Success On Our Own Terms: Tales of Extraordinary, Ordinary Business Women / Edition 1

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Success on Our Own Terms Q: How many female CEOs does it take to break the glass ceiling? A: That’s the wrong question! Numbers alone simply don’t tell the real story of how women are doing in today’s corporate world. Success on Our Own Terms does. It’s filled with real stories—stories of ordinary women who are making an extraordinary difference in the way corporations work. Success on Our Own Terms features women of different ages, ethnic backgrounds, and educational levels. Their combined experiences offer a fascinating portrait of how the corporate landscape has changed for women over the last few decades. This book is filled with the wisdom of these experiences, from important lessons on navigating corporate corridors and influencing the system to juggling work and personal life, helping local communities, and much more. Exploring the multidimensional definition of success shared by these women, this book reveals how they are working hard to reach their goals, balance their lives, and make a positive contribution to society. It shows how they—and others like them—are transforming the organization from the inside out through their own unique management style, values, vision, and determination. By designing, achieving, and owning their success, women are exploding conventional definitions of their progress in the workplace. The female voices in Success on Our Own Terms inform, encourage, and inspire us all.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
O'Brien's book "offers an inside look at the corporate and personal lives of women who have crashed through the glass ceiling, many of them with the help of a mentor."—Boston Globe
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In this clearly written study, O'Brien (The Fast Forward MBA in Business), a former communications consultant, puts a positive spin on the progress women have made in corporate America during the last three decades. According to the author, current research that focuses on "glass ceilings" or the small number of female CEOs obscures what women have actually achieved in the workplace. Drawing on 45 interviews she conducted with women holding high-level positions in a variety of industries, including banking, manufacturing, sales and telecommunications, O'Brien convincingly demonstrates that her subjects are satisfied and successful. In their own words, executives describe the positive changes they have made within the corporate world by contributing new ideas from a woman's point of view. As a vice-president at Proctor & Gamble, Carol Tuthill's cross-cultural skills enabled her to restructure the human resources department, while Jean Brennan and Erin Andre's successful managerial job-sharing at Pacific Gas and Electric impressed their clients and managers. An eye-opening look at women in the business world that is also filled with useful pointers. (Mar.)
Boston Globe
O'Brien's book offers an inside look at the corporate and personal lives of women who have crashed through the glass ceiling, many of them with the help of a mentor.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780471178712
  • Publisher: Wiley
  • Publication date: 2/26/1998
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 267
  • Product dimensions: 6.14 (w) x 9.21 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

VIRGINIA O'BRIEN is a freelance writer and editor who has served as the director of communication for organizations in the small business and nonprofit sectors. A member of the National Association of Female Executives and the American Association of University Women, she is the author of The Fast Forward MBA in Business, also published by Wiley.

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Table of Contents

The Facts Are In: Women Are Succeeding.

Success, Style, and Values: Women's Ways of Working.

Navigating Corporate Corridors.

Brave Moves.

New Working Structures.

Balancing Acts.

Changing the System.



Selected Bibliography.


About the Author.

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First Chapter


I was always very focused on making a contribution and moving ahead. I got a lot of encouragement early in my career. I knew there weren't any limits on what I could do. I always felt if I made a real difference to our business and organizational results, there was nothing standing in my way of becoming an officer of the company. It was a personal objective.

BETH KAPLAN, Executive Vice President Rite Aid Corporation

It generally takes 25 to 30 years to "grow" a CEO--equivalent to the time it takes to grow a tree. Picture, if you will, the visible potential of a young oak, with a slender trunk, supple yet strong. As you pick out a tree from the nursery you imagine it in your front yard. You can envision how it will serve you and benefit your home, providing hope and promise in the spring, an umbrella of shade in the summer, vibrancy in the fall, and protection in the winter by breaking the cold blasts of freezing winds. But in order to ensure your tree will reach maturity, you have to prepare the ground before you even plant it, digging up the earth and blending the soil with the right mixture of fertilizer and humus. And through the years, you will continually need to nurture its growth, watering it, feeding it, providing stakes for early support, pruning branches when they begin to grow in the wrong directions. The same kind of process is required to develop corporate leaders. The people who look like they offer the greatest potential to serve the organization throughout its own seasons are the ones selected for planting and the ones who are groomed throughout the stages of their development.

