Women and Work

July 5, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: I always keep my eye on the statistics. How many women have risen to the top — how many senators, how many professors, college presidents, corporate executives. It’s a habit left over from the early exit rating days of liberation, when we — then young women — started banging on the doors of power.

It hasn’t been an easy climb, and in many professions women are still remarkably under represented at the top. Thirty years after a woman was appointed head of a Fortune 500 company, only eight of those companies are run by women today.

Why? We know the easy answers. The glass ceiling, that invisible ouch women bump their heads against as they tried to break through the old boy networks. The mommy tears, the fierce juggling act women have had to do between kids and careers, gyrating guiltily between the two, in a world that often insisted that we choose one or the other.

Now comes a complicated and more interesting reason. A recent article in the New York Times chronicles women who have bailed out of companies not for the obvious reasons — babies, ceilings, bad bosses — but rather out of boredom. The women say they want more; want to be stimulated, challenged, given a chance to be creative, not just tow the line. If not, they’ll jump ship to another company, or start their own business — catering, cleaning, plumbing, as many have done — or simply go home and raise those kids.

The good news, according to the Times: Some big companies like General Electric and Proctor and Gamble, are willing to try to make these women happy because they are too valuable to lose.

SPOKESPERSON: Our chairman, he gets it, whether you’re African American or Hispanic, Latino whatever it is, I think it’s just going to be a matters of time before we change the face of the company.

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: We quarrel endlessly about whether men and women are different. It’s a minefield of a question, as Harvard president Lawrence Summers found out when he speculated about why there are so few top women scientists. The very suggestion carries for many women the threat of discrimination, of being marginalized. I get that.

But sometimes I cherish what I see as those differences. I like the fact that women are unwilling to play it safe, stay the corporate course, mimic the treadmill that so many men run on, boring themselves til death or a gold watch do us part.

This is not to say that real progress hasn’t been made by women. In my town, numbers of Hollywood women have been in real positions of power for a few years — no longer tokens, but real hardcore green lighters of megabuck pictures. And women are increasingly found throughout the management structures of corporate America. Part of it is just time, I guess. It has taken longer for women to rise to the very top than many of us hoped or expected.

But there’s something about the boredom factor that I like. I like what it says about women: That so many haven’t been willing to play by the old rules, simply because they got in the door; that we want more for ourselves, for our families, for the companies we work for. And that is for me a major cause for celebration.

I’m Anne Taylor Fleming.