Women's Executives' Concerns Related to Implementing and Sustaining a Women's Network in a Corporate Context

Article excerpt

Abstract

This case study investigated the process and results of a corporate women's network charged with improving women's standing in the organization. The network ultimately failed. This research explores women's concerns related to the women's network initiative and relates such concerns to the unsuccessful initiative.

Exploring how knowledge is created about gender in the workplace is important given that women make up approximately 50 percent of the workforce and are slowly moving into positions of power. There are many pleas for research on women in the work context, but few published studies. Caffarellaand Olson (1993) call for more databased studies to develop the ideas, concepts, models, and theories about women's development. They ask: "How would raising the consciousness of women about the 'glass ceiling' for women in organizations affect their life dreams and what they believe they can achieve?" (p. 145) This is an important question since in previous studies women have been found to exhibit low levels of gender awareness when reflecting on their career experiences (Bierema, 1996, 1999; Caffarella, Clark, & Ingram, 1997).

This research began with a case study of the formation and performance of an executive women's network in a major corporation. It was part of a larger study around gendered power relations in work context. I had privileged access to a group of executive women in a Fortune 500 consumer products company. This group created a Women's Advisory Council (Council) with the support of the CEO that was dedicated to advancing women in the organization. I worked as an external consultant with this group beginning in 1998 when the Council was formed. The past four years have brought unprecedented change and uncertainty to this corporation as they have changed CEOs, geographical location, weathered a financial downturn, experienced downsizing, and moved into a recession. The Council ultimately disbanded and did not accomplish the goals it had set.

The theoretical frames underlying this study fall into two areas: women's career development and learning. Career development literature sheds some light on how adults progress through their careers, but it has been criticized for basing models on men's careers, and being insensitive to the multiple roles and responsibilities of women across their life span. The second area is a learning frame, which serves to evaluate and understand how women learn about gender in the work context with particular focus on the role of reflection, reflective practice and action, and transformative learning in the women's work context as it relates to gender awareness.

Methodology

The participants were members of the Women's Advisory Council that comprised approximately ten of the top executive women in the organization. The number fluctuated as membership changed over the course of the four years. The Council began meeting in 1998 at the Annual Catalyst Awards Dinner in New York City. Catalyst is a non-profit organization founded in the 1960s by Felice Schwartz. Catalyst's mission is to work with for-profit business to advance women in the workplace. Following the Catalyst awards meeting, a focus group was held with women who attended the event. The topic of the focus group was to evaluate recruitment and retention issues specific to women in the company. The focus group was tape recorded and transcribed verbatim. In addition to the focus group, Council members were individually interviewed. All interviews were tape recorded and transcribed verbatim. Participant observation was also used as a data collection method at all meetings of the Women's Advisory Council. Data were analyzed according to the constant comparative method and organized according to the Concerns-based Adoption Model.

Findings

Three core challenges for women in the company were identified in the focus group analysis: mitigating existing myths about women across the organization; advancing in an organizational culture where it is difficult for women to progress; and reducing problems in the recruitment and retention of women in the company. …