Feminist Ethics and Corporate America By Sharon Andre


This post is written in conjunction with the Feminist Ethics Course Dialogue project sponsored by Claremont School of Theology in the Claremont Lincoln University Consortium,  Claremont Graduate University, and directed by Grace Yia-Hei Kao.

Sharon Andre is completing her Master of Arts in Spiritual Formation  at Claremont School of Theology.  Her interests include biblical studies, business organization and computer science.

Many thoughts, feelings and realizations are being triggered inside me as I listen, read and learn about Feminist ethics.  I sense that my CST deconstruction is in full swing with no end in sight!   This is my first course at CST following twenty-five plus years in Corporate America, and just about everything is new to me.  I’m a white gay Mennonite woman raised Catholic with formal education in computer science and business.   

I’ve been pondering the patriarchal socialization perspective glossed over by Noddings and Gilligan and it’s been gnawing at me.     I believe that women and men’s care ethic and justice dispositions are more a product of societal norms, that we have assimilated our gendered roles so well that they may appear to be gifts from birth.  If society has influenced our roles more than genetics and biology then it seems that the probability of transforming some of our long held stereotypes into a more balanced state can transpire.  Can we make the necessary changes to our long history of patriarchal dominance to decrease oppression?  What will the changes look like?  And for goodness sake how many decades will this take?

Before this course I enjoyed success in corporate America (by corporate America’s standards).  But after much reflection I’m saddened at the very real possibility that to be successful in a brutally competitive field and advance to the coveted (by me and my fellow professionals) upper echelons of management was in large part because of the gifted chameleon I became in order to join the inner circle of the “boys” club; I played by their rules — I perpetuated the patriarchal influence to adjust to the norm so I could enjoy the status and rewards associated with being an executive.  In retrospect I deemphasized many of my female traits to be accepted as a professional and not a woman, a gay person or by any other stereotype that might have derailed my career.    Furthermore I disassociated with women who did not adjust to the male dominated culture that is Corporate America in order to maintain my position.  What a depressing realization, but knowing what I know now it’s very unlikely that I will ever go back to corporate America.   For a plethora of reasons I resigned this week in hopes of discovering how I can contribute more to our world, to look outward, learn new skills, and to reconstruct myself…and so the expedition begins.

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Categories: Feminist Ethics Course Dialogue, Gender and Power, Gender and Sexuality

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12 replies

  1. Sharon: What a gift (however existentially painful) to be able to reflect deeply upon your professional life and render judgment both about it and the person you became in the process. The assimilationist impulse is indeed so strong that I agree with you that what might be simply a product of socialization gets coded instead as something natural (but thankfully, due to the ethics of human experimentation, we will never be able to “test” out these hypotheses and so the nature vs. nurture debates will be with us until the end of human inquiry).

    Would you mind sharing a bit more some examples of what you mean by your acclimating to patriarchal or masculinist norms? Or even what you understand those norms (of corporate America) to be?

    In my first year of grad school, a male mentor of mine warned me about how the tenure process was biased against women and I really had no idea what he was talking about until many years later. What he had in mind was the following: given the average age of grad students, the years they must spend pursuing their degrees, and then the time they spend as an Assistant Prof in their first tenure-track job (if they can land one), the time on the tenure-track that anyone must publish like a fiend to get ahead also coincides with what for many women will be their “last” chance to bear children (if indeed they want them and want to do so by natural birth as opposed to adoption). Keep in mind that the tenure system is an “up or out” one — there is a mandatory review period (normally of 5-7 years, one cannot be one’s probationary period for 10+ years). So this is to say, as my mentor recognized long ago, that the tenure system does not adequately factor in the different biological circumstances of men vs. women who wish to bear children (the “natural” way) because as we all know, one can be as old as David Letterman and still father children. Thus, for a number of reasons (child-rearing being a major one, though of course there are others), women fan out at a higher rate than their male counterparts do at every stage of academe (i.e., if equal numbers of men and women enter grad school, more men will finish; if equal numbers of women and men become Assistant Profs, more men will be tenured; if equal numbers of women and men are Associate Professors (i.e., have tenure), more men will be promoted to Full Professor).

