Seizing opportunities in the world of business

Another speaker told the Women, Power and Politics conference that corporate women who feel discouraged about their career progress should take heart. They have now reached critical mass as a force in business. Karen Kissane reports.

SHEILA Penrose has trained herself not to nod and smile when male colleagues are speaking. Women make these encouraging signals to indicate that they are paying attention to the person speaking, she says, but men misinterpret them as agreement to what is being said.

She has also taught herself to feel comfortable with silence in a conversation – “There are ways that men use silence to take control; it tends to make women uncomfortable and they jump in.” Such things might sound trivial, she says, but they are important tricks of the trade for women who want to succeed, and “the higher you get in an organisation, the more these interpersonal things matter”.

Ms Penrose would know. She is executive vice-president, wealth management, of the Northern Trust Corporation in Chicago, a commercial bank and one of the five biggest managers of pension funds (superannuation) in the United States. While most of the Australian speakers at the conference have said they are frustrated about women’s lack of progress in business in this country, Ms Penrose says that in America women are now becoming key generators of wealth and key decision-makers about how it will be spent. In every field of business, she says, they have reached critical mass.

In her company, half the middle managers are women. “In the United States, women start businesses at a rate two to three times faster than men, and women-owned businesses are one of the fastest-growing segments of the American economy. In 1972, only 5 per cent of US firms were owned by women. They currently represent 40 per cent of business owners (6.5 million) and by the year 2000, women will own 50 per cent of all small businesses.”

As in Australia, many women in large organisations still feel locked out of senior management, and believe the glass ceiling will not shatter until the World War II generation retires, she says. But soon the “birth dearth” of the 1970s will guarantee that there will not be enough men to fill the potential management positions. This alone will broaden opportunities for women.

She says the changing needs of business in the ’90s are also to women’s advantage. Hierarchies are dead and the management qualities for which women are particularly noted, such as the ability to encourage participation, share power and information, enhance people’s self-esteem and get them excited about their work, are in demand. Ms Penrose says, “This, of course, does not mean that women managers are all sugar and sweetness, but rather that they mix these traits with business savvy and a firm hand to bring out the best in their employees. A woman is more likely to create a weblike power structure, as opposed to a hierarchy, where they are at the centre and can reach out personally for easy interaction with their employees.”

Ms Penrose says women are major purchasers in America and around the world, even for typically male products, and that their relative wealth and their power to decide about investments is increasing: “As women accumulate their own wealth, inherit from parents and outlive their husbands (by an average of seven years), they will hold much of the country’s wealth.”

First published in The Age.