One of the greatest challenges that western professional women face at work today is, paradoxically, the success they’ve had in overcoming discrimination and bias. Recently IBM has announced that Virginia Rometty was to become president and chief executive officer on January 1, 2012. At the time she was an IBM senior vice president and group executive for sales, marketing and strategy. She took over from Sam Palmisano, who stayed on as chairman of the board of directors. As I write the world’s two largest computer companies are now run by women. The other is Hewlett-Packard, where Meg Whitman, formerly of eBay, who replaced Léo Apotheker.
Women are thriving in companies today. More women are advancing to higher levels in their companies and wielding increasing amounts of influence and power. Examples like Rometty and Whitman, Alison Cooper of Imperial Tobacco, Katherine Garrett-Cox of Alliance Trust and Virgin Bank’s Jayne-Anne Gadhia illustrate the strides women have made in corporations.
They are held up as symbols of how we are overcoming centuries of gender discrimination. From a cultural perspective, the successes sharpen the contrast in the conditions for women in the U.K. and U.S.A. and women in developing countries where problems for women are the much more fundamental ones of lack of education, arranged marriage, and lack of financial independence.
We like stories of women who have succeeded in business because they are inspiring and make us feel good about our businesses and our society. But these stories also foster the illusion that conditions for working women are just fine. Highly visible examples (like stories of successful women) are easy to notice and easy to remember. As a result, we tend to think that this must be the trend for working women in general. Moreover, we begin to think that these successes, are probably just the tip of the iceberg and all kinds of great opportunities are emerging for women everywhere.
In fact, women at work encounter many of the same challenges they have always faced. Pay differentials that favour men are still there. Women continue to advance less swiftly than male counterparts. Experiences of discrimination and bias tire and frustrate women at work on a daily basis. After thirty years of work as a professional woman, and with other professional women I still see and hear classic corporate gender bias tales. Do you remember Arabella Weir’s “Invisible Woman” character from the Fast Show? In a meeting, a woman contributes an idea and is ignored. Minutes later, a male colleague shares the same idea and the room erupts in wild enthusiasm over his insight. Those sketches got laughs because they were – and are – so true! I hear this story from junior and senior women alike.
Senior male colleagues often listen to these stories with extreme scepticism – they genuinely just don’t see it or hear it.
I rest my case.