Thursday, January 25, 2007

Two Masks

I’ve been wondering why it is so difficult to hold a serious (as in cerebral) discussion with many of my female friends. Not all of them, she declaimed (like the tiny legal provisos printed on the product brochure or the rapid speak of legal exclusions on TV car ads), but certainly many of them. Another part of the conundrum is the “I Quit Phenomenon” (also called euphemistically, “opting out.”) Perhaps the two trends are linked somehow?

Female friends, some younger and some older than I, have retired to isolated communities in Arizona or New Mexico after impressive careers in finance, technology or law in metropolitan New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. They’re coffee klatching or joining quilting circles.

Female friends who still work do not want to discuss, debate or deliberate on topics related to their business. One prefers conversation limited to her grandson or granddaughter. Another wants only to talk about the Cheese Shop she will open when she retires in 10 years.

Another female friend, who just recently graduated from a top business school, talks and writes only about her recent vacation trips or her prospective travel plans, and next to nothing about the job that subsidizes her adventures, including the 3 month delay in her work start date so she could tool around Europe.

One woman with a small business at a crucial juncture in its growth and development just closed the place down. “Why not do a buy-out? There’s real value in your business idea,” I suggested. “Oh, it’s just too much bother,” was her reply. Instead, she wanted to tell me about her new “Boyfriend Criteria,” so I could be on the lookout for a husband for her.

While discussing plans for me to give a presentation on how women could prepare themselves for governance roles at corporate boards of directors, I’m told to squeeze my proposal in and among the women’s group planning for a “nip, tuck and mud bath spa trip.”

These women friends claim that I am too serious. I should “lighten up.” A little shopping trip should help make me feel “better,” they suggest.

Is it really me who needs the therapy or are some women missing out on real opportunities? You know what I mean: those economic things you once heard about in business school decades ago. Is it just me who is concerned that the share of women in business schools like UCLA’s Anderson has dropped to 28% from the low to mid-30s just a few years ago? Even the guys there are concerned – but obviously for different reasons.

Professor Nan Langowitz of Babson College also expressed her concern that women do not appear to see or value the benefits generated by business: tax revenues, employment, earnings, investment in R&D, and a whole host of tertiary social positives. She argues that women need to be educated to look at business “through a different frame” than they currently do: presuming all businesses to be evil, all profits to be sinful, and all economic gain to be socially destructive.

Some say women are not being paid enough or in their preferred currency by business. Perhaps something else is going on here.

Perhaps these women are wearing two masks: one is the comedy mask, while the other is the dramatic mask. Both masks hide real feelings from the audience because it is too scary for many women to reveal their true self and emotions.

In the now dated book, The Games People Play: The Psychology of Human Relationships,
Dr. Eric Berne demonstrated the people create performance roles to present characterizations of themselves to a world with which they have difficulty dealing as their real selves.

Research about dysfunctional families, especially those with alcohol or substance abuse, shows that people create personas in response to the world that they see as thrust upon them. These “constructed selves” both are defined by their perceived circumstances and also are created to cope with those circumstances.

In these instances, people create masks for dealing with their view of the world on a scale and in dimensions that they believe they can manage. Otherwise, they perceive they could not cope with the environment which they encounter.

We hear similar stories from therapists who deal with women in abusive domestic circumstances either in the workplace or at home. The women repeatedly describe themselves as “helpless” and believe they are unable to alter or manage the exterior world. So they retreat into an invented world where they believe they are in control.

The treatment advocated by therapists includes trying to get the woman to see if she truly is comfortable sustaining dual “realities:” the one reality which is real and the other reality which she is staging in her own mind for her own benefit.

As exhausting as life is on its own merits, there is nothing quite so exacting as an attempt to sustain two life concepts. That would explain the extra-ordinary sense of relief patients experience once they begin to drop one life role and dedicate themselves to just one, more genuine, self-perception. It also explains why women say they feel they are struggling with family-work life stress and imbalance: because they have constructed a view of life where such perfect balance might exist and then they must struggle to play their part in that make-believe world.

The comedy mask is for the party-girl, the perpetual sophomore, the cutie cupie doll, dressed up and ready to do something FUN, because she perceives no such enjoyment elsewhere in her life. Comedy mask is worn by the world traveler, the girls who coffee klatch, quilt, or do anything that diverts their attention from what they perceive they “have to do” to earn a living.