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    • Thanks for the opportunity to delve into the corporate structure a bit.

      At a typical company meeting of 150 people, approx. fifteen are women, of the top eight VP’s there is one woman, of the top 8 CXO (Chief X Officers) positions one is a woman. Of the top 200 accounts, fifteen are managed by women of these fifteen women five have children, four of these women have full time nanny’s, one has a stay at home husband. About 21% of programmers are women. Marketing has the largest percent of women.

      My female peers who were planning to start a family and/or add to their family only shared their plans to have children with a small number of trusted colleagues until they were forced to reveal their plans. Large companies ($39B, 108K employees…) have very strict HR policies in place that one might imagine provide some protection for women, but the unwritten rules are the ones that I witnessed:

      • Maternity leave on a field team meant we were down a valuable contributor for months yet the work load did not decrease and everyone else had to cover, so the women wisely kept their interests in bearing children to a select few.

      • Adoption leave is available so new parents can bond with their children, again very laudable but tricky depending on the position the parent held, sales would frown on leave but it was never spoken. You could expect to lose accounts…

      • Executives have to travel (about 60-85%) and it’s assumed that you will travel despite being a parent, a single parent… most of which is before or after business hours.

      • A position that does require travel and management comes with a reduction in pay of about 30-60%.

      • Men seem to assist each other more than the women.

      • Successful men are considered go getters, successful women are considered not just assertive but aggressive.

      • It is more difficult for women to get assigned to the few really strategic accounts, it took me fifteen years to get accounts and team I wanted. The better the accounts the more pay, more senior people under you, better care for the client…

      • In the middle and upper echelons an average work week is about 65 hours, much of the travel is in the evenings and early mornings. No overtime for sales.

      For women who call HR and complain:

      o It is to be confidential, but seldom is.

      o During the HR investigation it’s quite obvious who complained.

      o The probability of getting promoted or raises decreases substantially if management is aware of complaints. People who register complaints are called “hr dialers”

      o I know of several male execs who have two-to-four outstanding complaints, ranging from profanity/verbal abuse to expense fraud with no “real” consequences

      o The goal of HR is to avoid litigation, to assure that it appears the company has done everything by the book, especially involving sexual harassment.

      The good old boys network is alive and healthy, to get promoted all must have solid relationships with several VP’s. The sheer numbers of men versus women make it challenging, and self-recognition is essential to promotion and the men in general seemed more skilled at taking credit when due.

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      • Wow, thanks for your thorough and sobering follow-up. One of the most painful things I read was your description of how there are all sorts of “checks” in place (an HR department that knows the rules and must listen to complaints, etc.) and yet there is a stronger culture that punishes the “HR dialers” or those who do what they are legally protected to do (i.e., take time off to bond with a newborn child). Especially alarming was the officially confidential (but in reality not) nature of such interactions.

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  2. Sharon, I appreciate your honest appraisal and reflections on your professional life. You mention in your post how you assimilated to some degree to male dominated norms in your work life. One of the things I struggle with is wondering how much my professional desires likewise conform to those male dominated norms. I look at women in positions of professional power and I envy them to some extent. A part of me would love the paycheck, the status, the security, etc. of having a job like that, and a part of me celebrates when I see women climb that corporate or professional ladder and find success in that world. But how much of that envy/celebration is because I have assimilated masculinist norms myself? I ask myself if I should instead embrace my life as a stay at home mom/ grad student and be happy that I’m not participating in that world. Though the life of a stay at home mom also raises ethical questions for me. Can true partnership exist when one partner earns all the money and the other lives off that money? These are questions I ask myself. Contributing ethically to our world, given the pragmatic needs of providing for oneself, managing family, etc.is clearly a complicated subject. Thank you so much for your thoughts on your own journey.

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    • Caroline – I would welcome further conversation with you about these questions and concerns!