Time and experience shape an executive's ability to serve the corporation. But in the discussion of women's growth in business, the concepts of time and experience seem to get short shrift. Twenty-five to thirty years ago, there were few women waiting to be chosen, and the culture couldn't envision a woman having the strength and resiliency to weather corporate storms and to provide the protection and leadership an organization needs.

We have witnessed tremendous change in organizational life over the last quarter of a century. Now it is no longer difficult to imagine women growing into CEO positions, because we have seen a few women do it. Now there are many more women waiting to be chosen in the years ahead. In fact, now there are almost as many women in the pipeline as men. Younger female managers are being trained and positioned to step up the highest rungs of the corporate ladder. A quarter of a century ago, that wasn't true--there simply weren't that many women to choose, and the supports and development they needed weren't available to them because their potential wasn't recognized.

Over the years some of women's progress has been easy to see: The pipeline is blossoming with women. The resiliency and strength of women in their 40s and 50s, who broke through hard ground during the 1960s and 1970s without much fertilizer or nurturing, have kept possibilities open for female managers in their 20s and 30s. Now at the end of the 1990s, handfuls of ripened female executives are waiting to be picked for corporate CEO positions. But rather than understanding how successful their growth has been, we often hear the question: Why aren't there more women?

The answer, I believe, lies in understanding the past. It is difficult to understand how women's growth process was affected by the culture that surrounded those first female managers because it is buried deep in the root system of society. Because we can't see the roots, we tend to forget how they affect the growth of the forest.

In the first half of this century, women pursued jobs in teaching and nursing, which were socially acceptable because they reverberated with the nurturing values of home life. When women now in their 40s and 50s first went to work they were still influenced by those cultural norms and values. I find it extremely interesting to note that almost half of the women I interviewed in this age range started out as teachers, social workers, or homemakers. To me, it isn't surprising that they started out in those fields: it's more surprising that they came as far as they did in the corporate world after having traditional beginnings.

As I listened to the stories of the women over 50, it was apparent to me that each woman arrived at her present level of business success in her own unique fashion. Not one of the women started out thinking she was going to climb a corporate ladder and end up on the top rung. At 17, Marlene O'Toole left high school to get a job and through diligence, rugged determination, and hard work climbed to a position as a regional manager of customer support services at IBM. Joyce Cofield, a biochemist, worked in Polaroid's lab environment before becoming assistant to the president overseeing diversity issues. Margo Davis, who was a teacher, is now a corporate education program manager at Hewlett-Packard. Becky Allen, president of Barnett Private Client Services, dropped out of college to get married and was a stay-at-home mom until divorce drove her to the workplace. Judy Beaubouef made it into the innermost sanctum of her corporation as chief legal counsel, yet Judy started out as a social worker.

The culture of the United States in the 1960s and 1970s affected these women and their perspectives on work. The corporation itself is only one part of the larger social system. Nothing happens in isolation. Each part of a system both influences and is influenced by the overall system. Equating lack of progress with absence of women at the corporate CEO level discounts important social factors and ignores the interconnectedness between the corporation and society. Companies alone are not responsible for women's position, or lack of position, in the corporate hierarchy. Nor have men been the evil villains; without men opening corporate doors, women could not have entered the organization or gained access to any executive suite. The women's movement wasn't totally responsible for women's progress, or lack of progress, either. But it did give a voice to the changes that were occurring below the surface of the larger social system and it became a vehicle for bringing those changes into full view. The masculine culture of organizations, societal norms, values and beliefs, technological changes, and market reactions all combined to set the pace for women's advancement in management.