Work is work is work is not joy nor does work have anything to do with her “real passion.” Comedy girl is doing someone else’s work because she has not yet found The Thing that inspires her to wake up each day and pulsate blood through her veins. It is only work, like cleaning house (office) or shopping (investment) or laundry (tedium). Comedy girl puts on the mask everyday to hide the fact that she believes she has become everyone’s wife and servant.

The drama mask is the role of guilt. Either laugh and be merry or bear all of the world’s ills upon her shoulders. Volunteer and sacrifice to purge one’s soul of impurities associated with profits, income, earning, or other measures of that male world of greed: business.

Darfur! New Orleans! Tsunamis! Save the Children! Save the Planet! Thank God for role models like Mother Theresa! Little Pink Ribbons! Little Yellow Ribbons! Socially Responsible Investment even if it means throwing money after unproven causes!

Oh, the drama of it all. Let’s all come together, because it takes a village to raise a child. We all have to be part of this movement. This is a great united force: a great family effort. It all translates into “Save Me! Help ME! I can’t do it myself. I can’t do it alone. You all have to help ME do MY thing.”

Drama girl cannot envision standing alone on this stage, speaking her own private personal part in the play of life. And drama girl cannot abide any other woman who does show a willingness or ability to speak her own peace.

“My name is Teresa Kerry, and I have something to say.” Oh, how the drama girls excoriated her for standing up and speaking her part on the stage. Not unlike the treatment afforded both Eleanor Roosevelt and Eleanor McGovern when they dared to speak and campaign, unaccompanied by their husbands.

“It’s my party too!” Christine Todd Whitman was boo-ed to stage left by the female throng, even while trying to reconstitute the center of the Republican part.

Carly Fiorina and Patricia Dunn had the audacity to speak their minds about corporate board dealings. How dare these women think?

The drama mask presents to the world the “Oh, the poor little girl” image with the intent of evoking pity, sympathy, sufferance and perhaps some money to go shopping and make the hurt go away. The women who violate that image best beware.

“It is crucial to have someone up your sleeve who will save your,” said one female academic at a Rice University conference on women in science and math. Mentors are saviors, not educators.

When women “trouble talk” behind the drama mask, they seek to evoke the pity and sympathy of someone, anyone who will bail them out. Someone ELSE needs to save them rather than that they aspire to create a world where they might prevail economically. The victim mentality hides behind the drama mask. The world is evil and prejudiced and dirty. Women are treated so poorly, Dear Audience, that you must pity me and compensate me for the unjust treatment that is out there in the marketplace. Mother me, world.

One mother of a Girl Scout is more typical than we’d like to believe. The Girl Scouts eliminated all but trace amounts of trans fats in their cookies. The mother stated that “she would accompany her daughter on her rounds to sell the cookies in order “to educate’ the buyers about the product.” That’s great training for a young girl getting ready to enter the business world: “Mom, will you come with me on my sales route?”

It was such a pleasure at the last New Year’s Eve party to meet a talented woman who talked about her interest in leading literary and book discussions.

“Do you do it for a fee or for free?” I asked, dreading what I expected to be the inevitable answer. “Definitely for a FEE. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I know my time has value. I know my experience and expertise are worth something in the marketplace.”

Saturday, January 20, 2007

May Women Soon Cease to Think of Themselves As A Minority

“May women soon cease to think of themselves as a minority” is the email that Dame Stephanie Shirley sent to me when she heard I was working to prepare women to serve on corporate boards of directors. Dame Shirley in 1962 founded the British firm, F-International, now Xansa, as a business technology consultancy.

“In 25 years as its Chief Executive she developed it into a leading business technology group, pioneering new work practices and changing the position of professional women (especially in hi-tech) along the way.” (www.steveshirley.com)

Her message to me was this: seek out women who thought, as she did, as if they already had equal access to equal opportunity. “You achieve the goal you aim at.” If you aim at failure you will achieve it. Like the senior member of the Flying Wallenda Family, once he started to focus on the ground rather than the high-wire, he literally hit his target.

We all have heard that women currently hold “only” something like 15% of the board of director seats at Fortune 500 listed public companies. And we know that women have been added to corporate boards “only” at a rate of one-half of one percent a year for the past decade (1995 to 2005).

Does it follow that the only way women will make progress is if the men on those boards institute “gender entitlement” programs or quotas to raise the share of women directors on large corporate boards? Isn’t that “thinking like a minority?” Doesn’t thinking like a minority prepare one to maintain a minority mentality?

The “entitlement” approach won’t work anymore if there is anything to be learned from our previous experience with all of the “other diversity entitlement” efforts that have gone before. Like it or not, the age of “affirmative action” has been initiated out of existence along with the Equal Rights Amendment.

