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Stripping down corporate culture

The Naked Truth:
A Working Woman’s Manifesto on Business and What Really Matters

By Margaret Heffernan
Jossey-Bass, 2004

Review by Diane Glazman

In 2002, Margaret Heffernan wrote an article about the reasons so few women were rising to the top levels of corporate leadership for Fast Company magazine. She drew on her experiences as CEO for several companies in the United States and the United Kingdom and interviews with many high-powered women looking for what she called the “naked truth” of what goes on inside those gleaming high rises. What she came up with led to responses from thousands of women who were disillusioned, disenchanted, and basically fed up with the existing corporate world. Heffernan spent four months responding to each and every e-mail and letter she received, and then she sat down and wrote The Naked Truth: A Working Woman’s Manifesto on Business and What Really Matters.

Heffernan begins with the premise that the business world was created and structured around men and their lives. Women are the perennial gate-crashers of the business world, a position that leaves them with only a few choices for the corporate game– the bitch, the geisha, the guy or the invisible woman. Cut off from the testosterone-driven old-boys’ network, Heffernan says, women still find themselves passed over for promotions, offered lower pay, marginalized in the corporate power structure, and struggling to find ways to balance work and family life. Drawing on interviews with more than a hundred businesswomen (she lists them all, along with their positions, at the beginning of the book), Heffernan cites examples of women mommy-tracked without their consent, harassed and alienated in the work place, and condemned for speaking out about the insanity they see. Women’s perspective as gate-crashers, Heffernan says, makes it possible for them to see clearly that “the emperor has no clothes,” and they are made to pay the price.

The statistics tell the story. Even at the beginning of the 21st century, only 15 percent of corporate officers are women; 5.1 percent carry the “power” titles of CEO, COO, SVP, EVP and chairman or vice chairman; and 12 percent of the board seats for larger companies, according to the numbers Heffernan cites. In addition, she says, only 19 percent of the women in the workforce want the top position and actively seek opportunities for advancement, while a staggering 45 percent say it isn’t a goal for their careers. The poster-CEO’s of the business world— Carly Fiorina, Andrea Jung, and Meg Whitman— are few and far between. And, while setbacks in all careers happen, Heffernan says, women are more likely to think they are the problem than their male counterparts, taking setbacks personally rather than seeing that the system is stacked against them.

Heffernan uses the myth of the “opt-out revolution” as an example of this. She says that in the past several years, there have been a number of news stories about how women are opting out of the corporate track, taking their business degrees and six-figure salaries, and deciding to stay at home with their children. While she agrees that there has been a trend in this direction, she says the articles and news stories don’t look beyond the individual woman to what is going on in the work world that would influence her decision to “opt-out.” Stories about ticking biological clocks are used as scare tactics and belie the fact, Heffernan says, that statistics show that women who have children later in life have higher lifetime earnings and experience a lower divorce/separation rate from their partners. In addition, companies with paid maternity leave, flexible schedules and career planning and opportunities to work from home have a near perfect return and retention rate for women employees.

Instead of focusing on these statistics, Heffernan says, “we are told that the only guarantee of early and bountiful fecundity is to abandon our careers.” Men, she adds, do not feel this way. “Of the MBAs who’ve risen to within three levels of the CEO position, 84 percent of men have children, whereas only 49 percent of women do. Of 1,600 MBAs surveyed, 70 percent of men accommodate a family— but only 25 percent of women do.” But, she says, all this flies in the face of the fact that half of the workforce is female and the majority are mothers.

All is not gloom and doom in this book. Heffernan does offer some solid advice for women entering the business world (which, she says, fewer and fewer are doing— while women are earning law and medical degrees in greater numbers, female admissions to business schools can not seem to rise about 35 percent). She urges women to start their careers with a plan— knowing who they are and what they want from the corporate sector will help them know when they are in an environment that is not in line with their values or their vision for their future. The big challenge, she says, is not to be successful in business, but to be successful while remaining the woman you want to be, and women need to take themselves seriously in order to do that. Know your career options, understand your talents, and recognize your capabilities, Heffernan urges, then look at the culture of industries and the companies within them to see if they reflect who you are and what you want. If not, keep looking.

But, and here’s a big but, despite Heffernan’s business savvy and wealth of experience and knowledge, her book continually places the blame for the inhospitality of the work world only on the shoulders of men. While the horror stories she relates are not foreign to me— I have experienced the emotionally abusive, toxic boss and the boss who was more interested in how I dressed than the quality of my work— I worked for a succession of female bosses before finally leaving the corporate arena to become a freelancer. Which, unfortunately, is Heffernan’s ultimate solution. If the boys won’t play nice, the women should just pack up and go start their own game somewhere else.

The Naked Truth ignores the fact that men are just as trapped by the business culture as women— their choices and freedoms limited by a system that views them as suits rather than husbands, fathers, and individuals with lives outside the cubicle. By continually couching the issue in terms of man vs. woman, Heffernan misses an important and empowering point. The system is and always has been broken, but it was only the entrance of greater numbers of women into the workforce that brought the issue into the open and made it a topic of concern and debate. That the system was created by men does not mean they are immune to its toxicity. Reducing the debate to men against women and suggesting the only thing for women to do is strike out on their own, belittles and undermines the contribution women can make in creating a model of business that works for all people, and Heffernan does a disservice to the business community in not showing how women can work within the system to make those positive changes.

While I disagree with Heffernan on many points, this book did prompt me to begin talking to the businesswomen I know in order to better understand her point of view and their experiences. In the end, I think this is the true value of the book, to get the dialogue going, to let women know their experiences in the corporate world are not aberrations or caused by their own failings, and to close the gap between what is so in the work world and what we wish were so.

mmo : december 2004

Diane Glazman is a writer living in the Bay Area. Her business communications company, Ink Communications, provides writing services for public relations and marketing agencies as well as corporate clients.

Also of interest:

In Fast Company Magazine:
The Female CEO ca. 2002
Here are the five naked truths about women in business. Together they add up to one big message: The future of business depends on women.
By Magaret Heffernan

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