Women Leaders

We Didn't Put a Woman in the White House. But What About Women in the Workplace?

For her new book, 'Earning It,' a WSJ journalist talked to 50-plus female corporate trailblazers about the experiences they had on their way up.
We Didn't Put a Woman in the White House. But What About Women in the Workplace?
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Editor's Note: On this day following the presidential election of 2016, many Americans are just starting to parse the pro and con messages about women that emerged from the two campaigns: One, the glass ceiling didn't get broken, after all. And, two, how are women (and their men supporters) to think about the misogynistic talk that occurred in this election?

Related: Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In 2.0 and Corporate Gender Bias

Given that reality, it's perhaps especially appropriate today to feature an excerpt from the new book Earning It: Hard-Won Lessons from Trailblazing Women at the Top of the Business World, by Joann S. Lublin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and management news editor for The Wall Street Journal. 

Among the first female reporters at The Journal, Lublin faced uphill battles in her career, to become deputy bureau chief of the newspaper's important London bureau, the first time it had been run by a woman. For her book, Lublin interviewed more than 50 women who had reached the highest rungs of the corporate ladder -- across a diversity of industries, including retail, manufacturing, finance, high technology, publishing, advertising, automotive and pharmaceutical.

Here is an excerpt from the chapter "Male Mentors Mean Business," applicable to women in all workplaces, large or small . . .

Countless women have seen their careers soar, thanks to help from a powerful senior executive. But some women paid a price for their close relationship with a male mentor. 

One such woman was Melissa Dyrdahl, the [former] chief executive of Ella Health, a health care start-up for women. She saw her career take off after Bruce R. Chizen, a former boss, hired her in 1994 to join Adobe Systems, the software maker, as a senior marketing manager. The two had developed a strong rapport at Claris, their former employer, and Dyrdahl assisted him in running a small new division of Adobe.

“He knew exactly what he was getting from an employee standpoint,” Dyrdahl remembered. Chizen became her unofficial career coach at Adobe, offering insights about ways to excel in the male-dominated technology industry. Having a boss as a mentor helped Dyrdahl to get the respect she felt that she deserved, she said when we spoke. She saw that when professional challenges arose, Chizen and other senior Adobe men “always came in with an answer.”

Because the two knew each other so well, “I’m brutally honest with her,” Chizen said in a Wall Street Journal article that I wrote about executive mentors. He also acted as Dyrdahl’s sponsor, an influential individual who opens the door of a promotion elevator and pushes a protégé through. During his climb to top management at Adobe, he brought along Dyrdahl and other valued mem-
bers of his team. 

“I had someone who was highly respected, a more senior leader, making sure my name got put on the table,” Dyrdahl told me. With Chizen’s support, Adobe appointed her global vice president of marketing in 1998 and then advanced her to a senior vice presidency before elevating Chizen from president to CEO in late 2000. 

Once they both had reached the executive suite, Chizen and Dyrdahl occasionally drove to and from Adobe headquarters in San Jose together because they and their spouses lived near each other in suburban Los Altos. “We socialized together,” Dyrdahl recalled. “I know his kids. My husband has remodeled their house.” But as a result of these ties, the two high-profile executives encountered unexpected repercussions. 

One day, a human resources staffer at Adobe who was friends with Chizen and Dyrdahl strode into her office. “I just need to tell you, because nobody is going to tell you,” she said. “There’s people who think there’s something going on with you and Bruce.”

The office gossip shocked Dyrdahl. Her jaw dropped, and “I was reeling,” she recollected. It suddenly dawned on her that she and Chizen now occupied a much more visible stage at the office. She quickly assured the human resources staffer that their relation-
ship was purely professional. “I don’t want people to think I slept my way to the top,” Dyrdahl told her HR colleague.

Driving home with Chizen soon after, Dyrdahl told him that coworkers wrongly perceived him as being something more than her supervisor and mentor. “They are only going to think badly of me,” she said. “Lots of things that we take for granted and we don’t think twice about, I can’t do anymore.”

Chizen understood and accepted dramatic adjustments. They stopped driving together or going out for drinks unless a third person was present. “[I] never sat next to him in a meeting again,” Dyrdahl said. “I told him, ‘Unless there is no other chair, do not sit next to me.’”

Even today, suspicions about an illicit affair sometimes arise when a male executive mentors or sponsors a female subordi-
nate. For this reason, most senior-level men hesitate “to have one-on-one contact with a potential protégé who happened to be a younger woman,” said Sylvia Ann Hewlett in her 2013 book, (Forget a Mentor) Find a Sponsor: The New Way to Fast-Track Your Career. Her observations reflected research by the Center for Talent Innovation, a New York think tank that she heads and that studies issues in the workplace.

This reluctance, Hewlett wrote, explains “why men are so much more likely to sponsor other men, inadvertently perpetuating the old boys' club.” A 2010 study by her think tank found that men are 46 percent more likely to have sponsors than women. “Up-
and-coming females tend to conclude that sponsorship, sexually fraught as it might be, is something they don’t actually need,” she said in her book.

Hewlett considers that a dangerous assumption. Mentors build a woman’s self-esteem and serve as an empathetic sounding board, but sponsors expend valuable chips on a woman’s behalf and provide air cover so she can take risks. “Sponsors, not mentors, put you on the path to power and influence by affecting three things: pay raises, high-profile assignments, and promotions,” she wrote.

Other researchers support Hewlett’s argument. More than half of senior executive women said having a higher-level sponsor is extremely important, yet women have less access to senior male staffers who could assist with their careers, concluded a 2015 study by LeanIn.Org, founded by Sheryl Sandberg, and McKinsey. The research tracked women’s progress at 118 North American companies. 

A handful of corporate programs designate workplace advocates for managerial women. At least nine big businesses have set up sponsorship initiatives that match promising female leaders with sponsors or teach such women how to attract a sponsor, I wrote in an advice column on careers published on WSJ.com in 2011. American Express Co., for example, launched its “Pathways to Sponsorship” program that year for twenty-one female senior vice presidents at the major financial services company. 

By the end of 2014, 25 percent of those initial participants had been promoted and 45 percent had made strategic lateral moves, an American Express spokeswoman told me. The company has also expanded its sponsorship effort to cover a wider range of managerial levels.

Yet formal mentoring and sponsorship programs remain far out of reach for most professional women. Only 30 percent of all American professionals have access to such programs, and there is a smaller proportion of women than men within that group, according to a 2014 survey of 1,005 adults by Edward Jones, a financial services firm. Just 18 percent of the women allowed to participate in these programs actually do, the poll showed, compared with 21 percent of the men.

Men on Women's Side

Male mentors and sponsors played crucial parts in the careers of numerous corporate executives I interviewed. “At the end of the day, men still hold most of the power,” suggested Sandra “Sandi” Peterson, the group worldwide chairman of Johnson & Johnson. “So you better have male mentors.”

But as is evident from Dyrdahl’s experience, women must make sure that their relationships with higher-level men don’t raise eyebrows among coworkers. To further refute false rumors about any romantic entanglement with Chizen, she stopped her habit of flying alone with him on commercial flights for business travel.

In Dyrdahl’s view, things haven’t improved for women since she left Adobe in late 2006. These days, she encourages women to take steps that clarify their ties with a male mentor so the relationship cannot be misconstrued by colleagues. “You give up your power when you wittingly or unwittingly put yourself in situations where people perceive you as having an affair and getting something because of your sex,” she pointed out. “I felt I had to work twice as hard because I was blond and attractive.”

Related: For Women in Tech, Bias Runs Deeper Than Most Think