Seems like a logical question, especially considering the massive changes in the work force since World War II. In 1950, 33 percent of women worked outside the home; by 1999, 60 percent did. Today, women make up half of the labor force, but what does this really mean for female employees and those who employ them?
Despite numerous statistics that point to an increased representation of women in the work force, there are a few areas where the numbers are less than impressive. For example, only 9 percent of corporate officers in Fortune 500 companies are women.
But just as it's shortsighted to believe that being a woman in today's business environment is no different than being a man, it's also not enough to simply stereotype women's successes and behaviors.
There's no doubt the inclusion of women in the business world has changed the way employers view employees. Women business owners tend to have more gender equality in their work forces -- 52 percent of their employees are women. Women make up just 38 percent of the work force at the average male-owned firm.
Women-owned firms are also more likely to offer flextime, tuition reimbursement and profit-sharing.
So what are the issues unique to women in business?
When you talk about what it's like to be a woman in business, you have to take into consideration the past, the future and the state of the business world today.
In February, Smart Business brought together five area business leaders for a roundtable discussion on the subject. Suzanne Sutter, president of Things Remembered; Sister Diana Stano, president of Ursuline College; Alice Korngold, president and CEO of Business Volunteers Unlimited (BVU); Karen Sweeney, vice president and general manager of Turner Construction Co.; and Kathy Obert, president of Edward Howard & Co., were asked about business, leadership and corporate cultures within their organizations.
They talked about how things have and have not changed since they began their careers, how each succeeded and how they face the unique challenges and opportunities every woman faces in her career.
Smart Business: Let's start by talking about the basics of being a women in a career, some of the perceptions and misconceptions, and how things have changed.
Sister Diana Stano: Being a religious woman, I'm often seen as neutral. When I was getting my doctorate, I was the only woman in my class. I wasn't considered a woman, but I wasn't a man. I'm an 'it.'
We would all be at social gatherings, and all the men were down in the basement and all the women were in the kitchen talking about recipes and kids. I wasn't involved with either at that moment in my life, so the question is, 'Where do you go?'
Do I go downstairs with the guys, or do I go upstairs with the women, who I have nothing in common with other than being female?
Karen Sweeney: Even in a business setting, it requires you to figure out where you fit in. There is this informal network that men have. Decisions, strategic decisions, were made, and I would go to my boss and ask, 'Why didn't you ask me to join that meeting?'
And he says, 'Oh, he just came in here and sat down.'
I'm not socialized that way, to just go into your boss's office and sit down. So what I've tried to do is make the office more conducive to small groups and gatherings to kind of force the issue.
Kathy Obert: I just recently joined the Cleveland Chapter of the Young Presidents Organization. Until this month's event, there were no women in the Cleveland chapter of YPO.
YPO, every January, has an event. This January, 80 guys planned to go to baseball fantasy camp in Winter Haven. So I spent the last week playing baseball with 80 guys at Winter Haven, wearing an Indians uniform that I would never in my life put on.
There are two women in the chapter now and we were just one of the guys. It was like you (Stano) in the basement, but we were out on the ball field. Of course, all the men asked, 'How does it feel to be the only women?' And we said, 'We have a lot more in common with you guys.'
It was a good thing, and we have to do that. We have to put men at ease by going in the basement. It becomes incumbent on us to make them feel like we can be one of the guys and we want to go and throw the ball around.
That doesn't mean we have to be men. We don't have to be men.
Sweeney: You talk about being a man. In my field, you're out there with a hard hat and a tool belt ... and I knew that was going to be necessary to be accepted, to be credible and let them know that I was serious about my job, that I wasn't just out there to catch a husband.
Twenty years ago, everyone would come up to me and ask, 'What is a girl like you doing in a field like this?' I would say, 'Why can't I be interested in this?'
I think now it has become incumbent on women to step out and say, 'Look, we're different,' because women have so much to give. If I'm at a meeting and there is a woman there who has a strong personality and she steps up, everyone gasps.
And then they start to listen. Years ago, that wouldn't have happened.
Alice Korngold: It seems like there are more women of all different types at all different levels. I don't know about more comfortable, but (they) are more ready and willing to speak up, to participate, to be a factor.
Whether a person's style is more masculine or more feminine, I find them more comfortable saying, 'This is what I am. This is what I bring to the table. This is what I'm going to contribute. And I'm going to participate.'
That's what I think feels different, and it seems to be coming very naturally. I don't think assertive is the right word, but women are more comfortable saying, 'I'm playing, too, and I'm going to play as who I am.'
