How did women in the spotlight fare in 2008?

Here’s a sweeping and eclectic review of women in business, politics and law–Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Governor Sarah Palin, Caroline Kennedy and Michelle Obama, among others–before the year is too far behind us.  Plus an interesting commentary on how we perceive each other.

Women in Business

A New CEO Record. A January 4, 2009 article in USA Today by Del Jones entitled "Women Still Struggle to Get CEO Jobs" reviewed the current challenges for women. Starting off 2009, Ellen Kullman replaced Chad Holliday at DuPont, bringing the number of female CEOs running the nation’s largest 500 publicly traded companies to a record 13, one more than 2008. As recently as 1996 there was only one female CEO of a Fortune 500 company, co-CEO Marion Sandler of Golden West Financial, acquired by Wachovia in 2006, in the news recently because of its high level of mortgage defaults.

Does the gender of the CEO make any real difference in performance?  USA Today has evidently tracked the annual stock performance of Fortune 500 companies with female CEOs since 2003, when female CEOs so out-performed men that it looked like there might be a gender advantage, or at least the possibility that the glass ceiling was so difficult to crack, the women who made it to the top were more talented than their male counterparts.

Devastation for All.  But 2008’s devastation gave no advantages to anyone.  The chaos in the financial markets claimed three of its highest-ranking female players—Sallie L. Krawcheck, head of Citigroup’s wealth management unit, Zoe Cruz, a co-president at Morgan Stanley, and Erin Callan, chief financial officer of Lehman Brothers.

And female corporate managers fared as badly as the males. With the S&P 500 falling 38.5%, its worst year since 1937, the average large company run by a woman CEO performed 4% worse. The best-performing of women-led companies was Kraft Foods, down 18% under Irene Rosenfeld. "Nine of those 12 companies have now lost money for any shareholder who invested on the day the women got the job,” Jones notes. “The only exceptions: Susan Ivey at Reynolds American and the two longest-tenured women, Andrea Jung at Avon and Anne Mulcahy at Xerox. Avon is up 65% during Jung’s nine years, and Xerox is up 1% during Mulcahy’s 6 1/2 years. Reynolds is up 21% since Ivey began in 2004." 

The Glass Ceilinged Pay Scale.  What is clear is that women are paid worse than men at the top. A 2008 survey of CEO pay at 3,242 North American companies by the Corporate Library found that female CEOs earned more in base pay, but when cash bonuses, perks and stock compensation were included, women made a median $1.7 million, or 85%, of what male CEOs made.

Women in Politics

Women in the political arena seem assured of arousing strong reactions, reactions that often have little to do with where they stand on the issues.  And Hillary Rodham Clinton is surely the woman of 2008 who raised the banner for women highest, with her long drive toward the White House, but also the one who took the most sustained barrage of counter fire–as to all matters both professional and personal, such as her experience (does being a first lady count?), her honesty and forthrightness (are tears the real test?), and her relationships with her husband (is she true to her man, unable to stand up for herself, or simply astute as to his political usefulness?).

As an example of the broad-based criticism, Caitlin Flanagan in No Girlfriend of Mine, in the November 2007 edition of The Atlantic, had little good to say about Clinton.

Her speaking style: "It’s cringe-inducing to watch her try to talk…there’s nothing more uncomfortable than witnessing someone straining to be natural.”

Her relationship with her husband and reaction to his philandering: "[A]t a La Raza conference… [Hillary] told her interviewer that they should talk like ‘two girlfriends…’ Hillary’s girlfriend-to-girlfriend moment was awkward because if she wanted to talk that way she would have to be willing to let us women in on the big, underlying struggle of her life that is front and center in our understanding of who she is as a woman. Her husband’s sexual behavior, quite apart from the private pain that it has caused her, has also sullied her deepest—and most womanly—ideals and convictions, for the Clintons’ political partnership has demanded that she defend actions she knows to be indefensible…In glossing over her husband’s actions and abetting his efforts to squirm away from the scrutiny and judgment they provoke, Hillary has too often lapsed into her customary hauteur and self-righteousness, and added to the pain delivered upon these women… she has of necessity made herself complicit.”

