Why Aren't There More Women at the Top?

Why can't a woman be more like a man? Two new career books about women and the world of work offer up tired advice that was old when it was new — 20 years ago. A third offers a more thoughtful analysis.

Book: Play Like a Man, Win Like a Woman: What Men Know About Success That Women Need to Learn
Author: Gail Evans
Publisher: Broadway Books
Price: $23.95

Book: Why the Best Man for the Job Is a Woman: The Unique Female Qualities of Leadership
Author: Esther Wachs Book
Publisher: HarperBusiness
Price: $24

Book: Flux: Women on Sex, Work, Kids, Love, and Life in a Half-Changed World
Author: Peggy Orenstein
Publisher: Doubleday
Price: $25

Why aren't more women leading U.S. companies? That question has been asked ever since women began flooding the workforce in the 1970s. Unfortunately, it remains just as relevant today: Women make up 3% of the top corporate officers in the companies that comprise the Fortune 500. And only 6% of the CEO slots in Internet companies that are financed by major venture-capital firms are held by women.

Sometime during the 1980s, the book-publishing industry caught on to this trend, and a cottage industry of career books was born — each one cheerily promising women that they could beat those dismal statistics, if only they would follow 10 simple steps.

Now come three new books that purport to be cutting-edge treatments of the issue. But only Peggy Orenstein's Flux: Women on Sex, Work, Kids, Love, and Life in a Half-Changed World offers a fresh analysis. The other two — Gail Evans's Play Like a Man, Win Like a Woman and Esther Wachs Book's Why the Best Man for the Job Is a Woman — serve up the same tired advice that was being peddled to women 20 years ago.

Evans, 58, an executive vice president at CNN, makes the incredibly retro argument that women need only learn how to "play the game" — that is, how to outmacho the men. Book, 34, a journalist who seems to have gotten her inspiration from reading old (make that very old) issues of Working Woman magazine, focuses on the notion that women can get ahead if only they would use their natural "feminine" skills — empathy and collaboration. Basing their books on the careers of successful female executives (Evans uses herself as her model, while Book focuses on 14 high-profile types) , both authors try to force complex stories into pat, simple lessons.

Only Orenstein's Flux manages to offer smart insights. Not surprisingly, Orenstein, 38, a veteran journalist who interviewed some 200 women for her book, comes up with no easy solutions. But at least she is asking new, provocative questions: What are young women's fears — and fantasies — about work and family today? Could their ideas be at least partly responsible for their inability to advance in the workplace?

Evans says that she decided to write Play Like a Man, Win Like a Woman after speaking at Harvard Business School and hearing a group of women complain that they "felt lost in the male-oriented workplace." Remarkably, her response was to write a business equivalent of The Rules. "The business world is male dominated," she writes. "This is not a criticism nor a condemnation. This is the reality." (Exactly why she won't criticize or condemn this is unclear.)

Hired by CNN in 1980, after she had worked in politics and then had taken several years off to raise her three children, Evans is part of that pioneering generation of women who "made it" at a time when few women were even working in middle management. And she did so, it seems, by aping the guys. She recommends, for instance, that young women learn to "keep score" as men do, which means jockeying for the big offices. "You can't win if you don't know who's ahead," she writes. Her advice on how to counter female stereotypes: Make sure to laugh a lot at the guys' jokes ("The guys at the office think women are too driven, too serious, to have a sense of humor") , and never be late for an interview, because men think women are chronically tardy.

But nowhere does she talk about having a company vision, or about using her power to transform the apparently backward organization that she works in. She does at one point advocate being true to oneself; unfortunately, that advice comes on page 179, eight pages before the book ends.

Book wraps her argument in new-economy speak, but it's a relic just the same. She argues that the CEOs and entrepreneurs she profiles represent a "new leadership paradigm," which makes them particularly well suited to succeed in the Internet age. In fact, many of them are old-economy success stories, such as Ellen Gordon, 68, of Tootsie Roll, who inherited the company from her father back in the 1970s.

And what are the traits that define Book's new brand of female leadership? A high threshold for risk, a collaborative style, and a willingness to reinvent the rules — in other words, the same traits of any successful executive, male or female. While Book trots out some research from the late 1980s and early 1990s in an effort to make the case that women have an innately different (read: better) leadership style than men have, she fails to explain why, if this is so, women still haven't made much progress.

