Women in Business: Some Tips on Becoming a B-Word

Editor’s note: The following is the first installment of a new column "Minding Her Business" that will cover issues affecting women in business and in the workplace. Female professionals (and male, too, if they wish) can use this resource to network, ask questions, receive and offer advice, share personal experiences … and you don’t ever have to leave your office. Just e-mail herbusiness@foxnews.com.

Go ahead. Call me the b-word. Make my day.

That may not be the most appropriate way to ask your supervisor for a promotion, but many women in business would agree that the b-word is nothing to avoid being called. On the contrary, some would say it's actually worth blood, sweat and tears to be "boss."

(For those who were expecting a different word, one that rhymes with "witch," you're probably not alone).

However, statistics show that although women have made some strides over time in the corporate arena, too many have simply been running in place. The majority of women employed at Fortune 500 companies have been getting stuck at the bottom of the leadership totem pole over the last decade, according to a census study released in 2006 by Catalyst, an organization that tracks women in business.

If this rate of progress continues, according to the study, it could take 40 years for women to achieve parity with men in corporate officer positions. So what is the secret to level the playing field and catch up with the men?

“Women still have to work harder [than men],” said Dr. Adele Scheele, a career coach and author of “Skills for Success for Men and Women."

“Anyone who wants to change the status quo has to work harder – is it fair? It is not – but it is the reality.”

What status quo are women professionals up against? The Catalyst census found that:

-The average Fortune 500 company had 21.8 corporate officers in 2005 and that women held only 3.6 of these positions.

-More than one-half of the Fortune 500 had fewer than three women corporate officers.

-Women occupied only 9.4 percent of titles higher than vice president.

-Only eight companies in the Fortune 500 were led by a woman CEO in 2005, and none of those companies was among the Fortune 100.

-Women held only 6.4 percent of top earner positions, up just 1.2 percentage points from 2002. And 75 percent of Fortune 500 companies reported no women as top earners.

Scheele said women seeking professional advancement should concentrate on working with their male counterparts rather than isolating oneself from them or viewing them as the enemy.

“Women who can join men where men are more relaxed … like on the golf or tennis court … do better. They may not want to – but those who do see results. Have one or two really good alliances with men,” she said.

In other words: If you can’t beat ‘em, ladies, at least grab a golf club and try your best to.

Questions? Comments? E-mail them to herbusiness@foxnews.com

The Bright Side

And now it’s time for some good news. More data from Catalyst offers evidence that it often pays to buck the trend. According to another Catalyst study, Fortune 500 companies with the highest percentages of women corporate officers yielded, on average, a 35.1 percent higher return on equity and 34 percent higher total return to shareholders than those with the lowest percentages of women corporate officers.

In 2006, a few powerful women climbed into the driver's seat at major corporations. Indra Nooyi took over as CEO at PepsiCo (PEP), the giant food and beverage company, and Irene Rosenfeld took the reins as CEO of Kraft foods (KFT), the world’s second-largest food company and the nation's largest. And (talk about making a comeback) Patricia Woertz ended a brief retirement and became CEO of Archer-Daniels-Midland (ADM), a firm at the heart of the country's foray into renewable fuels.

Women also are busy on Main Street: Women in the United States are launching small businesses at more than twice the rate of men each year.

“Women have come a long way in only three decades … the Glass Ceiling has been cracked open,” Scheele said. But, she added, although cracks have been made, women haven’t necessarily made it through them.

“Many women have hit their heads in the process and left to start their own [successful] businesses. Many have left to join smaller firms where they are more valuable. Others have sued, a painful, yet necessary, road to have taken.

“We [women] need to be so much more self-confident, become much more visible, get more public speaking under our belts. In business and professional life, women are now just getting to be taken seriously enough to run their professional associations.

Success Secrets From My Former Ms. Boss

How can female professionals climb past the status quo and get to the top of the corporate ladder? Out of my last five bosses, only one was a woman. Here are some examples of lessons I learned from her:

Keep your cool: I was always amazed at the calm nature my boss (an MBA and public relations executive) kept amid any set of circumstances. She never lost her cool, never appeared to be rattled, even when things were coming loose at the seams.

At times I wanted to run into her office and yell, “Fire in the building! Run!” to see if she might lose her cool for even a second. But, I also wanted to keep my job. My wishes for the latter kept me from ever trying my luck at the former. In preparing to write this column I asked her about the secret to always being in control and I found out that, as I suspected, sometimes my perception wasn’t the reality.

“Yes, I have been in situations where I have felt overwhelmed. ... The best way to handle the pressure is to be well-prepared,” she said. “If you are leading a group and mayhem erupts, the worst thing you can do is lose your composure. Your group will be looking to you to guide them through the storm. So, if you lose your composure, the group will fall apart and your leadership will be eroded.”

She also taught me the importance of prioritizing. Being able to separate crucial tasks from the small stuff makes the difference between getting ahead and running in circles.

And, speaking of b-words, she said there is a fine line between being assertive and being that word that rhymes with "witch."

“As a leader, you have to give direction, manage personalities and get results. That requires the ability to be direct — assertive — provide advice and set deadlines and boundaries with employees. It also requires honesty and integrity,” she said.

“On the other hand, being verbally abusive when the job isn’t done to your satisfaction, publicly berating your staff or conniving to get an undesirable employee or competitor demoted or fired is unacceptable. That’s not leadership. That’s a bitch."

E-mail me at herbusiness@foxnews.com and tell me the success secrets you have learned from a female boss, or from being the female boss, and next column I'll select some of your e-mails and share them.