The Amelia Earhart Syndrome

Why have force-fed mentoring and fast-track programs meant to propel women upward in their careers failed so abysmally? Aren’t women trying hard enough? Do they need more help? Or are forces beyond their control stopping them? As Marlo Thomas famously said: “A man has to be Joe McCarthy to be called ruthless. All a woman has to do is put you on hold.”

The term “glass ceiling” was first coined in the mid-80s. That metaphor, which suggested a barrier through which career women could not rise, has recently been replaced. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Alice H. Eagly and Linda L. Carli offer a new description: a labyrinth. Rather than come up against one obstacle, they say women run into numerous challenges and dead ends throughout their time in the work force. Men provide the biggest challenge.

To be sure, women can be their gender’s own worst enemies. Mothers dress their seven-year-old daughters in frilly outfits to compete at the Little Miss pageant where beauty matters more than brains. In the workplace, many successful women refuse to help younger women get ahead.

For nearly twenty-five years, women have made up half the graduating classes in both law and accounting in Canada. But when it comes time to appoint partners in law and public accounting firms, women comprise only about 20 per cent of those who achieve this milestone. Call it the Amelia Earhart Syndrome: Missing in Action.

The record in financial services is just as bad. Since 2000 the number of female executives in financial services has been stuck at 17 per cent. Only 13 per cent of corporate directors are female. A proposal to increase the number of female directors on bank boards to parity with men over a ten-year period is receiving little support. Shareholders, mostly male, are voting to maintain the status quo in order to protect their own careers.

Sexism – overt or subtle – remains a powerful force holding back the progress of women at all levels in the workplace. Such discrimination by men represents an age-old pattern of alpha behavior that diminishes the value of women. As long as porn is two clicks away on the Internet, as long as there’s a restaurant chain called Hooters, women will be stereotyped and regarded by men as sex objects or second-class citizens who are but toys to be admired and controlled.

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