Thirty years ago the concept of a glass ceiling didn't exist--women didn't even think about invisible barriers preventing them from getting to the executive suite. They just wanted to be welcome inside the corporation's front doors. The 1960s marked the beginning of cultural changes, but those changes didn't necessarily position women to be future CEOs, they simply made allowances for equality. Harvard Business School said okay to women in 1963 and allowed them to enter its hallowed halls and expand their education. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 said okay to women and allowed them equal pay for equal work. And the Civil Rights Act of 1964 said okay to women, assuring them that companies with more than 15 employees couldn't discriminate against them. But the Civil Rights Act wasn't a nurturing gesture meant to guarantee women a spot at the top. In fact, women almost didn't make it into the bill. Rather than being a deliberate attempt to provide the equality that would begin to position women as future corporate leaders, it was the arrogance of one male that unwittingly created a greater opening for women. "Senator Howard Smith threw the word sex into Title VII of the act as a joke," because he didn't think the bill would ever be approved. When the act started gaining acceptance and passage seemed surprisingly probable, a committee tried to get the reference to sex removed, but Senator Margaret Chase Smith and Representative Martha Griffiths threatened to stall passage if the word was taken out. Thus, without Congress really intending it to happen, it put a law on the books that women could use to their advantage. So an opening was created. But the idea that women shouldn't be discriminated against and the idea that women could head major corporations are not necessarily the same.

Meanwhile, in the cities, in the suburbs, and in rural areas, deep cultural beliefs and attitudes continued to link women's roles to the home. In 1962 a Gallup poll indicated that "few people are as happy as a housewife." Women's apron strings were definitely still tied to their kitchen cabinets. They could go only so far outside their houses without getting pulled back in. Women themselves questioned their own abilities; married women then, as now, were concerned they wouldn't be able to manage working both inside and outside their homes. Even more frightening was the idea that an economically free woman might also be a sexually free woman, and this freedom was terribly threatening to the social system. Both men and women had fears about changing their long-held roles and identities. On the cusp of this transitional time, there simply wasn't enough support inside or outside the organization for women to be seen as future business leaders. There simply weren't enough properly trained women, who had entered the system in the 1960s, to become CEOs in the 1990s. Women in the 1960s and 1970s held less than 5 percent of the graduate degrees, and 80 percent of the women who worked held jobs categorized as "female," meaning they were clerical, not managerial. Women did not have the supports they needed early enough in their careers to sustain their growth and development equal to the growth and development of their male colleagues. If a large number of women weren't well positioned, identified early enough, or educated well enough, how could they compete for top positions in equal proportion to men?


In the early 1970s, as the women's movement gained momentum, women sought to loosen the restraints that biology had on them. The idea that women are more than their bodies was a key theme. However, the older I get, the more I know that biology might not be destiny, but hormones and DNA have a lot to do with who we are. As women, our psyches are tied to the deep biological truth that we can bear children and men cannot. The biological urge to have children and the cultural norm to marry have always influenced the way women work. Even as attitudes began to change, the cultural assumption that women would quit working when they married remained. When Teresa Wahlert, a vice president at US WEST, first entered the workforce her attitude was similar to that of most other women of her time.

I was just trying to get to the next level. In our company, at that time, you worked, you got married, you had kids, and then you stayed at home. Of the women who were hired with me during the early '70s, most of them followed that pattern.

Teresa didn't think about climbing as high as she has. Northwestern Bell hired her out of college in 1970 and trained her in computer languages and data processing. For four years she worked as a programmer. Who knows what would have happened to her career if AT&T (the largest private employer in the United States at the time) and its operating companies hadn't been charged with discrimination and mandated by the U.S. Department of Labor and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to establish goals and timetables for hiring and promoting women and minorities into management ranks. Companies in the Bell system agreed to assess the potential of women with college degrees and consider them for middle management positions. Teresa was among the ten women at Northwestern Bell who were identified as management candidates: thus, she was one of a small number who had the opportunity to participate in her company's accelerated development program.

Teresa told me the 1970s were a "critical time" and she credits the male leadership for going through a "learning process" with regard to women and minorities. However, even though career development programs were opening up for women like Teresa, corporate cultures were only beginning to change. The idea of equality had really just been introduced--actually mandated. Without government intervention, the question remains whether millions of women would have had the opportunities that became available to them. And even with management doors opening, many women themselves still viewed work as a job rather than a career.

