By: Marc H. Morial
President and Chief Executive
National Urban League
It's fashionable to claim these days that the bigotry against people of color and women as a group that once ruled American society has, in significant measure, entirely disappeared.
In other words, to take liberties with a popular television commercial, some people would have us believe that what happened in the past, stayed in the past.
That's why we owe a debt to Neil French, who for decades has been a prominent figure in the advertising industry and was—formerly—a top official at one of the world's largest advertising conglomerates.
On the word "formerly" hangs the tale, because Neil French was forced to resign his post last month after he declared at an industry conference that there weren't many women in high positions on the creative side of ad agencies because "they're crap" and "don't deserve to make it to the top" because of the time they spend caring for their children.
The criticism from women in the industry and elsewhere was immediate and scathing, and soon, French had resigned as worldwide creative director at the WPP Group.
One female ad executive in a top creative job was so incensed by French's comments, she penned a vigorous denunciation for a web site.
"I kind of felt Neil was saying out loud what a lot of people were feeling," Nancy Vonk, the co-chief creative officer of Ogillvy Toronto, itself a unit of the WPP Group, told the Times. "It's undeniable that women aren't getting far enough in the creative part of agencies, and I thought we were looking at the reason why."
The "reason why" was plumbed in depth soon after in a study on the persistence and impact of gender-based stereotyping in American corporations released by Catalyst.
The survey of nearly 300 male and female corporate executives, "Women ‘Take Care,' Men ‘Take Charge:' Stereotyping of U.S. Business Leaders Exposed," found that men—and women as well—considered men to be better than women at so-called such "take charge" behaviors as delegating responsibility and influencing both superiors and subordinates. It also found that both men and women considered women better as such "take care" behaviors as supporting and rewarding others.
The report's main finding was that men and women similarly stereotype executives' leadership behavior—with one exception. Women executives consider women leaders the better problem-solvers, and male executives consider men the better problem-solvers.
The meaning of that difference in judgment can be gleaned from the fact that although women now occupy slightly more than 50 percent of all management and professional positions, less than 8 percent of Fortune 500 top earners and less than 2 percent of Fortune 500 chief executives are women.
Thus, because men far outnumber women in top management positions, the male view of women as poor problem-solvers dominates corporate culture.
The Catalyst study goes on to recommend how companies can "combat the insidious influence of stereotyping."
The larger point of the controversy provoked by Neil French was put in a letter to the Times by Ilene H. Lang, the president of Catalyst.
Throughout the workplace, she said, "women are held back not by motherhood and not by lack of talent or ambition. Rather, they are held back by the sort of stereotyping—this assumption that women are, in effect, temp workers biding time before motherhood—to which Mr. French gave crude voice."
She went on to say that "Smart companies in today's global economy understand that women represent a vital talent pool and customer base that they cannot afford to ignore."
Lang's words about "smart companies" reminded me of one of the most significant moments in the public debate two years ago preceding the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case involving affirmative action and the admissions policies of the University of Michigan.
That was the moment in February 2003 when more than 300 organizations representing a broad spectrum of American society declared their support for affirmative action in general and specifically for the university's policies.
What was most significant was that the group included 64 Fortune 500 companies and 30 of America's top former military and civilian defense officials—including two former Secretaries of Defense Secretaries, and three former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
As many observers remarked at the time, the common ground among all those groups and individuals was their recognition of the compelling national interest—and business imperative—that American society be as open as possible to all of those with talent and ambition and intelligence, regardless of their race, ethnic background, national origin, or gender.
Given the ad industry's extraordinary expansion around the globe in recent decades, one would have thought the imperative of leaving no one with talent untapped would be especially clear.
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