New measures for success
By MarySheila E. McDonald
How do you measure success? For some, it is calibrated in terms of salary or the amount of money stashed in a 401(k). Others equate success to the number of academic degrees earned. Still others define it as having good health and fulfilling relationships. In the world of business, one's professional success is often viewed through a lens focused on achieving a top position in a firm, with the chief executive officer post as the pinnacle.
Today, women are achieving tremendous success in the attainment of advanced degrees (they surpass males in master's and doctoral programs), and more than 60 percent of college freshmen are women. However, classroom success has not translated into similar achievements in the boardroom.
According to some reports, 14 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs were women last year. In the Philadelphia region, only 11 percent of the top 100 public companies had women on their boards. What's up with that?
I was intrigued and a little angered by a piece in the Atlantic titled "Miss Education." Garance Franke Ruta laments that women often engage in "intellectual primping - the frequently futile hope that one more degree will finally win notice, and with it, that perfect job or raise." Ruta, drawing on numerous studies and recent books by the likes of Sheryl Sandberg (Lean In) and MSNBC's Mika Brzezinski, concludes that as soon women have that diploma in hand, many begin to fall behind their male counterparts - who may not be as highly credentialed as them. Why?
Schools primarily reward hard work and good grades - attributes in which females tend to excel - as opposed to risk-taking and the art of negotiation (skills that men appear to have mastered at greater rates than women). Men don't fall prey to what the founders of Negotiating Women Inc. call "the Tiara Syndrome" - the belief that, if you just keep doing a good job, someone will notice you and place a crown on your head. Research has shown women are still offered lower starting salaries and are criticized more and praised less than guys in the workplace. What's up with that?
Harvard Business Review, along with the business press, has been examining this paradox for the last decade. A double standard continues: Nancy McKinstry, CEO of Wolters Kluwer, a Dutch publishing and information company, was astonished when the Dutch press reported that she wore a suit the same color as the KLM flight attendants. Would a male CEO's fashion choice be newsworthy in a story about the firm's future plans?
In addition, despite the fact that increasing numbers of families have both parents working full time outside the home, women continue to shoulder more of the domestic and child-related responsibilities than their husbands.
And what about the so-called mommy track? Twenty-four years ago, Felice Schwartz coined the term and stirred things up by positing that the costs of employing women in management were greater than those of employing men because of gender stereotypes and expectations. Years of socialization and the fact that women are the ones who get pregnant and give birth posed professional barriers for women not faced by men who chose fatherhood.
The mommy track was followed by "on-and-off ramping," in which women would choose to exit the fast lane of the workplace and either leave their profession for a while to raise children, or change pace, shift gears, and ratchet back their careers in order to more sanely balance work and family demands.
Juxtapose this with Catalyst Inc.'s research showing that Fortune 500 firms with the largest number of female board members had higher financial performance rates than companies with fewer women on their boards. Another paradox?
Perhaps the measure of success for our daughters should not be tied exclusively to the percentage of female CEOs at any given time. Instead of defining success in terms of power or money, women - heck, men and women - should consider a third metric.
It should come as no surprise that it was the well-educated and highly successful Arianna Huffington who challenged the all-women graduates of Smith College in May to replace traditional notions of success with a new metric based on "well-being, wisdom, our ability to wonder and to give back." Huffington told the young women not to aim at breaking through glass ceilings, but to change the system by "going to the root of what's wrong."
"Because it's not working for anyone," Huffington said. "It's not working for women; it's not working for men. . . . It's only truly working for those who make pharmaceuticals for stress, diabetes, heart disease, sleeplessness, and high-blood pressure."
As I continue to strive for my own work-life balance, I plan to challenge my female and male business students to consider this more holistic third path to "success." I'll pass on the tiara and take balance and harmony.
MarySheila E. McDonald is associate dean of the School of Business at La Salle University. E-mail her at email@example.com.