In 1996, Ward Connerly led a successful anti-affirmative action campaign, winning passage of Proposition 209 in California to bar racial, gender or other preferences by any publicly-subsidized state agency or institution. A similar ballot measure passed in the state of Washington two years later. Florida unilaterally enacted a similar anti-entitlement program when facing the prospect of a ballot initiative there in 2000. This past year, Michigan passed its own Civil Rights Initiative, to “ban public institutions from using affirmative-action programs that give preferential treatment to groups or individuals based on their race, gender, color, ethnicity or national origin for public employment, education or contracting purposes.” Connerly is preparing to take similar ballot initiatives forward in nine other states: Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming.

Again, like it or not, this IS becoming the law of the land. Are we really convinced that an appropriate strategy, now, is to try to insist on undoing the initiatives of the past decade?

Once we start to expect that some vested interests are entitled to special treatment, even on boards of directors, there can be no end to those who will also insist on some theoretic fair share of the entitlement pie. I mean, how many Black, Mexican-American, Gay, Lesbian, Transsexual board members does a corporation really need? Rightfully, other groups demand greater shares of director seats once we start allocating board seats on the basis of some sampling called “diversity,” rather than on the basis of skills and experiences which the boards actually need to do their job.

Boards do not excel simply because “differences exist.” They excel when they attract competence, first and foremost, in the critical areas of expertise where the company faces risks and challenges. Boards excel when experience is combined with independence of thought; when the board overall performs well as a group and when the skills and styles mesh, and are strategically driven by worthy corporate goals.

In the post-Sarbanes-Oxley world, boards have reflected these challenges not simply by adding “diversity quotas,” but rather by pruning the tree. Boards have cut out the fat; retired ineffective directors; reduced their overall size; cut back on their tendency to hire only white male CEOs; brought in more independent executives not beholden to the CEO; and instituted more effective oversight and direct ownership of financial, legal and technology responsibilities by directors.

Boards have cut their average size to just over 11 members (from 1995 to 2005), eliminating 645 seats at the Fortune 500 level. During that period, some female directors also retired and were retired. Overall, however, women ADDED 227 female occupied board seats to the top listed Fortune 500 firms. This contrasts with male directors who lost 827 seats.

Since the passage of Sarbanes-Oxley, boards have become much more “transparent” in their annual proxy statements especially about their directors’ backgrounds and where they found them. Director nominations occur throughout the year, and then are voted upon at the annual meeting. Today, the press releases about director nominees, their qualifications and experience are more publicly available and more highly scrutinized than ever before.

NewsOnWomen.com has been tracking women on board press releases since July 2005. Alice Krause, owner of NewsOnWomen.com, now reports female director nominations, the state where the company is located, the exchange listing and the industry sector.

In contrast to the1995-2005 average of 75 women A YEAR added to the Fortune 500 firms’ boards of directors, we are now seeing 25 to 30 women A MONTH added at firms of all sizes across the nation.

In 2006, 53% of the female directors were named to firms located in just 7 states. California led all other states with 16% of all the newly announced female directors per NewsOnWomen.com, and 35 of the 50 states had companies naming women to their boards during the year.

In 2004 and 2005, surveys of the California’s Fortune 1000 boards of directors showed that women and companies were about evenly divided between Northern and Southern California locations. In 2006, NewsOnWomen.com reported many more women from Northern than from Southern California firms. And more firms were reporting from the sub-1000 size category, representing smaller, emerging-technology and –science companies.

Perhaps, at one time, women believed the argument that they were “a minority” that needed preferential or entitlement treatment. They supported that position because they believed it would win them the opportunities they believed they could not otherwise garner.

Today, that belief and that argument go against the tide of reality which is that women are advancing to top corporate, executive, and board-level positions on the merits, on the basis of their competence, their skills and experience. They are doing so in record numbers. These women think of themselves as a peer to anyone competing in the same marketplace; they see themselves as equals. Dame Shirley would be proud.

Monday, January 15, 2007

How Many Women?

In re: “How Many Women Does a Good Board Need?” by Lisa M. Ferri in Corporate Board Member January/February 2007

I first heard Vicki Kramer discuss this research on a local radio talk show. She said her goal was “to prove the hypothesis” that 3 women on a corporate board “actually make a difference.” Strange, but I thought the objective of academic research was to test the viability of a hypothesis, pro or con, rather than drag the data kicking and screaming toward some pre-conceived conclusion.