Stano: Women are more confident with who they are, and more confident with where they're at. Instead of trying to be somebody that you think somebody wants you to be, they are, 'Here I am, and I will contribute in any way I can.'
Korngold: It's coming from the women themselves.
There also seems to be a backlash against corporate America as increasing numbers of women and minorities are turning to entrepreneurship, once dominated by men.
Perhaps it's a sign of women's frustrations with corporate America and wage discrepancies, the obsequious glass ceiling and inflexible work hours.
As of 2002, there were an estimated 6.2 million majority-owned, privately held, women-owned businesses in the United States, employing 9.2 million people and generating $1.15 trillion in sales. In Ohio, between 1997 and 2002, the number of women-owned businesses increased by 32 percent, three times the growth rate of all employers in the state.
The number of women-owned businesses in the Cleveland/Lorain/Elyria area is estimated at more than 46,000, and they account for 28 percent of all privately held firms in the metropolitan area. They employ nearly 70,000 people and generate approximately $8.3 billion in sales.
Smart Business: The number of women entrepreneurs is increasing at a faster rate than the number of men. Why do you think this is? Are women frustrated with corporate America?
Sweeney: So many of my female counterparts have left because trying to assimilate to the culture was harder than trying to make it on their own. My mission, initially, was to break that barrier and figure out a way that I could make a difference and reassure women they could have a life, because when I came in, there were no policies on anything.
I took two maternity leaves, and every time, they didn't know what to do with me when I came back because they thought, 'Oh, she has kids now and she'll be leaving.' I kept forging ahead.
You have to keep making inroads. You really have to keep forging ahead and do what you want to do.
I had to figure out ways to get things done. Sometimes women try to insulate themselves and say, 'I'm the decision-maker.' Then you get somewhat isolated. I think you have to build a network. That's what men do. You have to build a network of advisers.
Stano: Historically, we started as an agriculture society and then went to an industrial society built on the skills and the strengths of men where they were needed more. Now, we are in a knowledge society, and it doesn't matter, or it shouldn't matter.
But we still have a whole history of how things have evolved. You have men that want to be protective of their wives. That is the way they grew up. They want to be the defenders and take care of things.
That is shifting. I think it is generational, and that younger people, younger men, recognize that.
Sweeney: A lot of it is the way business is going and changes in the law. When you think about how industrial culture was, with a very hierarchal structure, there were the management and the line positions, and never the two would mix.
The way that technology is changing, the way business is changing, businesses realize they get the best out of people when they do consensus building. We are becoming more effective at doing that.
You realize that businesses' strength is people, and not necessarily how the widget is produced.
Suzanne Sutter: I mentor MBA students, and I've been doing it for a long time, but I've noticed a lot of change in their attitudes in terms of their own career and what they want to do.
I'm finding that they desire a lot more flexibility. It is not that they won't commit themselves -- I've had a lot of talented women, younger and older, who are going back to grad school and want a new career. They are open to more options, and they also realize that they are going to take on an additional burden of child-rearing and family support or whatever.
They are much more open when looking at the career alternatives that they will consider. The world has changed in terms of alternatives.
Korngold: As an employer, the best investment I've made is keeping women who are having babies. It's a good business decision. You invest so much in finding the right person and training them, and it has paid off.
What is nice is that men have more choices now. Who needs what out of their career, their life, their family? It relieves the men of some of the pressure.
Smart Business: Is all of this coming to the forefront because both parents are in the workplace and both men and women are employees now?
Stano: This is an issue for men and women. It comes down to valuing people as individuals and their skills. That has shifted because the economy has shifted.
We recognize that people are the key, and that makes a difference -- I have a good person, and what do I do to keep this good person?
There are so many varieties of lifestyles and life choices; it is rather thrilling to think of the change. Before it was very black and white, (and we've moved) to a world with a lot of variety and personal choices that work best for everyone. That helps women, but I also think it enriches the workplace and family. And it allows each person to become what they need to become.
Sutter: There was a Fortune article about the top 100 companies to work for, and there was a strong theme that ran through about sensitivity and compassion for people and creating a culture of flexibility. There were other things. They all had great benefits, but it was all about the recognition for the role that the individual played in the company.
I think that is what it is really about, and it's going to take a continued effort on everybody's part in an organization.
Obert: That is not a male or female issue ... and I think we have to be very careful not to stereotype.
But even with the leveling playing field and work/life issues making their way into corporate culture, the majority of female employees still seem to hit that ubiquitous glass ceiling.
A 10-year study by the Kelly Business School that began in 1986 found the number of female directors at large corporations was decreasing. In 1986, 16.9 percent of board directors were women; in 1995, 16.7 percent were.