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    • Caroline, Good questions. Choice is such a gift. I don’t have children, but had my Sister and her two kids (at the time 2 and 6) living with me for several years – it was hectic, but the time to bond and share with them was one on the greatest gifts I ever received. Many of my peers work long hard hours so that their partner can be home for the children/family. I put a high value on the family as a team/unit so the stay at home parent is as vital to the team as the working partner. In my profession I simply can’t imagine having an intact family if both parents had professional careers. A partnership of equity/equality exists when a couple agree on the family goals, the roles and both parties have choice in the matter – it’s not a matter of a paycheck but the value put on the family unit – my opinion for what it’s worth.

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  3. Sharon – Thank you for your open and honest posting. As someone still in “Corporate America,” I’ve pondered this question, often, and have come up with a somewhat different answer…at least for myself. There are places, admittedly, where I saw myself begin to give away my femininity in order to climb the ranks. At some point, out of frustration, I decided to be myself. I started managing with the affection and caring that I prefer, and surprise, surprise:), our income jumped, my employees felt cared for and thus did their best, and even our clients noticed the differents. I guess this is all by way of saying that I found that reclaiming MY gender preference set me apart in a positive way. Since Corporate America is here to stay, I actually wonder how we can share, better, an ethics of caring with them.
    Glad to know I have a colleague like you around.

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  4. Sharon –
    Great post. It is always interesting to me about how school reading bleeds over into real life. This weekend I went to go see a movie with another student from this class and we spent most of it making half-indignant jokes about the depiction of women. Halfway through I leaned over and whispered, “Feminist Ethics makes watching movies suck.” It was a joke, but there was some validity in it; it was difficult to watch a film where the one female character was the voice calling for collaboration and who made the ultimate sacrifice for everyone else. Having sat in class with Dr. Kao before, I can now never look at the book “The Giving Tree” again without frowning.

    All of this to say that I appreciate you sharing with us how you are seeking to reconcile your life experiences with what you’re learning. You raise a lot of good questions. Being raised Catholic, I am sure you also wonder how long it’s going to take before the church ordains women (when we run out of men in the seminaries, so, like, 3 years from now), before all Christian denominations ordain members of the lgbtq community. Change is glacial and it can be exhausting. There are many people in the world who don’t know what patriarchy means, academically or in life practice. They haven’t been exposed to the concept or many of the other concepts we learn at seminary and we have to be sympathetic to that. I think that all we can do is live what we learn and model for the innumerable others who don’t have the same educational opportunities that we have.

    Great post.

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  5. Sharon,
    Your thoughts ring true for me. I had a successful 25-year career as a newspaper photographer before coming to divinity school. I worked hard to succeed in a male dominated profession. But unlike you, I never really felt like I “fit in.” For the most part, I liked my male colleagues, and have had some wonderful male mentors, but I always felt like I processed information in a different way than what was expected of me. Plus, I distanced myself from male bosses because, as a hetero female, I never wanted anyone to suspect I was given good assignments for any other reason than my ability to do them well. I wore my shits buttoned up and was always conscious about what I might be revealing when I leaned over a light table to edit film.
    It’s a shame that I wasn’t more aware of feminist thought until now, because I think I have drafted off of the changes it has brought about. In other words, Giligan’s recognition of a woman’s voice and manner of moral reasoning helped change judgments about women’s capacities. I would never have dreamed of being a newspaper photographer when I was a little girl – they didn’t exist. Yet, as I wrote in my ethics paper, I realized at the time Noddings wrote, Caring, I would I have felt excluded from her argument and would have considered it sexist. At that time I was in college and I was justifying myself in a world ruled by men and efforting to learn how to think in a more rational and abstract way. The fact that I (who failed algebra II in high school) taught myself calculus in college when I couldn’t understand how my (male) professor was explaining it, and then dared to imagine myself as a physicist, is a testament to my drive to succeed in a world dominated by rational, masculine thought; a world in which I was marginalized and that I perceived thought of me as stupid and inadequate.
    What a difference thirty years makes! Welcome to the deconstruction site. I look forward to journeying along with you.

