With all the talk recently about the need for women to "lean in," the phrase that has gained instant currency with the publication of Sheryl Sandberg's book about how women should act more aggressively in pursuing their careers, it is worth asking: Has the glass ceiling been shattered when it comes to women leading major companies in America?
Before you answer, consider that 21 women currently are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, and not companies that primarily cater to women, such as cosmetics and fashion, but giants in sectors like high tech, defense and chemicals, including IBM, Lockheed Marietta and DuPont. During a 10-year period, Meg Whitman oversaw an expansion that took eBay from a company with 30 employees and $4 million in annual revenue to one with more than 15,000 employees and $8 billion in revenue. At many companies, it seems like the glass ceiling is no more, or at least very close to being shattered.
Talk about leaning in.
Personally, I never thought there was a really a glass ceiling in the corporate setting. A quarter century ago, as a Business School professor worried that young women might be dissuaded from a business career by fears that they could only rise so far -- and never to the top -- I predicted in an article that by the late 1990s there would be 20 to 30 women CEOs of major companies.
My argument was that the then absence of female Fortune 500 CEOs was caused by a shortage of women in the CEO pipeline, not by the sexist glass ceiling. After all, one 1988-vintage female CEO would have required thousands of women to have committed themselves to that goal in the college class of 1953, because it takes an average of 35 post-college years to become a CEO. Since most women in that Mad Men era were thinking about the initials Mrs., not CEO, the shortage of women CEO candidates in the 1980s of female was hardly surprising.
As a new generation of women began to pursue careers, the pipeline gradually filled with women whose talents and ambitions could lead them to top corporate jobs. And by the late 1990s my prediction... (what happened?) Now the pipeline is chock full, and the number of women CEOs of companies is bound to continue to rise.
But if the glass ceiling has been broken with respect to women CEOs, it appears to be intact in other areas of corporate America. Why, for example, do women make up only 14 percent of corporate boards? Given the steady increase of women in companies there should be many qualified women ready and able to serve on boards now. The easy answer is that sexism is still at work, and no doubt there is some truth to that. But the main reason for the gender gap on corporate boards may be that many women in business, who have plenty of confidence and ability, simply do not want to serve.
Too many boards are spineless, acting mainly as rubber stamps for ridiculous pay packages for inept management and unimaginative strategies. I have some personal experience with what happens when board members exercise their oversight responsibilities. I was the only member of a board to veto a bonus for our CEO, who had gotten the company into substantial trouble. After the vote, the company's human resource manager told me that the staff viewed me as its best director. But when he became the CEO himself, I was asked to leave the board. The independence that he once valued became a threat to him as CEO.
There are plenty of stories like these, and the chronic problems related to poor corporate governance are well known. In this environment, it's no wonder many potential board members, men as well as women, would rather not participate. Sure, the pay is attractive - an average of $220,000 for a few meetings a year - but talented people can earn money in more fulfilling ways.
For women, one prime way is to form their own companies, and here women are "leaning in" in record numbers. Between 1997 and 2007, the number of women-owned business grew by 44 percent, twice as fast as those owned by men, adding 500,000 jobs to the economy, while other privately held firms lost jobs. Judy Faulkner, for example, the founder of Epic Systems, an electronic health records firm with 2011 revenues of $1.2 billion, is worth an estimated $1.7 billion. Soon, an estimated 40% of the U.S. population will have its medical information stored in Epic's digital medical records. There are many other success stories like hers.
Sexism and the old boys' network have not been eliminated entirely, and may never be. But when you take a deeper look at the dynamics shaping corporate America, it's clear that women have been succeeding in business on their own terms -- they can run major companies, choose to serve on boards or not, or create their own enterprises. There is little that can stop them.