No cracks in the glass ceiling

Linda Cotton

August 12, 1991|By Linda Cotton

IT SHOULD come as no surprise to anyone that women and minorities are not advancing up the rungs of power that lead to high-profile corporate jobs and BMWs. A visit to any company, or any kind of business operation for that matter, will make it abundantly clear. Black and female and Hispanic faces are certainly visible everywhere now -- and often in locations they had not been a generation ago. But as a society we have become complacent with too little progress -- as if to say: "We let you go to law school and medical school and we let you get your MBA. What more do you want?"

What women and minorities have wanted for years, however, is opportunity equal to that afforded white males -- to climb the ladder as high as our ability takes us.

It is a theory no one disparages. But it is still a theory nonetheless. A new study by the U.S. Labor Department indicates what most of us in the trenches already know. There are no cracks in the glass ceiling.

The year-long government study looked at nine Fortune 500 companies and found that women and people of color were scarcely represented in high-level management jobs. Worse, it found that across the board, there were levels of power and pay beyond which women and minorities never passed.

These are the fiefdoms of the privileged, and the ticket in is often membership in the golf club or the private lunch spot where introductions are made, and which, coincidentally, frequently accept only white men as members.

Labor Secretary Lynn Martin is skittish about calling the results of the survey discrimination, but in fact it proves nothing less. More than that, the study is a bald-faced repudiation of the bootstraps philosophy George Bush has been trying to pass off as a commitment to equal opportunity during his presidency.

I recognize that it is easy, perhaps logical, for Bush to extol the virtues of hard work and common sense as the sole tools for advancement. As a son of privilege, who attended Yale as a logical consequence of both his gender and his family position, it was only elbow grease and chutzpah that distinguished him from his peers. But that only works if you start on the inside track, and many people -- as a result of gender or color -- are simply not even lined up at the starting gate.

Bush can't seriously believe that his birth, race and gender had nothing to do with his becoming president. Indeed, had he been black or female there is no doubt he would not be the nation's leader today. That is precisely the conclusion, albeit a bit convoluted, of the Labor Department, which, now that it has documented the facts, seems loathe to use them to push for the kinds of public policy changes that are needed.

Perhaps the timing is bad. George Bush is in the midst of fighting the good fight against the Civil Rights Act of 1991, on the spurious grounds that it imposes "quotas." Bush's opposition to legislation that patently would broaden employment opportunities for women and minorities implicitly echoes the argument that affirmative action discriminates against white men an argument which the Labor Department study repudiates.

The premise of Bush's view seems to be rooted in the belief that the playing field is already level, so affirmative action tips the balance in favor of women and minorities. But the fact, now documented by the administration itself, is that without special efforts to ensure mobility for women and minorities, the balance is tipped in favor of white males. Affirmative action is the only way to level the field.

The study found, for example, that managers often groom and choose their own successors -- who are, most frequently, people like themselves. More than that, the study found, contacts that often lead to such choices are made at interviews over lunch and informal meetings outside the office which again, not surprisingly, exclude the disenfranchised. Job descriptions are often written for a specific candidate, and interviews conducted despite the fact that the new CEO has already been chosen.

As a result, while women made up 37.2 percent of the workers surveyed, they hold less than 17 percent of the management jobs and only 6.6 percent of the executive positions. People of color, who were 15.5 percent of the employees in the survey, hold only 6 percent of management jobs and a paltry 2.6 percent of executive jobs.

The Labor Department study puts the lie to the Bush administration's level playing field argument. Clearly, the millions Americans at mid- and low-level positions can't all have failed to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Clearly it can't be that only white men are qualified enough to assume top executive positions. Something more is happening here; and despite the Labor Department's reluctance to name it, it is discrimination.

No one wants a job simply because of their gender or their race. There is no dignity in that and no sense of self-worth, nor does affirmative action advocate such a course. It merely recognizes that in order to level the field, doors which remain locked to women and minorities must be opened. Once inside, we are all willing to compete, and to be judged, by our capabilities.

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