Even Hillary’s treatment of Socks and other pets came under withering attack.  According to Flanagan, as first lady Hillary had taken Socks with her on personal appearances, had retired servicemen and women at the U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home in Washington, D.C. send out kitty-cat ‘greetings’ to Socks’s correspondents, and had written about her in Dear Socks, Dear Buddy: Kids’ Letters to the First Pets, which Flanagan calls "cloying, super-cute, and pun-riddled… and which Hillary, being Hillary, had to turn into a lecture on pet care…the person whose shining example we should all follow being Hilary herself."

In response to rumors that Socks would not make it to Chappaqua, entreaties from the official Socks the Cat Fan Club as to the fate of Socks were reportedly met with a message from Clinton’s office “at once chilly and patronizing… that they butt out,” Flanagan reports. The news came later that Socks had gone to live with a White House staffer. “In Dear Socks, Dear Buddy, we are hectored never to give away a pet, always to regard one as an ‘adoption instead of an acquisition’ and to be forever on guard for its physical safety (cold comfort to Buddy, who had barely sniffed his first Chappaqua crotch before the poor beast ran off and got killed by a car, as had the Clintons’ previous dog, the much-loved but equally ill-tended Zeke).”  According to Flanagan, Hillary "should really be on Cat Fancy’s Most Wanted list.”

Then of course there was Governor Sarah Palin, who leapt on the scene, connecting with a large swath of middle America while enraging those further flung. Toward the end of the year, Caroline Kennedy appeared on the political stage in search of Senator Clinton’s seat (before she awkwardly bowed out early this year), and, with Clinton and Palin, formed a veritable troika of controversy over a woman’s place in government, and what qualifies her to get there. 

In an article entitled When is it Sexism?, Elizabeth Wurzel claims to have an answer to the question of whether these women were treated unfairly because of their gender. "In Sarah Palin’s case, it was [sexism] (sorta). In Caroline Kennedy’s case, it isn’t. Here’s the difference," she asserts.

"In 2000, New York elected Hillary Rodham Clinton to be its first female senator—and her primary qualification was her previous position as first lady. Now that she’s moving on, Caroline Bouvier Kennedy is likely to replace her—and her primary qualification is her previous position as first daughter. In the meantime, Gov. Sarah Palin, the only prominent female political figure this year with good liberated bona fides—which is to say, she draws a salary in her own name—went down with Wardrobegate.”

"Perhaps the real problem is simply that the women who catch our attention in the policy arena tend to feel like novelty acts, pop idols who came from out of nowhere, who didn’t work the workaday ranks of their male competitors. This is, of course, the precise criticism that’s being leveled at Caroline Kennedy these days, and the dismissive greeting she’s received from so many in the press is being likened to the Palin experience. Now, of course, about the only thing these two women have in common is that they are two women—not nothing in a man’s world—but to say sexism is the issue is an insult to sexism. If Sarah Palin was the sole occupant of the Venn diagram of those smart enough to be governor of Alaska and dumb enough to be vice president, Caroline Kennedy is not even on the chart.”   

"The truth is, Kennedy long ago made choices that so many women make—she opted out of professional life, perhaps to be a mom and perhaps because she could—and now she’s hoping to reenter the commercial world at a level that surpasses her exiting locale.”

"All women who take time off to mother their children face similar sticker-shock when they decide to work again. Not only have they lost their qualifications by remaining dormant for a stretch, they also find that their earning power is much less than it was when they went into labor. In fact, studies show that there is a salary penalty on motherhood: A woman with children will typically earn 10 percent less than any man doing the same job. In the meantime, a man with a stay-at-home wife gets a nice premium—he will usually earn 30 percent more than the husband of a working wife because he has ‘zero-drag’ at home. Just the same, a woman who works a 40-hour week still spends about 86 percent as much time with her children as a nonworking mom.”

