From Hillary Clinton’s many campaign stops on Main Street to the executive suites on Wall Street, 2008 started off with plenty of promise for working women hoping to see their peers reach new heights.
Midway through, experts say it’s shaping up to be a year that gave many working women hope and motivation, but also exposed some of the ugly truths that may be hindering their efforts to get ahead.
“There’s huge role modeling that Hillary Clinton has accomplished, especially for young women, … but at the same time we did see the impact of sexism and the glass ceiling,” said Mary Gatta, director of work force policy and research at Rutgers University’s Center for Women and Work. “So it’s sort of double-edged.”
Back in the 1960s and 1970s, Gloria Scoby remembers how common it was to talk about the sexism, both overt and subtle, that often came hand in hand with women entering the workforce. But over the years, as women like her ascended to the upper rungs of the corporate ladder, such talk seemed to grow passé.
That is until this year, when Clinton sought to snag the most powerful job in the world and found herself facing calls to make a sandwich or iron a shirt — and those turned out to be among the least crass name-calling she endured.
“I think it sort of validated for a lot of younger women, perhaps, the things that they were hearing and/or feeling at work,” said Scoby, 62, who is the group publisher for Crain Communications and is active in the professional networking group International Women’s Forum. “To hear it discussed at a national level was an ‘aha’ moment for a lot of women.”
Clinton wasn’t the only woman whose ascension was almost as talked about as her descent.
When Erin Callan was promoted to chief financial officer of Lehman Bros. less than a year ago, it marked an impressive rise to the upper echelons of an industry known for its old boys’ network, and prompted plenty of discussion about whether women were finally cracking the financial world’s glass ceiling.
Still, it would be impossible not to notice that Callan was treated differently because of her gender. When The Wall Street Journal ran an extensive profile of her, it led to an extensive discussion on the newspaper’s Web site — about her choice in footwear.
Earlier this month, Callan was demoted amid a crisis of confidence at the firm, and although no one is suggesting that decision had anything to do with her gender, it nevertheless left one less woman in a high-ranking corporate position.
Callan’s reassignment came soon after Clinton’s decision to suspend her campaign for the presidential nomination. Clinton's campaign is still generating heated discussion of exactly how much sexism American women still endure in politics and the workplace.
Gatta, of Rutgers, thinks one very positive thing to come from Clinton’s campaign is that working women saw that the kind of things they experience in the workplace — whether it is overtly sexist jokes or more subtle barbs — are also experienced even by a woman at the highest career levels.
“I think women related to Hillary on that, that in their own lives they’ve experienced different degrees of sexism,” she said.
Similarly, if a woman can rise as high in her career as Callan and still find her appearance being discussed, it resonates with working women who face similar issues in their own jobs, Gatta says.
The days when women were routinely called derogatory names or overtly denied promotions because of their gender are largely over, and women now enjoy more protection from discrimination in the workplace.
Still, Gatta thinks Clinton’s campaign highlighted the more subtle ways in which women are undermined in the workplace. For example, Clinton was often referred to by her first, rather than her last, name — the same thing that often happened to Carly Fiorina during her tumultuous tenure as head of Hewlett-Packard. Gatta, who has the same experience herself sometimes, thinks that can be a way of taking a woman less seriously.
She notes that those forms of sexism, which are harder to document or even understand, can be harder habits to kick.
“You’re really … talking about changing a way of thinking, which is more challenging,” she said.
Those more subtle issues may play into women’s inability to get into the top spots in higher numbers.
In a recent survey of members of the Financial Women’s Association, about two-thirds of women who responded reported feeling that gender played a role in holding them back, said Lily Klebanoff Blake, the organization’s president. However, she notes that those are perceptions and says that many of the companies the group works with have demonstrated a strong commitment to diversity.
To be sure, women are now in the top ranks at high-profile companies including Yahoo and Google. Still, women remain vastly underrepresented at the highest levels of the United States’ most powerful companies.
A recent report by The InterOrganization Network, a women's advocacy group, showed that just 14.8 percent of board seats in Fortune 500 companies are held by women, while 11.8 percent of Fortune 500 companies have no women on their boards of directors at all. The organization called their findings a “disheartening picture of the extent to which America’s corporations have been welcoming women into their boardrooms and executive suites.”
A separate report, by the nonprofit advocacy group Catalyst, argued that gender stereotyping often put women in a bind — if they act too feminine, they find it tough to get ahead, but if they exhibit traditionally masculine traits such as aggressiveness, they risk being disliked. In many ways, Clinton’s campaign exposed that conundrum to the larger world.
Still, there are signs of hope for women hoping to eventually command the corner office, if not the Oval Office. Blake, of the Financial Women’s Association, thinks more corporate women will move into the upper ranks in coming years in part because the pipeline of women in senior management positions is growing. She also sees more companies trying to accommodate family responsibilities in ways that benefit women trying to find a work/life balance.
It would be foolish to say that women and men could walk into the office and leave all gender differences at home. Younger generations of female workers may be more comfortable with that dichotomy, Scoby says.
For example, when Michelle Obama, the wife of presumed Democratic presidential nominee and a successful career woman in her own right, was recently scrutinized for choosing dresses over suits during campaign appearances, Scoby said that her daughter didn’t understand the fuss.
“My daughter, who lives in Los Angeles, says, ‘I don’t get it. That’s how women dress. Women like to be feminine and dressed up — as opposed to your generation,’ ” Scoby said.