All Business

WHY WOMEN AREN’T CEOs

Neil French dared challenge the myth of gender equality, and paid for it

STEVE MAICH October 31 2005
All Business

WHY WOMEN AREN’T CEOs

Neil French dared challenge the myth of gender equality, and paid for it

STEVE MAICH October 31 2005

WHY WOMEN AREN’T CEOs

All Business

Neil French dared challenge the myth of gender equality, and paid for it

STEVE MAICH

NEIL FRENCH should have just smiled and shrugged his shoulders. When the person in the audience asked him why there weren’t more women in the senior creative ranks of the advertising business, he could’ve just mumbled something inoffensive about the challenges that still face working women. He might have shaken his head and said how big business still has a ways to go to smash the glass ceiling. Everybody would’ve liked that.

But no. Neil French had to go ahead and be honest, and it cost him his job.

When that question came from the audience at an ad industry gathering in Toronto a couple of weeks ago, the creative director of advertising juggernaut WPP Group PEC. said women “don’t make it to the top because they don’t deserve to.” He said they couldn’t devote themselves fully to the top jobs because of family commitments. And anybody who doesn’t fully commit to a job “is crap at it.” His blunt assessment irritated his audience, the Globe and Mail reported his comments in its business gossip column, and the snowball started to roll downhill. People began slinging around words like “sexist dinosaur,” and last week, French resigned. He did not, however, back down. He reiterated that women are rarities in senior corporate positions because most are unwilling to make the personal sacrifices of time and energy required to be the boss.

French, of course, can afford to be unrepentant. He’s a legend in the ad industry, and has more money than the Almighty himself, so he won’t be handing out resumés at job fairs anytime soon. Talent, of which French has loads, is always in high demand, even when it’s wielded by cigar-chomping bigmouths. So, his exile is temporary.

The shame of this little drama is that it has done more to shut down discussion of gender in the workplace than it has to advance it. French didn’t say women are ill-equipped for top jobs—though that’s how his comments were widely interpreted. He said women choose not to toss everything else aside to climb the corporate ladder. And behind the posturing and the self-serving condemnations that poured forth last week from every corner of the media, there was

a lot of truth in what French was saying, and everybody knows it.

There’s no point in even debating the fact that women face higher barriers to corporate advancement than do men. The Wall Street Journal coined the term “glass ceiling” more than 20 years ago, and it still exists despite the efforts of human resources departments across the continent. Women comprise about 46 per cent of America’s workforce but less than eight per cent of its top managers, according to the National Association of Women Business Owners. Numbers in Canada and much of Europe are similar. Almost half of the companies in Canada’s benchmark stock index don’t have a single woman on their board of directors.

There is only one accepted explanation for this discrepancy: sexism and gender bias.

But ask working women about their experiences, and they provide a more nuanced view. Sheila Wellington, a professor of business at New York University, has studied gender issues in the workplace and found that while stereotypes and old boy’s networks are certainly part of the problem, women also report dissatisfaction with the travel and hours involved in high-level executive work. Many tend to take more limited support roles to balance the priorities of life and work. The price they pay is limited advancement. But that’s not good enough for the forces of political correctness.

Today’s working woman is presented with an inescapable dilemma: if you sacrifice your family, in any way, for the sake of you career, then you’re a lousy mother. If you sacrifice career for family, then you’re letting down the generations of feminists who fought to give you a shot at a decent career. To deal with this impasse, modern society has served up a set of handy myths built around the idea that no sacrifice is necessary. There are 50 hours in every day. Emotional energy is limidess. And with proper planning and enough effort one can have a fabulous, lucrative career and an idyllic family life. If this balance eludes you, then you’ve failed, and should buy more self-help books. Anybody who dares challenge the myth is a misogynist.

What nobody seems to acknowledge is that the inability of women to advance in the workplace is a family failure as much as a professional one. Why, if a women is pursuing a challenging business career, can’t the husband be the one to drop everything at work and pick the sick kid up from school? An economist would say whichever spouse has the lower-paying job should be the one to sacrifice career prospects for the sake of family, but that’s not the way it works in the real world. Instead, we’ve established a system in which employers must make up for the lack of gender equality in the home.

When somebody has the temerity to suggest that a woman who takes more time off to attend to family matters is a less valuable employee than a man who doesn’t, and is therefore less likely to be promoted, that person is burned at the stake.

French did make a couple of mistakes. He overgeneralized and ignored the fact that subtle chauvinism still unquestionably exists. Those mistakes meant his comments were too simplistic, and incomplete. But not anti-woman and not wrong. Pity we can’t talk about it in polite company. U]

Read Steve Maich’s weblog, “All Business,” at www.macleans.ca/allbusiness

FRENCH didn’t say women aren’t equipped for top jobs, although that’s how his comments were spun. He said they choose not to make necessary sacrifices.