In fact, what Book and Evans both ignore, and what Orenstein focuses on, is the most obvious difference between women and men: Women bear children and are more involved in raising them than men are. It is probably no coincidence that Evans began her career at CNN once her children were older and in school. And many of the superstars that Book writes about never had children (a fact that she conveniently glosses over) . In one survey of senior executives that is cited by Orenstein, more than half of the women have never been married, divorced, or widowed — and fewer than 40% of them are mothers. In contrast, 95% of the men in the survey are married with children, and 75% have stay-at-home wives.

This contrast makes up the heart of Flux.Why is it, Orenstein asks, that women still find that having a career and having a family are at such odds? Interviewing high performers in various circumstances — from a 26-year-old junior executive who vows never to have kids to a 38-year-old prosecutor who quits a job that she loves in order to care for her kids — Orenstein argues that women's work-family conflicts have as much to do with their own perceptions of motherhood as with the attitudes of corporate America.

Women in their 20s — what Orenstein calls the "Promise Years" — start thinking about how they're going to negotiate work-family issues long before they are even married. While they wish for equality in relationships and in the workplace, they see few role models who "have it all" and conclude that their wish is unattainable. As a result, some women give up the idea of having a family, while others cling to a traditional definition of motherhood — in which women are the primary caregivers — and make career and mate choices accordingly.

One young doctor profiled by Orenstein chooses radiology as her specialty because it has the kind of regular hours that will make it easier to be a mother and a wife — even though she doesn't have a boyfriend, let alone a family. Another woman dumps her "wonderful" boyfriend because of his limited earning potential. While these women see themselves as being pragmatic, Orenstein argues that they're just ensuring that they'll earn less than their mates and so will have less leverage down the road when it comes to negotiating who will handle household chores or child-care duties.

By the time women near their 40s, many of them are in the grip of what Orenstein calls "Perfect Mother martyrdom," micromanaging their family lives and preventing their husbands (even willing ones) from being equal partners in the home. And while Orenstein reports that single, child-free women seem to grow happier with age, she laments that, for many, their "choice" was thrust upon them, which renders them, in effect, victims of their own ambitions.

Still, while Orenstein makes a strong case for her argument that it is women's own definitions of motherhood (at least as much as men's) that are partly to blame for their lack of progress in the world of work, she does little digging into how companies actually block women's advancement. She notes that having a few women at the top won't change a company's culture. But what can and should organizations do to transform that culture? Will the explosion of women-owned businesses in recent years help foment change?

Orenstein doesn't address those questions, but perhaps the next wave of business books will. And then, finally, we will be done with this genre of play-the-game-like-a-man and use-your-feminine-wiles books at last.

Sidebar: FC Recommends

Work is personal. Work is as much about meaning as it is about money. The team with the clearest sense of purpose wins. These principles have been at the heart of FC's worldview since our first issue. Now comes a book that gives more than 150 people — including a corporate headhunter, a drug dealer, a marketing executive, a teacher, a supermodel, and a UPS driver — a chance to speak directly about how and why they do the work that they do. Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs at the Turn of the Millennium (Crown Publishers, $25) was assembled by the editors of Web magazine Word.com, who sent interviewers across the United States to capture the spirit of the American workforce. The results, which are published in the form of first-person narratives, are funny, poignant, intelligent, bizarre — and not to be missed.

Sidebar: Cheat Sheet

Are you too busy trying to balance your own work life and personal life to read about women struggling with the same problems? Here are some quick hits from Flux.

No strength in numbers: Although thousands of women have flooded into professions that were once dominated by men, those women still make up only 13% of law partners, 26% of tenured professors, and 12% of corporate officers.

Why women are stuck: Organizations continue to be structured around men who have stay-at-home wives. And with so few mothers sitting in executive offices, younger women are making career and mate choices that are based on an idea that they will be the primary caregiver to their children. By picking more flexible careers that are also likely to be lower-paying (and by choosing husbands who earn more than they do), women ensure that they will be the ones who make the career sacrifices down the road.

What women and men should do: Women need to give up the "Perfect Mother" syndrome — the notion that a "good" mother is completely responsible for managing family life. "It's a simple equation. If you're doing it all, you do not have it all." And women need to allow the men in their lives to be equal partners at home. "Until men fully understand what it means to straddle two worlds, women who pursue 'life balance' will continue to sacrifice career advancement."

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