Pride and Prejudice – Women’s career achievement and individual choice.

By Ann Marlowe, a New York City writer and legal recruiter, the author of How to Stop Time: Heroin from A to Z and numerous articles.

A new congressional study released January 23 reports that managerial salaries for women in seven of the ten industries that had the most women employees lost ground between 1995 and 2000. Women now make up nearly half the workforce but they are still just 12% of corporate officers.

The study was commissioned by Manhattan’s Democratic congresswoman, Carolyn B. Maloney, and conducted by the General Accounting Office. Of course, when the government commissions a study, they likely expect that the conclusions require government action. Indeed, Democratic representative John Dingell of Michigan, explaining that women now provide a significant share of family income, called for hearings on the study’s conclusions.

Before we spend more of the taxpayers’ money, we might consider some explanations other than “discrimination” for the continuing gender gap in earnings.

Take individual choices, for one. The economist who vetted the study for the GAO, Martha Farnsworth Riche, quoted in the New York Times, said, “Over all, women are equal to men up to about 33 years of age and then they steadily lose”. Her explanation? Childrearing preferences; presumably because women tend to devote more time to these responsibilities, managers who are mothers earn only two thirds of what managers who are fathers earn.

There is a significant amount of self-selection by women away from the stressful, time-consuming, demanding careers that are the most lucrative, both because these careers are difficult to reconcile with significant involvement in child-rearing and far harder to pin down cultural reasons. It is these factors we should be looking at, not discrimination. The GAO study found that 60 percent of female managers did not have children, so clearly childcare responsibilities are not holding these women back. But something is.

This is clear in the finance industry — one of the seven in which women lost ground — and at this time of year the evidence appears in black and white. Every January, the major investment banks run newspaper advertisements listing their new managing directors. Although I haven’t worked in investment banking in 20 years, I still watch for these lists. I am looking for the female names.

When I was a financial analyst in corporate finance at an investment bank in the early 1980s there were no female MDs. I was one of the first female analysts at my bank, and female associates were a distinct minority. I did work for two of the very few female VPs, however, and I was thrilled when one of them made MD.

This isn’t to say that I ever felt the chill of prejudice. If men were making misogynistic remarks, they never let me hear them. As far as I was concerned, my merits or lack of them determined how I did at my job.

As it turned out, I didn’t enjoy crunching numbers and thinking about debentures ten hours a day. When I left to get my M.B.A. in finance I didn’t return to Wall Street. Life lead me in different directions, but I preserved a hardy respect for the proving ground of Wall Street — the harsh hours, the often brutal culture, but also the esprit de corps, the pride in great efforts and risks. And, of course, the money.

So every year I watched for the lists of new MDs and for awhile I was able to note happily that the number of female names climbed steadily, just as the names grew to encompass every ethnic group you can imagine and then some. Wall Street is one of the great meritocracies, if you are willing and able to play by its stern rules.

In early January, I turned to Morgan Stanley’s ad in the Wall Street Journal. The list of new MDs took up an entire page: fully 153 names. Just 16 were female — ten percent. Barclays listed 22 names and no women at all.

Prejudice? I would be less ashamed for my gender if I could believe that, but I don’t. There was little enough 20 years ago. And today, in spite of the best efforts of feminist organizations to find it, discrimination remains difficult to locate. In July of last year, Catalyst released the results of a poll of 838 Wall Street professionals. The New York Times could not quite assimilate the results; it ran a front-page article headlined, “Survey of Wall Street Finds Women Disheartened,” but the facts said the opposite.

Job satisfaction was high among both the men and the women surveyed, with 77% of women and 80% of men “very satisfied” or “satisfied” with their current position. Men and women reported very similar (mixed) feelings about their place in their firm: 57% of women and 59% of men feel that their voice is heard in decision-making, 53% of women and 56% of men feel that their job assignments give them visibility with top management.

The major difference between the genders emerged when the participants were asked if they agree or strongly agree with the statement, “I believe that if I work hard I can make it to the top of my firm”. Most men and women were disillusioned; only 44% of men thought they could make it — and just 28% of women.

And while men and women both thought having an influential mentor was important to advancement (73% for women, 72% for men) and more men than women said they lacked mentors — 73% of men compared with 65% of women — it was the women rather than the men who were “very dissatisfied or dissatisfied” with the availability of mentors — 50% of women but 36% of men.