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  6. Hi, Sharon. Thanks for sharing your experiences. My experience in “corporate America” was different from yours, so like Dr. Kao, I’d appreciate some examples of what you mean by your acclimating to patriarchal or masculinist norms or what you understand those norms (of corporate America) to be. I expect our different experiences may be based off of the era in which we entered the work force, the fields we were in, and perhaps the fact that I did not get too high on the corporate ladder. I could have also uncritically assumed some of the masculist norms, as well.

    I worked in the professional world for about 8 years in an architectural firm. Because I was going into a world of design and construction, I expected it to be much more sexist and masculinist than it was. I must thank my mentors and the women who entered the field before me that it was not. Although there were times that I was told I should make sure I knew what I was talking about so that I could stand up challenges from a contractor or engineer who doubted my ability (presumably based on my sex, age, or race), there were few cases where overt sexism was acknowledged.

    Even the norm of not showing emotions except perhaps anger, which I’d identify as a masculinist norm, was not as operative as I would have thought. While it is true that after surviving one round of devastating layoffs in the office, the HR rep told me it was ok to go cry in the restroom (away from everyone), and the same woman showed callousness to me after a death in the family, many of the more senior employees and managers showed care, concern, and other emotions. When visiting the construction site of the first project I’d worked on from start to finish, I thought I should remain detached and unemotional, yet my older, male collegues would not let the moment pass. “Aren’t you awed?! isn’t it inspiring?! Isn’t it amazing!?!” they said, trying to really let me marvel in the joy of seeing a set of ideas and images become a concrete reality.

    Another norm might be a hierarchical model of leadership. At the particular firm I worked at, there were a LOT of managers and senior staff, so this was a definite risk. Operational policies and the like may have come down from the top, but it seemed that so much else was done by committees. Our day-to-day work on projects or marketing efforts depended on a collaborative ethic. Certainly some people worked better in a team than others, but I think most of us knew at an intellectual level at least that good relationships are critical to producing our best work.

    There are other thought I could add, but I’d really be interested in hearing more of your insights.

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  7. Sharon,
    Thank you for sharing your experiences.

    After reading your post, I was brought back to the times when my boyfriend would tell me about his mother and her “corporate” experiences during the 70s and 80s. She was one of the first women to hold a “man’s position” and while she broke through that glass ceiling the pressure to stay on top and be perfect haunted her.

    He would often tell me stories of how women that she knew before going into the board room would get physically sick because of nerves. They were frightened because of the performance they had to put on for the men around the table. The slightest flaw and its was all over with.

    Your experiences bring up an important point to why we need to reexamine the ways and pressure society puts on women and then ultimately how women treat other women in corporate culture in order to stay in the “man’s club.”

    Thank you for this post and all your participation in class.

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  8. Sharon,

    Thank you for sharing this. My mother is a CPA and one of the main reasons that I’ve become such a feminist is because of the exploitation that I saw of my mother. Between significantly lower salaries and the constant hiring of men over her, despite her longevity with the company, because “he had better connections” I had seen how the unchecked patriarchal assumptions hurt her career and our family financially.

    Interestingly, I remember reading a study (Through the Labyrinth by Alice H. Eagly and Linda L. Carli) that suggested that generally women are more interested collaborative leadership and interest in group dynamics. This tends to lead toward women being a more effective manager in a corporate situation. So while the socialization of women toward these more nuanced styles of leadership generally benefits the group more, yet is not recognized by the group. As I’ve grown more in my feminism, I’ve realized that the issues of women’s leadership and pay equity are less about just give ’em the same amount of money, but also about “let women be like women.” I think you are correct in the emphasis of the Ethics of Care is something worth gnawing over. Indeed, if Giligan’s emphasis (despite it’s sentimentalist undertones) is to open up the ways that women think AS a normative approach, then perhaps the views of women in leadership can also be seen that way.

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