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My Life in a Binder

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The author, after three decades maneuvering through corporate America, writes about what it means to be one of a binder full of women, and how to break free.

Mitt Romney’s comment in the second debate made many laugh but to me it was a summary of my 30 year career.  There were always the likely candidates for promotion—white men who had the same background as the decision makers—and then there were the “diversity” candidates.  We were seen as stretch candidates and only considered because we made the team picture look better. 

Despite my engineering degree and MBA from Stanford and a solid record of performance and success, every time I was considered for a promotion or a new job, there had to be conversations about the riskiness of the choice or even how to avoid giving me the job.

Being in the binders meant that I was considered for roles but never the preferred choice. It is high time to move from being considered diversity candidates to real candidates, but the numbers are still not with us.  We have not achieved critical mass in business since we make up only 3 to 4 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs and about 15 percent of corporate directors. Being in the binders has not led to equity but has kept alive tokenism. For any significant breakthrough, we need new thinking. Here are five strategies to get things moving in the right direction:

Embrace Generational Changes I recently spoke to a group at an industrial company on the history of corporate women’s programs.  Several men in the audience talked about hiring difficulties due to their non-diverse staff.  Many new college graduates—male and female—commented that the company’s employees looked nothing like their diverse academic classes and that the largely male atmosphere was strange and uncomfortable. Further, with women representing 15 to 20 percent of engineering students, can companies ignore a large part of the talent pool? The millennial generation has been relatively unconstrained by traditional roles and open to many changes in society.  Shouldn’t companies listen and let them drive us to a new corporate culture that encompasses a more equitable society? 

Train the Men Stop relying on women’s leadership programs and special training for women.  These have been in place for 30 years and are not making a big difference.  We have attained the right degrees and the right internships.  We do not need to learn how to work in a man’s world. Rather we need to capitalize on the research on how the diversity of boards or leadership brings about diverse and better outcomes.  It is time to train the men and make sure they understand that their current leadership populations limit their success. White men need to learn how to be comfortable in an atmosphere of diversity, understanding that their own culture is not necessarily the norm.

Change the Pools   Boards of directors tend to look to CEOs of other companies for their pools of candidates.  And since it is hard for women to break into these positions it becomes a vicious circle of exclusionism.  There are strong women leaders at the next tier who understand corporate operations and can provide a real impact on a company.  Shareholders need to help their boards see the light. 

Support Other Women   Traditionally, women in business often felt that since there was only a token “diversity” role, they were in competition with other women.  The new thinking has to be positive and active advocacy of women by women.  My role model in the political world is Senator Kirsten Gillibrand who uses the strength of her position to actively advocate for other women candidates and for women to run for office. 

Make Noise When I entered the working world amid the zeal of the 1970s women’s movement, I felt that I could help change the world by working through the male systems.  By being very good at my job, working hard through three pregnancies and motherhood, accepting all assignments, I knew that I could make a difference.  This led to a successful career but it was difficult living in those binders.   And I am a typical Baby Boomer woman.

We Baby Boomers are retiring from full time work and looking to make a difference in the next phases of our lives.  It is time to make noise.  Many of us have the time and the energy to advance the ideals of equity that we formed in our youth.  We can advocate on corporate boards and for fair treatment.  Women’s advocacy helped Facebook see the light in putting a woman on their board of directors and pushed the boycott of products that supported Rush Limbaugh after his offensive Sandra Fluke comments.

We make the purchasing decisions for our households and can use this power to engage with those making decisions for corporations.  We control our own pensions and votes.  We can write and advocate.

Thanks Mitt.  You reminded me of many rotten memories of my life in binders but you have spurred me to action.

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