Women at work: Careers under glass
By Porter Anderson
(CNN) -- Her book-length report may be called "Breaking Through the Glass Ceiling: Women in Management," but it's "glass walls" Linda Wirth wants to talk about.
"When people ask me, 'Well, what do you do to get women to the top,'" in business, "I say we need to work on this glass walls thing."
Wirth is senior gender specialist with the International Labor Organization's (ILO) Bureau for Gender equality. And, perhaps rather importantly for her current work, she's a former teacher of mathematics and science at secondary schools in her native Australia.
Her report for the ILO says that the United States by 1999 was leading the world in the number of women holding executive management positions in the country's 500 largest companies. In fact, the number doubled from 1996 to 1999. "But it doubled from a meager 2.4 percent in 1996 to a meager 5.1 percent," she says.
And that's the good news. Wirth's data tell her that just 1.3 percent of top management positions in 1999 -- the latest year her figures reflect -- were held by women in the largest companies in her homeland, Australia; 2 percent in France; 3 percent in Germany and Brazil; 3.6 percent in the United Kingdom. In Canada, her data tell her, 43.6 percent of companies were found to have no female corporate officers at all. To the south, the United States had no female corporate officers that year at 21 percent of its companies.
"There's a perception," Wirth says, "that women are moving, getting there somehow, making progress. But consider that only eight heads of state are women. Some 13 percent of parliamentarians, worldwide, are women.
"Women continue to increase their share" of top executive representation "overall, but one surprise is that in Denmark, Spain and the United Kingdom, we saw no change at all between 1996 and 1999. And in a few countries -- Belgium, Greece, Poland, Romania -- it went backward."
The ILO was formed in 1919 and today is an agency of the United Nations. Its "tripartite" mission is to bring together representatives of government, employers and workers on issues of the workplace. Wirth's report, in fact, came about as a result of a 1997 meeting in Geneva in which the effort was instigated to start looking at trends in some 70 countries.
Some of the points included in "Breaking Through the Glass Ceiling":
At the global level in 1990, 67 percent of all women age 20 to 54 were economically active. By the year 2010, that figure is expected to reach almost 70 percent.
Women make up the majority of part-time workers, between 60 and 90 percent worldwide.
Approximately half the world's workers are in what the ILO describes as sex-stereotyped occupations, in which one gender predominates to such a degree (at least 80 percent) that the occupations are widely considered "men's" or "women's" jobs.
Time-use studies show that women work longer hours than men in nearly every country, with women consistently performing more of the unpaid (household) work.
Periods away from the labor force to give birth and care for children are becoming shorter. In the United States, the proportion of working mothers with children under the age of 3 went from 34 percent in 1975 to 57 percent in 1994. The percentage of working mothers with children less than 1 year old was 53.6 percent in 1998.
'Men's' and 'women's' jobs
So what about that "glass walls" concept Wirth talks about?
"We call it 'occupational segregation,'" she says. "It has to do with 'what boys do' and 'what girls do' at school. The traditional roles are reflected in what subjects they choose to study. And even though it's changing, it's far from equal these days.
"What we really want is not to say that more women must go into science. In a program in Denmark, they're aware of the stereotyping and they've introduced an approach in preschool that offers options for what boys and girls might want to do. What they're finding is that the girls certainly can do science and very well but many don't want to. They're not interested.
"I've been asked in Europe, especially, whether women really want leadership roles. In Australia, I've seen some young women who are happy if they can get equal pay, they don't necessarily want to go farther.
"So I think what you come to argue is that women, like men, should have the options. Men should be able to go into caring professions if they want to. Women should be able to climb the ladder if they want to."
And whether by choice or by societal programming, Wirth says, the "glass walls" she speaks of are in place long before a "glass ceiling" may be overhead.
Men and women are accustomed to respecting these invisible barriers between professions and fields, she says, "and there are two important indicators that result -- one is lack of participation in the decision-making for women, and the other is the persistent pay gap between men and women."
"What we recommend," she says, "is that if you really want to support women as an employer, give them challenging, high-profile assignments, expose them to all the operational aspects of an organization, so 15 years down the road, they're equipped to handle top positions."
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