Something Toxic on the Ceiling

I got a phone call from a magazine writer who was working on a story. Turns out that Stanford University put out a research study looking at what barriers exist for women in the corporate world. They talked to something like 1,000 of their MBA grades – not new grads, but people who went through Stanford over many years – and asked them what was keeping women out of the top ranks of corporations. Here's what they reported:

There is no glass ceiling. Women themselves are opting out of the top jobs, for lifestyle reasons or because they do not want the pressure.

So, asked the writer, "What do you think about that?"

Have you ever heard a person sputter on the phone? That's what I did. I could not find words for a moment.

"Bleeping brilliant!" I said. "That is magnificent – there is no glass ceiling, it's we ourselves who are opting out of senior leadership roles because, you know, there's so much pressure. that they may be spending on their high-potential women, and stop wringing their hands when women in senior roles bail at the next-to-highest rung of the ladder. "

He laughed, either in sympathy or amusement at my apoplexy, or both. Now mind you, I have not seen the study, so I'm one degree removed from the agreements (much less the data), but here's my take on the notification that women opt out of senior leadership spots rather than being kept out of them by their leaders:

Yes – we do. We leave. Because of the pressure? Oh, give me a break. Not because of the pressure – because of BS level that comes with the territory.

Think about senior-level roles in corporations these days. I do not think that there are more politics in actual politics than there are in major corporations. It's a tough way to live – watching your back, attending to your alliances, spouting the party line and fighting your battles behind the scenes. Generally I stay away from sweeping generalizations about one gender or the other. But I feel comfortable saying this: women have a lower threshold for idiotic, posturing, political, inauthentic behavior, day in and day out. Women have a cognitive dissonance alarm that gets louder and louder day by day so that they finally conclude, "This is not me. I can not keep doing this. I can not keep my mouth shut, go along, and play the good soldier for one more day, much less another fifteen years until retirement. " And that's just it – they're done.

They blow the whistle, like Sherron Watkins did at Enron, or they just take off. Can not take the pressure? Are you kidding me? Women who make it to the next-to-the-top rung of the ladder, the ones who are even in the position to decide between sticking it out and leaving, have already taken more pressure than most guys can even comprehend. They've smoked at enough gratuitous comments – walked the tightrope between telling the truth and drinking the company Kool-Aid – and slashed their way through enough uncharted territory to write a best-selling novel, or two. The most senior women I know are uniformly tough, articulate, smart, and incredibly flexible – they would not have survived the last twenty years of corporate life any other way.

So why do they leave? Because they look at that top spot and say, It's not worth it. There is nothing there that I need, and the cost – to myself, to my family, to my relationships – is too high. It's not the blasted pressure! It's the internal compass that says, Enough. Can women run corporations successfully? Of course they can. But so many corporations do not hold enough promise, enough room to mature, to evolve, to be the types of places that successful women want to run, that the grass is simply greener in too many other places. At home, with kids or horses or whatever stirs you. In a startup venture, writing a novel, or starting a foundation for Somalian children. The need to be in control does not always overcome the need to do something important and useful, plus the need to be herself, and so the women depart. Wimps!

If I were a CEO looking at this study, I would say, This is wrong. If women truly are leaving corporations at the point of the pyramid just below the tip, that's a waste. We hired them, we trained them and entrusted big chunks of the business to them, and now we've lost them, so something is clearly amiss. Are not our customers women? Are not ourholders women, and do not we believe, on the evidence and in our guts, that women should help run this organization? So what is happening internally here that is turning them off, and how do we fix it?

That's the takeaway I'd love to see from this study. Let's not conclude,

There's no glass ceiling, so if women are leaving our organizations, what can we do about it? Oh well – better get back to work.

Let's say instead,

If the barrier is not made of glass, but rather some toxic chemical that women will not expose themselves to, let's get rid of it and clean up our act. After all, if something is noxious to women, can it be healthy for anyone?

Send your views, observations and musings on women and the workplace to Liz at lizryan@worldwit.org .