investment in firms conducting business with terrorist-supporting nations.

The female professors at MIT and Harvard faced similar sexist and discriminatory environments. They chose an alternative strategy which built up support from inside their organizations to design and implement solutions to the problems identified by women professors. In the case of Harvard, the public reaction to Lawrence Summers’ comments provided a bright light of attention comparable to Dr. Conley’s public resignation. No such public outcry occurred at MIT, where change was pushed from the inside.

Divestiture has been a strong public argument in the history of overcoming apartheid in South Africa, among other examples. Today, Ms. Steelman’s case, favoring divestiture of terror-supporting company investments, is countered by arguments that she might be more effective were she to use her leverage as a shareholder to negotiate change on the part of the offending firms. “Active engagement with the companies” is the recommended alternative strategy.

Would “active engagement” actually have worked in the case of Dr. Conley at Stanford Medical School? Given the subordinate position of all females within that medical school setting, unless all the female medical professionals agreed to stop supporting the status quo, it is unlikely that even the highly regarded Dr. Conley had any meaningful leverage that could have been applied.

Would “active engagement” work for the female professors at the state university? It would work probably only if they, too, could find some viable leverage point that would provide a platform on which to stand soundly and negotiate for change.

If the most seriously aggrieved female professors simply “walk out on the boys,” silently, then the ranks of supporters are diminished. If only one female professor walks out, either noisily or quietly, she alone suffers the loss of reputation as did Dr. Conley. She succeeded only in the reversal of Dr. Silverberg’s promotion. He remained a full professor, there, even surviving her on staff. There might even be questions today whether, after all this, Stanford Medical School truly has become a hospitable working environment for women.

Rosa Parks demonstrated that, at some point, one must at least cease helping a discriminatory environment from existing. Some conspicuous separation from an offending abuser is the minimum behavior if change is to be effected. If one cannot immediately confront the abuser, one can stop helping them feel comfortable that his (or her) actions are welcome or appropriate. At least one can cease being an enabler.

Why, for example, did Dr. Conley and hundreds of nurses not say anything when doctors patted their behinds or spoke disparagingly of female practitioners? Why didn’t anyone (male or female) speak up?

It is said that one example of the hostile bias at the state university appears when female students’ class participation is ignored or trivialized by male professors. Dr. Conley described the same example within the medical school classrooms. Why are their experiences not visible in professor evaluations? Why isn’t anyone (male or female) speaking up through established university channels? Are female professors not teaching female students how to make their message heard in the competitive academic environment? Do female professors know how to do so themselves?

If there currently is no solid platform on which to stand and present one’s position, then whose responsibility is it to build such a stand? Stanford Medical School constructed an investigative committee AFTER the publicly-embarrassing resignation. MIT constructed an investigative committee UPON THREAT of a publicly-embarrassing expose. In both cases, someone who was impacted had to take the message, effectively, to others who likewise had vested interests at stake.

When aggrieved women “opt out,” they leave the problem to someone else to solve. That might be appropriate in a one-to-one interpersonal relationship, but in a business relationship the consequences of a failure to disclose are more extensive and serious. If someone knowingly leaves a hazard in the public right-of-way, one retains liability for adverse consequences that result from the neglect.

We asked an associate, a family therapist, how she would treat someone who found herself (or himself) in a situation such as Dr. Conley or the female professors of the state university.

The therapist said she would ask the individual whether she were enjoying the situation and to envision what it would be like in 5 years. The likelihood would be that bullies would become emboldened over time and that the circumstances probably would become worse rather than better in the absence of some intervention.

Those who leave are no better than those who remain: both loyally enable the unacceptable behavior to continue. It is not so much whether one “walks out on the boys” or sticks around. The more important issue is what one has to say.

That should be enough reason to justify the re-publication of this book, now 9 years later. If female professors do not yet know how to describe with specificity what they are observing in their hostile work environment, perhaps this book will give them the words they need.

If Ms. Steelman needs help in forging partnerships with other shareholders to gain leverage against companies that knowingly support terrorist nations because they cannot or will not search for more profitable returns elsewhere, then perhaps this book has some insight she might use.

And if young girls need the courage to speak up against biased and prejudiced males – whether teachers or bosses – this book can show how high is the price of failing to call a hostile workplace the terror that it is. It never goes away by itself. Someone must speak up.