It was only after the birth of her first child that Teresa had what she calls "an awakening." Just as she became pregnant in 1976, she was given a "great line opportunity." After staying home for four weeks when her baby was born she realized that she "really wanted to work." As she describes it, "I love small children, but I found that what I could get done on a Saturday when I was working, I couldn't get done all week long." Being at home just didn't give her the fulfillment that she found in her corporate job. However, as Teresa recalls those early days as a working mother, she says it wasn't always easy maintaining her career.

Back then, I had to deal with the corporate perceptions of what a mother with small children is supposed to do, and it was certainly not to come back to the office. I had a supervisor sit me down and tell me that my first job was my family and my children, and that if I caused a divorce, it was because I selected to come back to work too soon. That's a little tough when the person is your direct supervisor, with power over the perception of your job performance. You have to find a way to handle that advice and put it in a constructive framework; otherwise, it could destroy you. Thee person who said those things to me had a concern about me personally making the right choices, but as my boss he was getting a fair amount of grief from those above him.

I also had feelings of guilt coming from a traditional family and doing some nontraditional things that I thought were right for me personally.

As Teresa reflected on the beginnings of her career, she reminded me to set her story in the "context of the time," saying, "We're all a product of where we've been." Teresa is one of those first, groundbreaking women. Throughout her career, she has held positions in finance and accounting and was made a vice president in 1990. She is now in charge of public policy in Iowa. At 47, she is still younger than the average CEO and fits into the category of women who have the ability to climb to the uppermost level in the next decade. Whether she wants to is something she is still assessing, but whatever she decides, she will find success on her own terms.

I still have a lot to give that hasn't been tapped yet, and I am looking for ways to do that. I always try to keep my options open.

When Betty Lehan Harragan wrote Games Mother Never Taught You in 1977 she advised women to aim for CEO positions no later than their early 50s and to calculate their career advancement by recognizing that it takes ten promotional steps over a 30-year period to reach the top. The average age of today's chief executive officer is 56; therefore, he probably started being groomed around the age of 26. So, although Teresa still has some time, for most women in their 50s, Harragan's advice came 10 years too late. When today's 56-year-old woman started out in business in 1967 there simply wasn't a place to position herself. At that time, the idea of a woman heading a major corporation was a thought outside the realm of possibility.

In 1975, two years before Harragan's book was published, women made up 40 percent of the workforce. Yet the deck was heavily stacked against them making it to the top. At that time "only 11,000 women managers earned more than $25,000 in comparison to 449,000 men." Those are pretty tough odds. Let's assume for a moment that these 11,000 women, because of their salaries, were the high-potential candidates--they would have required either an extraordinary amount of luck to beat the mathematical odds or a historical record-breaking change in organizational cultures to outdistance the vast number of men who surrounded them. Why is it startling that, less than 25 years later, those female managers didn't surpass that huge field of male competitors to become CEOs of the Fortune 500?


One of my most intriguing discoveries is the difference between how a woman views her own progress and how she sees women as a group advancing. For example, think how you would answer the following question: Are you satisfied with the level of management you have attained in your career? If you are feeling pretty good about your own accomplishments and feel satisfied, you answered like a large majority of women: All the women I interviewed had high levels of satisfaction, and over three-quarters of nearly 700 women in the national survey I conducted said they were satisfied with their own career advancement.

Now ask yourself if you are satisfied with the overall progress of women in management. If your answer tends to be negative, once again you are in the majority: Only one-third of the women in the national survey were satisfied with women's advancement, and many of the women I interviewed voiced concerns, not about themselves, but about women as a group. Yet, if a majority are satisfied--if almost eight out of ten women are satisfied with the management level they have achieved--why does such disparity exist between individual levels of satisfaction and perception of women's progress? Why aren't women reveling more in both their individual and collective accomplishments? Why is there such a disconnect between how women feel on a personal level and how they feel about the progress of women as a group?

