Male executives are enlightened by their daughters

April 25, 1995|By Newsday

New York -- About six years ago, J. Michael Cook, the head of one of America's major accounting firms, found himself scanning his daughter's dorm room at Georgetown University and was struck by what he saw. Collections of business cards, files of correspondence with employers and packets of corporate profiles were everywhere.

Mr. Cook comes from a generation of executives who entered their fields in the pre-feminist 1960s. His peers were male; his wife, like theirs, gave up a career to raise the kids. As he surveyed the dorm room, however, Mr. Cook realized that Jennifer, a college senior and the oldest of his three kids, was hunting for her first job with the same hunger as any man.

Hers was a different generation.

Three years later, as chairman and chief executive of the recently merged Deloitte & Touche in Manhattan, one of the Big Six accounting firms, Mr. Cook presided over a study of women in his work force, one that would lead to what some have described as a path-breaking initiative to topple barriers that have kept women out of the highest ranks of the accounting field.

The insight about his daughter's ambition and the Deloitte project, Mr. Cook insists, are not directly related. Still, Mr. Cook says, having career-minded daughters -- Jennifer is a Wall Street trader; her younger sister Angela, a marketing manager -- has given him a sense of responsibility to ensure that his part of the corporate world is fair to women.

"I couldn't in good conscience be head of an organization that offered less to women than I would expect for my daughters," he says.

This week, as offices and other workplaces open their doors to millions of girls in the third annual Take Our Daughters to Work Day, it is clear that in subtle ways, daughters are exercising influence in the corporate suites occupied by their fathers.

Executives who began careers 30 years ago, in an era of stay-at-home wives, are running companies in the age of the working woman. And they are hearing about what those women want and face from people who are hard to ignore: their daughters.

"How have we influenced Dad?" says Angela Cook, repeating a question put to her. "I think the most important thing he has taken away from Jenny and me is how women these days view their [job] lives, that we view it as a career, not a steppingstone until we get married."

No one suggests that the phenomenon of working daughters will, on its own, drive executives to overhaul corporations to be more receptive to women. But many believe that some executives are becoming more sensitive to women's needs because of their daughters and that, if nothing else, this awareness is a necessary precursor to change.

"It's that personal input that will have an impact," says Mary Mattis, a vice president of Catalyst, a research group that seeks the advancement of women in management. "It's just one of those messages that will help to bring change."

Ms. Mattis recently completed a survey of attitudes of chief executives toward female board directors. She was struck that in follow-up interviews with 22 CEOs of Fortune 1,000 corporations, about half mentioned their daughters as having helped shape their views on women's leadership potential.

In some cases, she says, "it was clear they were talking about daughters encountering the kind of discrimination they hoped didn't happen in their own companies. But it made them stop and think."

Discrimination is not the only issue executives begin to learn about through daughters.

Richard Stolley, founder of People magazine and now president of the Child Care Action Campaign, an advocacy group, travels throughout the country trying to educate executives about the lack of convenient, affordable, quality child care in the United States.

"More often than not they tell me, 'I never realized this was so much of a problem until it happened to my own daughter.' It is often the first time that business executives come face to face with the child-care crisis in this country," he says.

Executives are also learning other lessons from watching their working daughters.

Joseph Pichler, chairman and CEO of the Kroger Co., a Cincinnati-based supermarket chain, says he has seen his daughters face questions like what to do when a husband is offered a good job across the country or whether it is possible to maintain a career and a solid family life when the husband's job requires frequent absences from home.

"Seeing it played out through my daughters' eyes has shown me that each situation has its own set of complexities," he says. As an executive, "you need to be able to address those flexibly, rather than have a rigid rule saying, 'I forbid this in all cases' or 'I require this in all cases.' You have to look at each individual situation and say: 'What accommodation can we find here?' "

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