What we see throughout the Catalyst survey is that women and men see the same trees, but a different forest. Both sexes may believe the deck is stacked against any individual but men think those are the breaks, and women think it’s because they are women.

Both sexes realize they are in a tough business which pays outsized sums to those who can meet high standards, endure brutal competition and survive the drastic and speedy penalties for failure. Men accept the game as offered and play it without attributing its difficulty to their gender. Women decide that if there are bad things about their work environment, it must be because of their gender.

What about the rampant sexism, the nasty comments, and the sexual harassment everyone knows are rampant on Wall Street? What about them? Only 11% of Wall Street women (and 3% of men) reported being treated unfairly at work because of their gender, while only 13% of women (and 1% of men) said they have received unwelcome sexual attention at work.

Given that institutional commitment to gender equality is just two or three decades old, and that a third of the respondents work in brokerage — a notoriously rough and ready environment — the numbers aren’t bad. (Who wants to bet that more than 13% of men on Wall Street have received unwelcome comments about their baldness, fatness, shortness, or other physical traits from other men? It’s not a field for the thin-skinned.)

Despite the evidence to the contrary, no matter how many Carly Fiorinas deny it, it has become a commonplace among women that there is a glass ceiling in business. Doubtless, the GAO study will be used by some as evidence for it. Maybe men would seize this excuse if they could — it’s certainly easier than taking responsibility for one’s own choices in life. But it becomes pernicious when it keeps young women from even entering the fray, when it leads them to quit at the first sign that the road to the top is a rocky one.

For the last 14 years, I have worked as a headhunter for lawyers, and I cannot count the number of women who have said they were looking for easier jobs with lower hours. The number who said they wanted to be partners at top firms has been very, very small. Although the statistics on women partners at major law firms aren’t as bad as the Wall Street numbers, they do not give me much pride in my gender.

Pride is worth a moment of reflection. It’s one of the characteristics of Wall Street professionals that inspired me when I worked there: the way men and women took on seemingly superhuman tasks without complaint and accomplished them, the way they maintained poise and grace under pressure. These were people with pride in themselves and it led them forward when many others might have retreated. Pride produced the behavior that lead to high earnings and they also reinforced it; if you are making a million dollars a year doing something you respect, you tend to be proud of yourself.

I don’t hear nearly as much pride as I would like from young women professionals speaking about their careers. All too often, I hear of a job as a trial to overcome, the workday as an ordeal, the late hours as a punishment. There is pitifully little relish in the hundreds of thousands of dollars in income these women make. There are nervous giggles on the subject of ambition, giggles that make me sad, because they imply that these women do not take their goals quite seriously and don’t think I will either. So rare are the avowals of high goals that I wonder how a whole generation has abandoned its pride.

Anyone still tempted to cry “prejudice” should consider the case of the new COO of Merrill Lynch. Around the same time last summer that the Catalyst survey came out, Merrill Lynch named a black man, E. Stanley O’Neal, as president and COO. Mr. O’Neal, who is 49, is expected to become Merrill’s chairman in a couple of years. The son of a laborer and a maid, Mr. O’Neal was born poor in rural Alabama, grew up in an Atlanta housing project, and went to college at night while working at a Ford plant.

Mr. O’Neal fought his way past incalculable odds to a position of power and visibility. His accession to the presidency of Merrill will give thousands of young African-Americans hope that they too can reach the highest levels of American business. It should also give women who believe in a glass ceiling pause.

It’s pride, not prejudice, that is the key: the pride to say that if a sharecropper’s son can become president of Merrill Lynch, power on earth can come to any American with the talent and energy to pursue it. The pride to withstand the disappointments, humiliations, and enmities that anyone who is successful in the business world has endured and overcome.

Will a day come when we will hear young women proudly say that they want to lead corporations and investment firms and law firms, that they enjoy the challenges of learning and building a business? Will a day come when it will be socially acceptable for high-powered women, like their male counterparts, to say that they don’t want an easygoing job, they want to do exactly what their abilities mark them for: to lead?

Perhaps the last word should belong to Mr. O’Neal. As he told the Harvard Business School Bulletin in June, just before his elevation to the Merrill presidency, “I think life is about doing the best that you can with what you are born with. It’s a fascinating journey to discover what that is.”

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