Martin: Women need more opportunity
Despite considerable progress over the past few decades, corporate America has not fully succeeded in breaking the glass ceiling for business women, former Labor Secretary Lynn Martin said in a lecture Tuesday.
The challenges facing women who attempt to balance work and family arise from long-standing social roles and a fundamental difference between the sexes, Martin said.
"We talk about family values all the time, but what do we really mean about it?" she asked. "We're talking about subtle things at work."
Among these are the attitudes executives take when recruiting and promoting young men as compared to young women. She made the point that a hiring officer is more likely to hire a man because he will not become pregnant, and as a result will be more flexible and miss less time from work.
Martin also pointed out that women tend to be less educated in technology and science, two fields that are leading the current economic surge, and that this is hurting women's employment prospects.
"There's still the idea that I, woman, do not have as much value," she said.
Still, she said, the biggest difference is attitudinal. Martin contended that, on average, a woman takes considerably more time off after childbirth than a man does, and feels more guilty about returning to work. The maternal expectations placed on them impinge upon their responsibilities at work, and they lose their place in the corporate hierarchy.
"We don't know how to move family into this whole [corporate] role," she said. "Not everybody can have it all."
Martin proposed a system in which women are given several years off to care for young children and then are retrained at an accelerated pace. This, she said, would enable them to return to the same company, in the same job, several years later, when some of the men who worked during her leave are ready to step down and take less responsibility.
"It's an expensive management problem," she said. "But the companies that are doing it are seeing higher retention among men and women."
She also discussed the problems facing minorities in the workplace. These stem from educational disparities and a certain narrow-mindedness that is rarely intentional but is harmful nonetheless, Martin said.
She warned against always applying the same solutions to the problems of different groups, though.
"Gender and race are not totally congruent, but gender issues can cross racial lines, and men and women are not the same," she said.
The former labor secretary emphasized that attention to these issues does more than combat discrimination, but also makes good sense for companies.
"This is not just about integrity, this is a business imperative," she said. "If we're going to talk about merit, we have to mean it. If we talk about integrity there has to be it."
Martin discussed the development of women's education during the past 50 years. In the early 1960s, she said, colleges began opening their doors to women in much greater numbers, although not necessarily to prepare them for the business world.
"It was done specifically and completely because the country thought that women would be better wives and mothers if they had an education," Martin said. While this worked for a time, according to Martin, it led women in the 1970s to challenge the assumptions that they should go from the classroom to the home.
She was one of the college-educated women who did not intend to enter the workforce.
"My goal in college was never to work again," she said. "But once you're educated, you can never be caged again."
Many other women found themselves coming to that realization in the 1970s, she said, and began entering the corporate world. This brought the beginnings of the glass ceiling problem women in business have faced ever since.
Martin served as secretary of labor from 1991 until 1993, under President George Bush. During her tenure, she focused on pension portability and the advancement of women in the workplace.
Martin represented Illinois' 16th District in Congress from 1981 until 1991. While in Washington she was elected vice chairperson of the House Republican Conference. Martin currently teaches at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and chairs Deloitte & Touche's Council on the Advancement of Women.
The talk, "Managing a New American Workforce," was the first in this year's Cardinal O'Hara Lecture Series, sponsored by Notre Dame's Center for Ethics and Religious Values in Business. It was also supported by Cargill, Inc.
All News Stories for Wednesday, September 22, 1999