"A career woman with children works a daily double-shift…and many smart ladies decide it’s just not worth it. This explains how it is that well into the Third Wave of feminism—and despite the visibility of Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman—women are only 16 percent of the corporate executives in this country, 17 percent of the big-firm law partners, and in all, we hold only 8 percent of the white-collar managerial positions. It is, simply, impossible to take a timeout to raise kids and still compete in a man’s world.”

"Palin, to her credit, understood this. After a couple of days of maternity leave when her special-needs baby was born last year, she was back in Anchorage, running Alaska. Powerful female friends of mine with kids who maintain a high position in a man’s world all did the same thing: brief leave and back to the grinder; they didn’t want office politics and the forward propulsion of time itself—time the avenger—to put them out to pasture. For all the crap talk of “choice feminism”—whatever the hell that means—we are never going to feminize the world. Women who want to succeed pretty much have to work as long and as hard as men typically do, and that’s that."

Michelle Obama has not avoided the spotlight howitzers either. After raising controversy during the campaign over her remark about whether she was proud to be an American, she appeared to have been muzzled and kept out of sight for the duration. Now the pundits are bandying about their reactions to her decision not to continue working while her husband occupies the White House, but to be, instead, Mom in Chief.

In “First Lady: A Job Worth a Paycheck,” published in the Washington Post December 26, 2008, Lauren Stiller Rikleen, an outspoken voice in the area of diversity and law careers, had this to say: “Media reports have focused on [Michelle Obama’s] Ivy League pedigree and her distinguished career as a lawyer and hospital administrator. By giving up her paid position, the argument goes, she has relinquished the opportunity to be the role model in chief for working mothers. But this thinking underestimates the intricate role of first lady, which will call on all of the skills she has developed as a working professional.”

“The very debate about whether Michelle Obama is sacrificing her career shows that we must develop a proper perspective about the position of first lady, including a job description… Surely the person in one of the most visible roles on the planet deserves a proper title and salary to go along with the intense demands of this most nebulous position, which is, in essence, a job…Then we can stop the false argument about whether Obama has ‘opted out’ of the workplace, knowing that she is about to begin the hardest job she will ever hold.”

Michelle Obama seems to agree. During a spontaneous visit to a charter school in Washington D.C. recently, she cheerfully responded to a young girl who announced she dreamed of becoming first lady: “It doesn’t pay much.”


Women in Law

Dr. Drew Gilpin Faust became the first female President of Harvard University in 2007 Ellen Goodman, in a February 16, 2007 op-ed piece for the Boston Globe, noted that she would have "bet big money that we’d have a female president of the United States before we had a female president of Harvard University. It’s not just that Harvard predates the United States by more than a century and a half. There’s actually a higher percentage of women in the Bush Cabinet than in the tenured faculty ranks of Harvard."

On the day her selection was announced, Faust made a point of drawing what was evidently to her an important distinction: "I am the president of Harvard," she said, "not the woman president of Harvard."

Faust, a historian of the Civil War and the American South, published in 1996 her best-known book "Mothers of Invention," which vividly evokes the difficulties of Southern women trying to cope with the Civil War and its social upheaval. It suggests that overburdened and eventually disillusioned women played a larger role in the Confederacy’s failure to sustain itself than Civil War historians have recognized. Some years earlier, Faust made that suggestion more bluntly. "It may well have been because of its women," she wrote, "that the South lost the Civil War."  Of course, many were outraged over that hypothesis. 

"I made the assertion in part to be provocative," she has said recently. Historical work on the Civil War "had been so centered on why the South lost, why the North won," that she had used her writing as "a way of saying that women need to be more central" to historians’ thinking. 

In May 2008, Faust made an unexplained and widely criticized decision to veto the tenure offer recommended by the economics department for Christina Romer, a well-known economics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who has since become President Obama’s chair of the Council of Economic Advisers.