Women also hold fewer than 10 percent, or 600, of 6,274 of the board seats of Fortune 500 companies. However, 54 percent of the top 100 companies by revenue have multiple female directors, versus one-third of the overall Fortune 500 firms.
So why are women -- who make up more than half the work force, the majority of freshmen classes and an increasing number of graduate school students -- so underrepresented in top corporate positions?
According to Catalyst, a nonprofit organization that specializes in research on women's issues, senior executives were asked to name women's obstacles to obtaining a CEO position. The majority of men cited a "lack of management experience" and "not being in the pipeline long enough."
Women, however, reported "male stereotyping" and "exclusion from informal networks."
Smart Business: Are there specific challenges with regards to being a woman that make it difficult to get into a leadership position?
Korngold: There are real gender issues that women deal with, but I would also say, just deal with it. Be aware at the end of the day, be useful and productive and find out what you're good at and develop what you're good at.
Get your radar and draw on advisers and coaches, and people who will be helpful and people who will be supportive. Bow your heads and go do it. Be positive and don't whine about it.
Lots of people have obstacles. This is some of the stuff we have to deal with, so you deal. I will also say that those experiences have given me great strength and a tremendous sense of accomplishment.
Smart Business: The gender wage discrepancy remained virtually constant from 1955 through the 1970s. For full-time female workers, earnings increased in the 1980s, reaching 74.2 percent of men's earnings in 1997, then falling to 73.3 in 2000. This is still a real issue.
Korngold: Yes, that is a reality, but then I'm saying, 'Deal.' I don't mean to sound harsh, but what can you do? You get the information, present it to an employer, and if that doesn't get you anywhere, then maybe look for another opportunity. It is a real issue.
Smart Business: Do we fight this out in court or do we make inroads other ways?
Stano: I think you do both. You have some courageous women out there who are leading the cause and making everyone aware. And there are people in the rank and file who are just doing it where they are. Do the best you can.
But I agree, we have too many whiners. Life is life. Do what you can and move on. Whining and not doing anything about it is not making a difference.
Obert: Not playing the victim role. Yes, you have to be strong. Yes, you have to sometimes be a bitch. But we have an incredible toolbox available to us.
Maybe this is something that has changed, I don't know, but in the past you felt like you had to be more like a man, which you were then perceived as. You had to be strong and forceful.
But there is an incredible power in being charming, in smiling, such a power in hugging someone. I think a very successful female CEO will be able to be a bitch and also be able to hug someone.
Korngold: Get it off your chest and then move on. I see women bringing on more change because they are assertive and risk-takers. It is about saying, 'This salary thing is not right,' and doing the research and having a conversation.
It is figuring out how to work the system, to be useful and productive, and achieve what you want to get.
Smart Business: How do you do that?
Korngold: It depends on the environment you're in. It is about sizing up the environment, the players, the dynamics and the personality, and figuring out your alternative strategy to work with that.
Sweeney: Have your advocates and mentors. Have someone you trust to help you maneuver through some of the hurdles, people that have some honest insights.
You have to surround yourself and have advocates and people that you know you trust. Be around people that you know can get it done, because you can't do it all yourself. You have to trust people to carry out your mission.
Sutter: You have to develop really great radar. I was very fortunate. I was very young and they sent me to a psychologist so I could understand the interpersonal dynamics -- how men are socialized and how women socialized.
I was fortunate that I had that chance to learn that --the dynamics of radar. Sometimes you have to be demanding and tough, because it's about business and business outcomes, nothing more than that. Sometimes you have to be compassionate and loving and caring and understanding. I think you get credit for both.
You have to be resourceful and surround yourself with people that help you interpret what's going on and how to maneuver the mine fields. I line up my resources to interpret what's going on to avoid situations, especially when it's a really broad-based strategical business issue and you are trying to negotiate certain outcomes.
Stano: And you have to make mistakes. What you do is, you learn from them and never repeat them. You may make new ones, but you say, 'I've learned from this one,' and don't beat yourself up.
Smart Business: Do we pigeonhole ourselves with too much discussion and reinforce our own stereotypes? Do we assimilate to the culture or change it?
Sutter: You do both. At first you have to be competent. Then you challenge. You have to produce results. I helped create an organization where women were accepted.
You never get to take those things on if you're not there. And you have to have the courage and the confidence to do that. How to reach: Business Volunteers Unlimited, (216) 736-7111; Edward Howard & Co., (216) 781-2400; Things Remembered, (440) 473-2000; Turner Construction, (216) 522-1180; Ursuline College, (440) 646-8101