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Breaking the glass ceiling Part II: Solutions

FORUM MAGAZINE – August 2002

This column is part two in a two-part series. Last month, "Breaking the glass ceiling" focused on the problems associations encounter due to gender barriers and obstacles. This month, solutions are revealed.

When my mother sent a contribution to the Statue of Liberty renovation fund some years ago, she wrote her name in the space asking how her donor certificate should read. As an afterthought, she added, "and family," even though my father was opposed to the gift. She was understandably miffed when she received a certificate listing, "Mr. and Mrs." followed by my father's name on the donor line. The only possible explanation was that both my parents' names appeared on the check, so the reader assumed the man was the primary giver.

The invisible woman is still a reality in countless domestic and professional settings. Though the successful female executives who beam self-confidently from magazine covers may scoff, most women not so anointed confront such problems in myriad work settings: The committee member who asks her to fetch coffee; the electrician who is too busy to return her phone calls, but replies promptly to her male co-worker; the HMO administrator who stonewalls her pleas to speak to a doctor, but relents in the face of male persuasion.

Solutions to these serious inequities will come only from female advocacy, male behavior change, and associations' promotion of each.

Winning a seat at the table

"Become more knowledgeable than everyone else," advises Mary Ann Tuft, CAE, Tuft & Associates. "Gender won't matter after that." A thriving association, she claims, will recognize and reward excellence.

Tackling tough assignments is often a ticket to professional advancement. Launching a new publication, reviving a dying trade show, and spiking new membership recruitment all contribute handsomely to the bottom line. Far-sighted executives can't afford to turn their backs on accomplished professionals.

"Volunteer for projects outside your daily job," suggests Patricia M. Newton, CAE, associate executive director, Membership & Dental Societies, American Dental Association. "This provides a chance to demonstrate skills to others, build relationships, and increase knowledge about the association--all assets when new opportunities arise."

But steer clear of social/hospitality committees, where women may find themselves decorating cakes, scrubbing a coffee urn, or defrosting the office fridge. Select volunteer opportunities that provide visibility and contribute to the growth of the association. Taking meeting minutes may provide an opportunity to record history, but chairing a committee or a board will allow you to create history. Let someone else be the secretary.


"If you need a gender policy," proclaims Karen Kane, director of contractor management programs for the National Roofing Contractors Association, "then you have a big problem, and creating a policy is not going to change the culture of the organization."

That's why professional equality needs to be paired with social equality if either is to be achieved. You can't be a tiger at the office if you're a meek kitten at home. Men need to be conditioned to you as an equal all the time. Then the culture of the organization can change.

So, if you're single, pay your own way; don't let a man buy your affection. Don't sit around waiting for the man you want--approach him. If you still have the name you were born with--keep it. If you do choose to acquire your husband's last name, you surely haven't taken his first name, so use your own.

If a man standing in front of you when the elevator opens stands aside to let you pass, say to him "after you," and motion for him to step into the corridor first. If you are seated at a dinner table and men rise to shake hands with a visitor, you should do the same.

If you're starting a family, don't automatically give up your job. It may make more sense for your mate to stay home with the kids. Be sure you both share house and parenting chores. Teach your children there's no such thing as male or female jobs. If preserving the family name is important to you, make sure your daughter keeps her name.

There are no girls here

Girls are children, and they usually don't work in association offices, so men should have no reason to refer to them in the workplace. They should also deep six the word "lady," which the dictionary defines as "a well-mannered woman." When necessary to identify a person by gender, "men" and "women" are the correct terms.

Don't refer to women as "lovely" or "attractive" when addressing them or introducing them at meetings. Describe them in the same professional language you would use for a man, perhaps identifying them as distinguished, knowledgeable, renowned, expert, etc. Kissing women in award presentations should also be taboo, unless you have an intimate relationship with them, and even then it should be avoided, since the audience would rather not know about it anyway.

Keep business decisions out of the locker room. Talk shop in venues accessible to both men and women, and arrange settings that are inviting to both. Any bathroom chatter during meeting breaks should be repeated for the record when the session reconvenes, with care not to leave anybody out of the loop.

Adopt a zero tolerance policy on sexual harassment and be willing to terminate offenders even if they are ace staffers. Don't host a "ladies night" or "ladies first" at the buffet table. Shun events in establishments that restrict membership based on gender. Don't tell sexist jokes.

We can work it out

"Women will rise through the ranks," observes Kathleen Bell, CAE, account executive at Smith Bucklin & Associates, "if they are first given a chance at the start." Citing male-dominated groups that recently chose female CEOs--whose initial selection was due to gender diversity efforts--she believes savvy, professional leaders will recognize the potential of an ascendant executive if her selection benefits the association.

"Let's take one more pass at this through a gender filter," Bell recommends when considering personnel selection and other policies. If the Statue of Liberty Fund had done that, it may have garnered a loyal supporter.

David M. Patt, CAE has been a CEO for 18 years, the last 11 for the Chicago Area Runners Association. He may be reached at (312) 666-9836 or

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