One possible answer might come from the fact that we are constantly hammered with the sound bite that there are only a few female corporate CEOs, so the deeper systemic issues never get fully explored. As Caryl Rivers, a journalism professor at Boston University and author of several books on working women, writes, "The American press greatly exaggerates the problems of women--especially working women." Women, bombarded with the negative, begin to believe what they read and hear. A woman might think that her own good story is somehow an anomaly, therefore, she remains concerned for her female colleagues and for the well-being of women as a whole.

Another reason might stem from women's desires to relate to their peer group. If a woman questions what she perceives to be the prevailing consensus, she consciously puts herself outside the group. And as linguist Deborah Tannen points out, "Both women and men pay a price when they do not behave in ways expected of their gender," Women expect women to stick together. After struggling to break barriers, if a woman proclaims that she has succeeded when the numbers seem to indicate that others haven't, she sets herself apart. Tannen's research indicates that women's conversational strategies are often ways to maintain an appearance of equality and a means to avoid appearing boastful. If women acknowledge they are personally satisfied, but they join in lamenting with others about the perceived predicament of the group, they demonstrate their concern for, allegiance to, and equity with the group.

I personally struggled with the issue of setting myself apart even as I wrote this book. As a raging feminist in the early 1970s, I picketed and marched along with my sisters. I have encountered male bias in the workplace and even sexual harassment. But my belief, as is obvious by now, is that we have made great progress. However, when I found that my feelings of satisfaction about the overall advancement of women in management put me in the minority. I hesitated, questioning whether I was doing a disservice to others. I was not without apprehension in publicly disagreeing with the general consensus. So I have personally grappled with that strong tug to conform.

However, I think we need to talk more openly and proudly about the success we have achieved. Looking at ourselves more closely helps us understand how our personal success is a small reflection of the success of women as a whole. If a majority of women across a wide sample declare they have feelings of satisfaction about what they have personally accomplished--regardless of the barriers they might have encountered--there is definitely something positive happening. We shouldn't try to mimic men, but, sometimes, it wouldn't hurt us to adopt at least a smidgen of their braggadocio. In Fire with Fire Naomi Wolf discusses the difficulties we encounter as women when we don't allow ourselves to engage in "victory talk." She writes: "If `victory talk' is taboo, women have no comfortable framework for presenting their resources or skills to one another in a way that leads to consolidating political or economic power." I believe we need to acknowledge our individual and collective success and talk about how good it feels to know we have hung in there, found our voice, and succeeded on our own terms. In less than a century, we have progressed from winning the right to vote to earning a seat at the corporate table. So that's what this book is about: unabashedly reveling in our success.

The stories of Judy Beaubouef and Becky Allen illustrate the advances that have been made. Both women are in their 50s and hold senior management positions in the Barnett Banks corporate family. Judy is chief legal executive of the corporation and Becky is president and CEO of Barnett's Private Client Services. Both women were 30 when they began their careers. Yet they still managed to rise--not to a Fortune 500 CEO position, but high enough to show that cultural change is taking place and women are progressing. Neither one of them envisioned that their professional lives would unfold the way they did. They represent the possibilities that exist today for women.

But how did they do it? How did these women, who could be your next-door neighbors, climb so high? What made them different from so many other women? Beyond acknowledging the obvious characteristics needed for success--intelligence, determination, courage, and communication skills--their timing was right. They were both fortunate to hook up with a progressive company, in a female-friendly industry that was attempting to improve itself with regard to women. Time and place played a role in their success.


Judy Beaubouef certainly didn't envision herself in business. She followed a typical pattern for women her age: She majored in English, graduated from college in June, married in October, became a social worker, had her first child, and eventually quit working. But after a couple of years at home, she was "intellectually bored" and started going to law school at night. At this point, the story she tells departs from a traditional path: After graduation from law school she specialized in commercial litigation and eventually ended up working for a big law firm where the atmosphere was intensely competitive and 80-hour workweeks were the norm. Although she described herself as a "very competitive" person, she began to question whether the constant battle of litigation and its drain on her time and energy were really worth it. One of her good friends in the firm left to join Barnett Banks and encouraged Judy to make the switch too. But, at the time, moving from private practice to the corporate world translated into a sizable cut in pay for Judy, so she thought carefully about the move. When she did make her decision, she told me she had a "gut feeling" that it was the right thing to do. Now, as the most senior female executive in her corporation, she is one of the highest-paid women in this book.

