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It’s Not The Glass Ceiling. It’s The Clubhouse

The news has been filled this week with reports about women…specifically the lack thereof in certain professions. The low number of female news anchors and journalists, software developers and C-suite executives was reported nearly every day this past week. This was along side all the brew-haha about executive comp…with women getting paid much less at all levels. As if this was news!

It made me wonder (since this is most certainly NOT news) why there is such a flurry of this information right now. Is it because Sheryl Sandberg opened the floodgate several months ago? Is it because policies, laws or practices are finally changing? Is it because there is renewed outrage? Is it because there is a gathering of enlightened people about to wave a magic wand and make it all better? None of the above. I personally vote for Gloria Steinem’s 80th birthday celebration reminding the collective unconscious that things still suck.

Honestly, I have no idea but I’m pretty sure it is not because big change is around the corner. (Oops, sorry my cynicism is showing. I’ll try to tuck it back in.) And I think the reason that all these recent discussions will only create incremental change is because the status quo is just fine for the society at large. By that I mean our institutions, our laws, our corporate norms, our cultural habits. And all those larger forces at play have a profound impact on how we act and what we believe.

Where I think the biggest changes are already occurring is with professional women themselves. In fact, I believe the changes have been happening for quite some time. It’s flying just below the radar but if you read between the lines of any of these recent articles you will see the real story.

Put a small number of women inside a large group of men-behaving-badly and they will have a very negative experience. And in this context if you then ask a woman to lean in more or leave her emotions at home or hang out at the sports bars after hours with the gang or take up golf or don’t get too whipped up with every inappropriate remark or touch and eventually you will get a very unhappy woman. If that is the price of success not too many women will hang in there indefinitely. We are at a time when “acting more like a man” is no longer acceptable or palatable to a woman.

I believe there are too few women in certain talent pools because women are opting out of these male-dominated environments altogether. They are saying, “Yuck! I can’t walk into an office every day and deal with this shit! It’s not worth it.”

And I believe (though I can’t prove it) that is why there are a huge number of women entrepreneurs running their own businesses…yet another report from last week. It’s not the glass ceiling that causes women to leave. It’s the clubhouse…the frat house, the country clubhouse, the men only clubs.

Yes, there are HR policies in place to create civil and fair workplaces and most of the time these are followed by all. But the subtle and persistent disrespectful antics don’t neatly fall within these guidelines. Yes, women register complaints and have situations or people investigated but what happens next? Some slaps on the wrists and maybe a sensitivity training and further marginalization for the “complainers”…which is what they are called.

Yes, there are not enough women going into certain fields and not a large enough pool of senior women. And, yes, there are well intentioned companies trying to make positive changes and there are companies that are terrific work environments. But at the end of the day too many places just don’t work for women. They can’t show up and be their whole selves and do their best work. So they are leaving.

I can hear the chorus already: They should stay and change things from within. Let me see if I have this right…in addition to being a top performer and a spouse and a mother and all the other roles, women now have to put on their capes and become crusaders. Why is creating a fair and respectful work place also a woman’s job? Why isn’t that goal a great big “duh!”?

Look, I get it. Social movements require courageous trailblazers and a critical mass of supporters and a strong and convincing voice. Civil rights, voting rights, labor laws, same sex marriage…all quite successful ultimately. All of these issues had to push their way into the hearts and minds of the powerful (sic. white straight men) to create significant changes. What I don’t get is why the culture and our businesses are still so dug in on the value of women in the workplace. Here I am not talking about the business case. I am talking about the unique qualities and perspectives that women bring to the point that corporate cultures are altered because of their influence. A place where clubhouses are seen as horrible and women are heard and aggression is not the only gear and interpersonal skills are a business differentiator and collaboration is the norm.

Here’s the bottom line: until male-influenced companies clean up their acts and make space for new ways of operating that create space for so much more difference (women being only one subset) the lack of female representation will persist. I think it is healthy that women are deciding to leave settings that make them feel awful and starting their own businesses. So the next time an executive recruiter tells your team that she is having a hard time getting women candidates excited about your company don’t lament the small talent pool. Look at your culture and your reputation.

If men are really concerned about this issue I suggest you have some meaningful conversations with your women leaders. Ask them if they felt compelled to take on male traits or encountered outrageously rude behaviors or walled off some of their natural (female) tendencies. You will be shocked at the stories. For me, the moment I decided to walk away was the after hours gathering at the bar. Per usual I was the only woman. As I sipped on the (blech!!) aged scotch and took a drag on the (cough!!) cigar my immediate thought was “What the hell am I doing?”. But I kept that to myself as I got high praise from my companions as they welcomed me into their club.


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