The latter is exactly what our Wellesley Center trio has done. They began with a conclusion and then found the feedback to support it from 50 “company directors (all of them women), 12 CEOs (three of them women) and seven corporate secretaries (six of them women) from Fortune 1000 firms (where there are about 1,100 female directors). That would mean a .045 response rate.

The research is riddled with statistically suggestive opinions such as “one male CEO said” and “one female board member recalled.” There are “instances” and “sometimes” the women on boards “felt.” One woman alone “can and often does have a significant impact.” Two women on a board “change things.” And when three or more women serve on a board together, “the magic seems to occur.” Magic is not measured to any statistically significant degree, but fairy powder IS powerful stuff.

This research is not even cited on the Wellesley University public information web site, which raises the question of whether Wellesley’s Center for Women research had this document reviewed by serious academicians.

This is not, as the researchers allege, even “the first” research conducted on the subject of women on public corporate boards. That research, some of it spanning the past 20 years, had found that there are many “first women on board” who are NOT invisible or silent by any stretch of the imagination. Based on my research into the women on the Fortune 1000 firms located in California, I would never suggest that the solo women on corporate boards were anything other than some of the finest individual leaders in business today. “Outstanding” is how I would describe them.

In fact, according to Catalyst Inc., the Fortune 500 firms alone had 238 one-woman boards in 1995 and 182 one-woman boards in 2005. If even a significant share of these women were “invisible,” hesitant to speak up for themselves, or shy about raising difficult issues, then why would a corporate board want to ADD more women to the mix? In my research, I’ve found these women to be incredibly competent, capable of presenting themselves very effectively, and certainly not in need of any form of “girl gang” to back them up in deliberating in very technical areas of boardroom governance.

Marion O. Sandler, co-founder of Golden West Financial (the only Fortune 500 firm that ever had a majority of women on their board), said that “responding to questions about stereotypes only serves to perpetuate stereotypes. Don't fall into that trap. Don't further the stereotype. And don't get yourself segregated into women's groups."

So much for the “girl gangs.”

If women were so hesitant to speak about sensitive issues, in all likelihood we never would see boards go from 1 woman boards to 2 woman boards or to 3 woman boards. Women have been effective in identifying other competent, talented women to bring on board. But, as most male AND female directors will state – categorically – it is NOT because of gender, but rather because the competent women brought into the boardroom the skills, expertise and independent thinking that contemporary boards need.

Women bring significantly more to the boardroom than just knowledge about the households (working mothers, healthcare, and product selection). Today’s women are talented chief financial executives, general counsel, and chief technology and information officers. They’re much more than homemakers.

Great boards may not necessarily be boards that avoid conflict. Today’s women on boards are able to negotiate and strategize with the best of the big boys.
Citi's Sallie Krawcheck (now on the board at Dell) once said "As a CFO one has to have the strength of character, the thickness of skin, to be able to deliver bad news as easily as good news."

According to research by Professor Margaret Neale, (the John G. McCoy-Banc One Professor of Organizations and Dispute Resolution at Stanford Graduate School of Business), more homogeneous teams tend not to expect conflict, so they may not be prepared to handle conflict well. Group conflict, in the sense of intellectual conflict, debate or controversy, actually makes a team function better and be more willing to innovate.

“One of the most interesting recent findings in the area of work-team performance,” says Neale “is that the mere presence of diversity you can see, such as a person’s race or gender, actually cues a team in that there’s likely to be differences of opinion. That cuing turns out to enhance the team’s ability to handle conflict, because members expect it and are not surprised when it surfaces.”

That suggests that WOMEN, as board team members, also have to have the ability to deal with conflict, effectively, not merely try to diffuse it.

Finally, I don’t suppose that any of the researchers happened to talk with Lucille S. Salhany, Sari M. Baldauf, Carly Fiorina or Patricia Dunn from the board of Hewlett-Packard. Until 2005, Salhany-Fiorina-Dunn were a “magical” trio on one of the world’s most dysfunctional boards. In 2006, the female board trifecta was Salhany-Baldauf-Dunn when the board’s dysfunctionality reached epic heights. No “magic” there!

The problem with the HP board was not necessarily due to Dunn-Fiorina-Baldauf-Salhany being shy and retiring -– each and every one of them would be a highly valued asset among most good governance boards. The problem was that governance and leadership are complex issues requiring a significant investment of intelligence, time, and effort. A board’s “DNA” really has very little to do with the gender of its members.

The success of a board has everything to do with the capabilities, breadth and depth of experience of its directors and their shared willingness to pursue solutions that best represent the long-term interests of 100% of the corporations’ shareholders and stakeholders.