Sheryl Skaggs is associate professor of sociology and public policy at the University of Texas at Dallas. She has done extensive research in the area of workplace inequality, including gender and racial/ethnic disparities in promotions and authority, earnings, and recruitment. She recently was awarded a National Science Foundation grant to expand her research into the impact of women’s move into top corporate roles.
Explain a little about the workplace gender research you’re doing with your recent NSF grant.
The NSF project focuses on women and their activities in Fortune 500 companies. How does [the promotion of] female board members and female top executives influence the opportunities of women below them have for moving into management? It combines some information that I have from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which is highly confidential data that I have an agreement to work with. And then we’re also working with the Catalyst Foundation [a non-profit that tracks gender-equity issues], which provides information on executives and board of directors at these companies from 1996 to 2008.
There’s certainly been research about women’s efforts to break into top-management jobs, but has much attention been paid to how much their success affects other women in the companies?
No. Most of the research looks at women in management in general. Most of my career has focused on that area, on breaking the glass ceiling. We already know that there’s a certain number of women in those top corporate jobs but what we want to know now is what impact they have on the women below them. Does it provide a helping hand, does it have no effect or does it actually deter other women from moving up to those positions?
Is the research at a point yet where you can draw any conclusions?
No, we’re really at the very beginning of the research. We’re working on data management and haven’t done any preliminary analyses. My collaborator [Purdue University Professor Kevin Stainback] and I have a paper that we’re working on now for a journal. It looks at a small sub-sample of Fortune 1000 companies: those that are based in Texas. This is just for 2005: one year; a quick snapshot.
With the NSF project we have a wider time period and chart trends, but with the Fortune 1000 paper, we saw positive effects from women directors as far as helping advance women, but no effect from women executives [moving up]. We’re trying to tease out what might be going on.
Given your research into workplace inequality, did those findings surprise you?
Honestly, they did. I guess we thought the elevation of both directors and executives would matter [for women below them] and that the advancement of executives would matter more because they’re closer to the ranks of women at lower levels. You think of directors as separate and not having as much interaction or influence on most workers and you’d think that women executives would have an effect. So it was a bit surprising.
Do you find it disappointing?
I wouldn’t say disappointing but certainly worth closer examination of what’s going, which is what the NSF grant-funded project is all about. We know female representation is low at both [director and top management] levels so one of the things we argue in this paper is that without numbers there’s little strength in terms of being able to push for a particular cause, like enforcement of EEOC policies or put into play.
I’m an optimist, so I believe there’s a positive effect, but maybe we just need to find out where that threshold [number] is.
How much is low representation by women in top corporate posts due to the glass ceiling and how much results from something else?
I think the majority still is about the glass ceiling. There are other factors that play into it but there’s an interaction. One thing feeds off another. For example, the arguments are that women are just opting out more. They don’t want the responsibility of running a large corporation. They can’t juggle home and career as effectively as men. And I would argue that a lot of that is because of how we divide our labor in the household. Men have children, too.
What happens is that women get stuck in a pipeline and are unable to get past that. They get discouraged and it looks like they’re opting out but they’re pursuing other things. We know that the numbers of women running small businesses is increasing, which I think is a result of [their] being frustrated; by being stuck. We have to be careful about taking the easy way out and saying that women are opting out. There still are some blockages in their path up the ladder, and I think women don’t find it rewarding to continually fight it
What will change that? Will EEOC rules make the difference or is something else required?
There are a number of avenues to get there. I don’t think any one answer works in every instance. I’m not an advocate of lawsuits but in some cases lawsuits are effective. It’s a wake-up call to corporations that they can’t continue to operate as usual. The pressure isn’t just the financial loss [from a lawsuit] but the tarnishing of image. I don’t think any corporation can have that negative publicity. It damages perceptions by consumers and suppliers, and I think investors are increasingly intolerant of [sexist] behavior that shuts out contributions from women.
The other avenue is pressure from government oversight panels, especially for federal contractors. Even though we know that few get sanctioned in hugely meaningful ways, the threat is there and it’s real. Companies that rely on federal funding cannot risk that.
So one form of serious pushback or another is needed?
Yes. I don’t think companies will change without some form of pressure.
Do most young women coming into the workplace today know that the glass ceiling remains? Many seem to think that problem has been solved.
I think both young men and women don’t see it as a problem until they get into the workplace. Many of my college students still are naïve about this. They think there’s no gender issue in the workplace any longer. But then they go to work and discover wow, there really is sex discrimination.
What I hear from students who graduate is, “You wouldn’t believe what I’ve seen.” The public perception is that it’s no longer an issue, but it is.
Your own career path has been interesting. You began your work life as a probation and parole officer for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, didn’t you?
I did indeed. As a freshly minted undergrad graduate [of University Center at Tulsa] with a sociology degree, I was looking for a career path and that was one I ran across. I thoroughly enjoyed it; it was rewarding for a few years. I also worked with child-protective services with the Health and Human Services Department in Texas. So I got to see a lot of the negative aspects of life. It’s a very stressful world and I didn’t see it as a long-term career. But it did help push me into graduate school in sociology [at University of Texas at Arlington]. I felt there had to be more for me, and I wanted to do research and teach at the university level.
Have you seen or experienced gender barriers in the academic world?
Absolutely. It depends a lot on the discipline these days. But I know there still are struggles in the hard sciences and engineering and even in business schools. It suggests women are having a tough time getting a foot in the door and then surviving. A lot of that is the result of a male culture, just as it is in a lot of historically male-dominated industries.
The public perception is that academic allows a lot of flexibility in terms of balancing work and family, but I would argue that it’s much more rigid than it is perceived to be.
Is there one most-valuable piece of advice you give to your students going out into the workplace?
I give this advice to male and female students: One of the biggest misconceptions is that women can have it all. I tell them that no one has it all. To think you can have this fantastic family that you can spend tons of time with and have a fantastic career with high potential and balance all that is a huge misconception.
Sometimes I don’t feel I do either part well. But there are going to be ebbs and flows in your career and sometimes you can step back. At other times, you need to devote more time to it. Both male and female students think that balance exists and that life can be perfect. Nothing is.