I remember how excited I was to discover Rosabeth Moss Kanter in the early 1980’s. She was one of the few females writing about leadership and organizational change management. I hungrily devoured The Change Masters as a relatively new nonprofit CEO navigating roiling changes in the healthcare and political landscape while learning to lead a complex organization toward continued growth.
This distinguished Harvard Business School professor’s influential theories about change in the workforce have permeated much of the thinking about organizational change. And unlike the men writing and teaching about it, Kanter infused her work with a lens on one of the biggest workplace changes of the 20th century: women breaking through workplace glass ceilings.
Kanter, former editor of Harvard Business Review and author of 18 books, has been named one of the “50 most powerful women in the world” by the Times of London, and the “50 most influential business thinkers in the world” by Accenture and Thinkers 50 research.
Her groundbreaking book Men and Women of the Corporation—I mean, who had ever mentioned “women” and “corporations” in the same book title?—remains a classic analysis of power distribution within organizations.
Kanter told the hard truth about women in the workforce, after conducting a five-year study on the American manufacturing company. She explained how women were tokenized to work in clerical jobs rather than management; and how even though there were plenty of women in large organizations, they rarely ran the show. She observed that the first women breaking through to leadership roles were still tokens in a male dominated workforce.
In 1979, she wrote:
The upper-level women became public creatures. It was difficult for them to do anything in training programs, on their jobs, or even at informal social affairs that would not attract public notice.
This created self-perpetuating cycles of gender imbalance. She argued that this cycle negatively affected men, too.
Are her theories that different from the questions that still permeate the public debates over women in the workplace today?
Think about how frequently the Sheryl Sandbergs and Marissa Mayers of the world are bombarded with questions about motherhood and work/family balance, rather than being asked about their work tasks or their companies.
Why are we so fascinated by the head of Yahoo!’s family life, but we know nothing and ask nothing except the net worth of Google’s CEO Larry Page?
Opines Kanter in the Harvard Business Review blog, “You can have it all. It just won’t all be perfect.”
Thirty-five years since Kanter’s first book was published, women have yet to reach parity in corporate leadership positions. Women’s leadership roles rose to 20 percent, and then plateaued. Studies have shown that in order for people to see a boss rather than a gender, and to create a significant culture shift, women must make up 30 to 40 percent of the workforce leadership.
For that to happen, female leaders will have to make their own history: to lend a hand and pull other women along with them up the ladder—or through the jungle gym as Sandberg describes the typical career trajectory.
Still making history today, Kanter believes that remaking the workplace so women will want to stay in the game and seek leadership positions is the new frontier. Sounds like a plan to me.