Leadership & Management

Women are Still Scarce in Top-Level Business Positions

Deborah Zoullas, MBA ’78, outlined what professional women can do at the annual banquet organized by the Women in Management MBA student group.

May 01, 2008

| by Michele Chandler

Their numbers have grown in business schools and throughout the corporate world. But women still have a long way to go before they become a significant presence in top-level business jobs, according to Deborah Zoullas, MBA ‘78.

The New York resident and entrepreneur recently outlined what professional women can do to push ahead during her April 30 address to the annual banquet organized by the Women in Management MBA student group.

Zoullas acknowledged that times have changed since she graduated from Smith College with a mathematics degree in 1974. At her first job as an analyst with investment bank Morgan Stanley, Zoullas said officials held a spirited discussion about the appropriateness of her going on a short daytime business trip with her male boss. During a stay at the prestigious Union League Club of Chicago, she was directed to a ‘ladies entrance’ around the corner from the front door.

After two years as an analyst, Zoullas was off to Stanford to get her MBA, where she saw more women seeking business careers. In 1976, Zoullas said, her first-year MBA class included 73 women, about 23 percent of the entire class.

She returned to Morgan Stanley in 1978 and, to her pleasant surprise, found that half of the 10 new MBAs at the firm were female. However, she saw over the years that integrating those female MBAs “into the alpha-male culture of Wall Street at the time would prove more difficult.”

Again, some of the annoyances she related from her early professional days seemed small: The firm’s male president routinely paused to let Zoullas be the first to exit the elevator, while other male superiors insisted on carrying her bags of documents. Still, Zoullas said, the treatment drew attention to her and other women “at a time when we were all working very hard to be considered the same.”

Zoullas said a more insidious development — gender bias — ended up holding women professionals back from top management jobs.

While Morgan Stanley grew quickly throughout the 1980s, most of those new workers were male and the women who got hired were assigned to less influential business partners. They were not selected to work with the company’s highest-profile clients. Senior women also tended to end up in less powerful jobs such as being in charge of human resources or corporate communications, both posts that Zoullas said rarely resulted in job holders being groomed to be CEO.

Disillusioned with their slow pace of advancement, many women left the company.

Progress has been made, said Zoullas. At Stanford, the percentage of female MBA students rose to 38 percent for the class of 2008, about a 65 percent increase from when Zoullas attended. There’s a new generation of male managers who have “interacted with impressive women as friends and classmates” and are more accepting and comfortable with women as colleagues and managers than Zoullas’ generation.

She cited research from the London School of Economics that concluded the innovation capacity is highest at companies with mixed-gender teams. “This is very powerful,” she said.

Still, she said, women hold 16 percent of officer level jobs with Fortune 500 companies, an increase of just 1 percent during the past five years, and women comprise only 16 percent of corporate directors. Said Zoullas, “More change is certainly necessary.”

Women themselves can initiate change, Zoullas insists.

Over her years as a supervisor, she said she noticed that while her male subordinates frequently detailed their business accomplishments, female reports were a totally different story. “I’d have to seek them out, sit them down and ask them what they were doing,” she said.

Women need to get comfortable telling their bosses that they’re doing great things, she said. “Each of us has to find her own way to brag to her manager and not have this be interpreted as being overly aggressive. Women must learn to walk fine lines between knowing how to manage these subtleties and to get the message through constructively.”

Zoullas closed her talk with a list of women’s “career management imperatives:”

Seek Feedback

“Managers are likely to be uncomfortable giving women employees feedback for fear of upsetting them. We need to get over it. We need to push ourselves to push our bosses to give us the information each one of us needs to make a course-correction and be more successful.”

Find Mentors, Male or Female

“As we navigate our careers, mentors can be a really great source of advice and support, so we need to focus on developing relationships with senior people throughout the organization who are well positioned to be helpful.”

Be Proactive

“We need to be willing to ask for and negotiate for a job we want, a promotion we deserve, a raise we feel is due. We women are notoriously bad at doing this.”

Look Sideways for Supporters

“As you progress throughout your career, some of your mentors might end up being junior to you in the organization. You might be trying to initiate change, and it’s nice to have friends sprinkled around the organization who might be supportive with what you are trying to accomplish.”

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