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On a recent afternoon, about 50 professional women gathered for a lecture hosted by a large law firm. (I was invited as a guest.) The majority of the crowd consisted of lawyers, corporate executives and consultants who gathered there to listen to Vivian V. Eyre, an expert on corporate culture, tell them how to break through the glass ceiling that is allegedly oppressing a disproportionate number of them. The long answer as to why this is happening, according to Eyre, was that women need to understand better the different styles of corporate culture and how to work within them. The short answer was: They have to act more like men. This is a sad state of affairs, coming 30 years after the burgeoning of the women’s movement in this country. Indeed, the cold, domineering, post-industrial age male was eschewed as a model long ago by the men’s movement, during all those infamous sessions involving bongo drums and hugging. The scene at the lecture was a strange contradiction in terms. A group of educated professionals was welcomed into posh surroundings as potential clients by a white-shoe law firm; brochures were distributed before the lecture, detailing the firm’s services that could be of interest to women clients. But once seated, the women were told by the erudite and well-meaning Eyre–not in so many words, but in essence–that at their very core they are no darn good. This is because, despite all efforts to the contrary, they are still women. And as women, they tend to make “mistakes” in corporate settings, when they respond to situations in ways that don’t fit the stereotypical male model of aggressiveness, competitiveness and bravura. But there are ways to rectify these “mistakes” and they typically involve asking oneself: What would a man say or do in this situation? I’m not ready to believe, however, that women understand men so poorly, and that, given half a chance, we want to or even think it best to imitate them. After all, we have been wives and mothers to men since the Stone Age. Surely we are not so clueless as to how they do things. Indeed, a likely alternative is that we understand them all too well-we just don’t approve of everything we see. We don’t want to be them. We want to be us. True, some lovely words were uttered during the lecture to the effect of “staying authentic,” and “becoming tempered radicals” and “developing corporate subcultures.” Yet the overriding message was clear: Men create and control corporate culture and set corporate agendas. So forget about getting in touch with your inner goddess, girl. 21st century reality check It is hard to say which is sadder: that such advice is still being given in 2003, or that, apparently for Eyre’s clients, it works quite well (depending on one’s definition of success). For example, she told us of a young engineer who had been a rising star at her company, traveling the globe on assignments. She had a baby and when she returned to work she was no longer given plum assignments. She confronted her supervisor, who “paternalistically” told her that he only meant well, and had just assumed that now that she had a baby, she wouldn’t want to travel so much. She told him in no uncertain terms that having a baby hadn’t changed anything. Result: She got her big assignments back and was off to China once more. Eyre characterized this as a successful outcome. By any normal measure of human common sense this is a grotesque result, and certainly not one the engineer’s baby would be happy about. And why, after all, should the baby’s needs come last, behind the clients’, the mother’s and the company’s? The woman’s supervisor had humane and rather progressive instincts, though he may not have expressed himself artfully. He recognized something that the women’s movement fought mightily against for the first few decades of its existence (to the detriment of many families), but that a new generation is coming to understand: Men and women are different. Their lives take different trajectories and at times involve different priorities. Nothing will improve if we keep pretending that women are simply men wearing skirts but sharing identical career needs and desires. A study by Robin J. Ely in the Administrative Science Quarterly examined the careers of young female associates in large and midsized law firms. Ely found that when women act like men (in firms dominated by men), it actually makes matters worse. Women who ascend to power in such settings are typically less supportive of younger women in the firm, creating still poorer prospects for ascending female associates. Rather than trying to warp individual behavior, a structural response–in which the firm makes a concerted effort to support and promote women at all levels–ultimately works better. In such firms, a critical mass of female leadership emerges and young women have far better shots at success. That sure beats aping the alpha male. Bongo drums, anyone? Carla T. Main edits the opinion pages of The National Law Journal.

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