After two years at Barnett, Judy undertook a six-month project surveying and analyzing how the bank handled its legal affairs. Without a law department of its own, Barnett was spending large sums of money outsourcing its legal work. Judy wrote a white paper, recommending the creation of a legal department. Her ideas were well received and, subsequently, she was assigned the role of developing and running the department. In this turn of events, her boss, whom she considers a great friend and teacher, ended up reporting to her. And, in 1994, Judy became the first woman to join Barnett's Management Executive Committee, which is composed of the six highest-ranking people in the corporation.

Yet when Judy gained entry to the top, she experienced some of the pressures that women of her age have faced as they move upward in their careers. Along with learning the nuances of operating within a male-dominated environment, women have had to develop a new mental model for themselves as they make the transition into their roles. And role transitions require support. Judy found that, even though she earned her elite position, she wasn't always completely comfortable with it. She had to deal with feelings of insecurity about not having the same background as her male colleagues.

One thing I still struggle with is the fact that I didn't grow up in a business setting, so questions about whether I belong still pop up for me. My undergraduate degree is far from business and even as a lawyer who has dealt with financial statements, I just don't have the business background that the rest of the team has. The Management Executive Committee is a very business-focused group and the men on it have a 30-year head start on me. During my first year on the team, there were times when I really struggled with that because I felt like I wasn't able to contribute as much as they did.

Judy's concerns demonstrate how women of her age group almost had to teach themselves new ways to think. In order to integrate themselves successfully into male-dominated groups, women were told to be aggressive and to act like men. They had to have tremendous faith in their own abilities while learning to speak a new language. Not only did women have to wear rigid business attire in the 1970s, but it was as if these new business suits were too tight, constricting their movements and speech. Women had to be careful of what they said or did lest any emotional words or feelings escape from their breast pockets. Locked in a managerial style that didn't fit, many women breaking into an organization did everything to prevent the feminine from breaking out. But when Judy entered the male domain at the top of her corporation, she had the courage to expose her feelings of discomfort to her male peers.

I realized I needed to talk to some of the other managers about my concerns and their response was very affirming and supportive. They acknowledged my strengths, telling me I had great ideas, good common sense, legal knowledge, and the ability to develop and run a new department. They hadn't appointed me expecting me to contribute the same level of business expertise they had: they just wanted me to give them my best thinking. That was very affirming and made me feel a lot better. And it freed me up to be more open about my ideas for the company.
This experience has been a lesson to me and fortifies my belief that it is far better to be open about insecurities. I don't know if exposing insecurities works in other companies, but I knew I needed to do it. I also knew that I had done a good job and they were impressed with the way I saved the company a lot of money when we created the legal department.

Now I realize how I contribute in a different way, Sometimes I'm even a little bit of their conscience. I look at issues in a different way than they do.

Part of the reason Judy was able to speak with such honesty has to do with the fact that the consciousness of the men in her company had already been raised. Had she tried talking so openly even ten years earlier, I suspect that she would have been shut down because neither men nor women then were as knowledgeable about--or skilled in overcoming--gender differences. But Barnett's training classes in executive leadership enabled senior managers to learn how to work together more effectively.

Working with my peers in the training setting, I began to recognize individuals' areas of strength, and as a group we had an opportunity to talk about both our strengths and weaknesses. It gave me the opportunity to talk about my concerns regarding my ability to contribute and it gave others a chance to acknowledge and value my contributions. It was also helpful for me to listen to the men talk about their own insecurities and the areas they wanted to work on in term of their management styles and personal development.
Learning together enabled the group to relate on more human terms with each other. Her group was supportive of her and listened to her views. And by trusting her own instincts and allowing herself to voice the concerns she had about her position, Judy enhanced the men's ability not only to comprehend more fully what it is like for someone with a different set of skills, but also to understand a woman's perspective on a deeper level.
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