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Conference Measures Height of Glass Ceiling Keeping Women from Leadership


It seems that powerful women are ubiquitous on the national stage.

Roselyn Chernesky, DSW Photo by Bruce Gilbert

Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska is running for vice president; Condoleeza Rice is secretary of state; Nancy Pelosi is speaker of the house and Sen. Hillary Clinton ran a hard-fought campaign again Sen. Barack Obama during the Democratic primary.

So why is there a lack of women in leadership positions generally?

Roslyn H. Chernesky, DSW, a professor in Fordham’s Graduate School of Social Service (GSS), is trying to find out. Chernesky, who has researched women in management for the better part of her academic career, discussed “The Conundrum of Women in Leadership Positions” on Oct. 27 at the Lincoln Center campus.

The conference was sponsored by the GSS Institute for Women and Girls.

“I looked back on my research over the past 30 years and realized that some of the questions I raised then are still being asked today, even though things have changed,” said Chernesky, former chair of the administration concentration at GSS.

“These questions have to be asked and we have to come up with answers because it’s the only way we’re ever going to do anything about it,” she said.

Chernesky has found three conundrums for women who want to advance in their respective fields:

•    Competent women are not considered likeable, and exceptional competence makes them even less likeable and less influential.
•    Women who exercise leadership in ways that reflect how women are expected to act, such as showing empathy or being nurturing, are not considered leaders because they are doing “what women do.”
•    Women who manage or supervise in hostile workplaces tend to become “toxic handlers” in that they are likely to mediate between employees, reduce tensions, and address biases and disparities. Doing so can cause these women to exhibit symptoms and conditions, such as burnout, which demonstrate they are not capable of executive management.

Chernesky highlighted the obstacles—politically correct or not—that she said has kept women from reaching the top of the career ladder over the past four decades. In the 1970s, for example, some put forth notions that women themselves were responsible for their lack of advancement, Chernesky said.

“People said it was the way women were raised,” she said. “They didn’t want to be administrators. They felt unsuitable. It was very much the blame-the-victim mentality.”

Also in the 1970s, it was said that women made choices to remain in the positions they were in and failed to invest in their future to obtain the necessary training and experiences that would prepare them for top-management.

“I knew it wasn’t true,” Chernesky said. “I had a lot of women enroll in my administrative classes. They were out there pounding the streets and looking for these jobs.”

The 1980s focused on external barriers keeping women down, Chernesky said. Women found themselves in positions of blocked mobility, powerlessness or irrelevancy.

“A great example of this is supervision,” she said. “They have a title, but often can’t do what they ought to do because they aren’t given the necessary resources or authority.”

Moreover, a woman who excelled as a supervisor was often kept in that role because she was indispensable, Chernesky said.

Though more and more women were entering the workforce in the 1980s, Chernesky found there were no real support systems for them.

“There was no mentoring, and those in women’s networks didn’t move up,” she said. “You had to be in a men’s network.”

Women’s leadership style always differed from that of men’s, Chernesky said. “They are caring, more sensitive and offer greater empathy.” But this wasn’t seen as an advantage at first.

By the mid-1990s, the major media looked into management styles. “Popular literature, such as Time andNewsweek, said what America needed is a management style that promoted nurturing and teamwork,” she explained. “All of a sudden what women were doing became the thing to do.”

Still, women weren’t guaranteed a leg up. Chernesky found that when an organization needed to hire a woman to look good, they did so. “But those who didn’t get any pressure didn’t do it, because there was no incentive,” she said.

By 2003, Chernesky found that the gender of those making the hiring and promotion decision did not affect who gets promoted.

“There’s no evidence that men discriminate more than women when it comes to promotions,” she said. “Instead, we found that women tend to be promoted in organizations where they already have a cohort of women working in their agency.”

So what can be done about these conundrums affecting women who wish to break through the glass ceiling?

“When you want to go to the top, you have to move out of your organization to a new one,” Chernesky said, giving an example for GSS students who already are working at agencies.

“So you get your master’s in social work, but they’re not seeing you as a MSW and that’s one of the reasons they keep you where you are,” she said. “Staying in an organization for too long may be the worst thing for a woman.”

Chernesky also advised women to avoid “poisonous organizations or those with dominant male cultures. Instead, select hospitable organizations or those that strategically need women, and be likeable while demonstrating exceptional competence.”


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