Taking care, taking charge

Posted: Oct 27, 2005 12:05 AM

Not so long ago, conservatives took delight in defending the woman who could wield power like a man. They were usually thinking about women like Margaret Thatcher and Golda Meir. That was before women took over the big corner offices across the spectrum of professions (and trades). Women with a yen to rise to the top can do it anywhere now if they have the skills, the moxie and the drive.
Not everybody has got the word. Last week, Newsweek's cover story was about Oprah Winfrey and seven other prominent women, and their stories about how they got where they are all sounded like exceptions to the rule. They were described as women with "a continuing passion for their work." It's hard to imagine patronizing successful men in just that way. 

  "Women 'Take Care,' Men 'Take Charge'" is the title of the conclusions of a study of sexual stereotyping in the business community, and how stereotypes hold women down. Catalyst, a research organization that examines women's accomplishments and careers, concludes that the most damaging stereotype is that women aren't as good at problem solving as men, and that's what keeps them out of leadership roles. Companies are thus deprived of a vital talent pool. "Gender diversity" in the workplace doesn't make a significant difference, and women themselves often incorporate the stereotypes in their thinking. They often don't try to change it. Women make up less than 2 percent of both the Fortune 500 and the Fortune 1000 CEOs.

 It's taboo to suggest today that childbearing has anything to do with the scarcity of women at the top of certain professions. Neil French, the global creative director of WPP, the second largest advertising company, was asked at a conference not long ago why more women hadn't made it to the top of the creative side of the advertising industry. "They don't deserve to," he said -- their roles as childbearers and caretakers prevent their succeeding in top positions.

 He should have known better. Shades of Lawrence Summers at Harvard. The childbearing/caretaking argument so enraged one woman that she took her revenge by inflicting death by a thousand cuts -- on the Internet. Several hundred thousand words later, Neil French resigned, telling The New York Times that he thought the reaction was "lunacy" and that "death by blog is not really the way to go."

 There's no question that many women can make it to the top with a family at home if not in tow, but it's unreasonable to discount family concerns as the legitimate reason many women don't try harder to fly higher. In the days when distinctions between the sexes were referred in the vernacular to qualities that flow from biological rather than "gender" differences, it was a given that women often make different choices than men, even when they're demonstrably as smart, as able as men.

 Women reach their high-achieving "turning point" years about the same time they hear biological-clock alarms go off. Babies and young children, who care not a whit about the politics of gender, demand tough decisions. Round-the-world travel and 80-hour workweeks are not mother-friendly. Of course, they're not father-friendly either, but does the most dedicated and determined feminist imagine that men can be conditioned to react as women to those "unfriendly" experiences?

 Once when I was a guest of Oprah's to talk about the difficulties of combining career and children, Oprah talked about her own experience of never having had children, of making the choices that enabled her to achieve her career goals. The tears in her eyes were real. Women are no longer relegated to "different spheres," and their numbers will grow in the rooms at the top, but not necessarily in every field.

 The new television sitcom "Commander in Chief" (they ought to call it "Commander in Chic," and it could double as a lipstick infomercial), is a fantasy about a woman who as vice president gets the top job when the president suffers a fatal brain aneurysm. In the real world, there's talk of an unlikely 2008 race between Hillary and Condi, who suffer no severe distaff stereotypes. Hillary's daughter is grown, and Condi never had either a daughter or the mixed blessing of a certain First Gentleman. A Gallup Poll two years ago found that nine of 10 Americans could imagine voting for a woman for president. But there was no particular name attached, so the result was interesting but didn't necessarily tell us much. Dick Morris, who was once Bill Clinton's political guru, compares a contest between Hillary and Condi to classic bouts in history: Hector vs. Achilles; Wellington vs. Bonaparte; Lee vs. Grant; Mary, Queen of Scots vs. Elizabeth. Hyperbole aside, neither Hillary nor Condi would lack problem-solving skills.