New York Chief Justice Judith S. Kaye, New York’s first female chief judge, retired at the end of 2008, leaving a record of successes in the longest tenure of any chief judge in New York history. “She did her best to advance an agenda that was…creative and imaginative, but very difficult politically,” yet was always well-liked because of her charm, intelligence and kindness, Joseph L. Bruno, former State Senate majority leader says, in a December 2, 2008 article in the New York Times. She also advanced the role of women in the judiciary. Five of the six top administrative judges she appointed were women and she was irritated that there were no women among the seven candidates nominated to replace her.

When Governor Cuomo nominated Ms. Kaye in 1983, he did so against the advice of the Women’s Bar Association of NY, which did not recommend her and called his decision “unfortunate.” 


Addendum: Turning on Other Women or Being Gender Blind?

There is an interesting thread running through a number of these stories of newsworthy woman in 2008. These women were often highly criticized by other women and/or were highly critical of other women. Is that unfairly turning on your own gender or just being gender blind? 

According to Peggy Klaus, a leadership coach from Berkeley, California quoted in the January 11, 2009 New York Times article "A Sisterhood of Workplace Infighting," “to this day, a pink elephant is lurking in the room and we pretend it’s not there. For years, I have heard behind closed doors from women—young and old, up and down the ladder—that we can be our own worst enemies at work…{O]ne of the last remaining obstacles is how they treat one another. Instead of helping to build one another’s careers, they sometimes derail them…”

“A recent study by the Workplace Bullying Institute examining office behaviors—like verbal abuse, job sabotage, misuse of authority and destroying relationships—found that female bullies aimed at other women more than 70% of the time. Bullies who are men, by contrast, tend to be equal-opportunity tormentors.… Teaching women career skills is not enough if we ignore one of the most important reasons for holding these training events in the first place: learning to value one another so we can all get ahead.”

As Ms. Klaus recites, there are several theories for why women might be over-criticizing their own gender—fear that there is room for only a few women at the top, a conviction that others should also have to “do it yourself,” a fear of showing favoritism to women that results in overcompensating.

Some women “mistreat one another because of hyper-emotionality, leading them to become overly invested in insignificant nuances and causing them to hold grudges. I’ve encountered this phenomenon among women who feel personally assaulted when someone criticizes them or their ideas,” says Klaus.

“Research shows that, in general, women are the more empathetic sex and are by nature more attuned to their own and others’ feelings. This is a great advantage when dealing with the human complexities of the workplace. But there’s a downside: If women take things too personally when challenged or criticized, they are prone to overreaction.”

“And, of course, some people assert that while women compete quite ably on the sports field and in the classroom, they haven’t learned how to compete in a healthy way at the office. For example, men often handle their feelings of envy and jealousy with humor and a left-handed compliment: ‘I’m going to whip your butt on our sales goals this month.’ Or, ‘Who’d you have to pay off for that promotion?’ Although considered perfectly acceptable for men in most business settings, this kind of banter is not as socially acceptable for women,” leaving them with unexpressed feelings.

“Many women find it hard to even acknowledge mistreatment by another woman. We fear that bringing our experiences into the light and talking about it will set us back to that ugly gender stereotype we have fought so hard to overcome: the one about the overemotional, backstabbing, aggressive (and you know what’s coming) bitch. Yet, expecting women to be universally supportive of one another or to give preferential treatment to anyone with two X chromosomes is an equally unworkable view.”

What to Do? “In the end, determining why women undermine one another’s workplace success isn’t what’s most important. Rather, we need to simply stop our own misbehavior and call our colleagues on theirs.”

“If we really want to clear one of the last remaining hurdles to gender parity and career success, let’s start treating one another not worse or better, but simply as well as we already treat the guys — or better yet, the way we want our nieces, daughters, granddaughters and sisters to be treated.”