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Breaking Out of the Pink Ghetto

Make your employers understand that you are in their service as workers, not as women.

    — Susan B. Anthony, excerpted from an article published Oct. 8, 1868, in the women’s suffrage newspaper The Revolution

Note to working women: If you want to break out of “the Pink Ghetto,” tear a page out of your male coworkers playbooks, start a Good Old Girls group, and get serious about networking.

The Pink Ghetto is a largely invisible, often unmentioned and unacknowledged place littered with impediments to womens’ upward mobility in the workplace. Women in the Pink Ghetto do not get equal pay for equal work, are not offered the same opportunities as their male coworkers, are not promoted as quickly as men — or promoted at all.

There are no magic formulas or quick fixes to address ingrained inequities. Networking and mentoring initiatives offer immediate tactical — as well as long-term strategic — solutions to assist women in breaking down gender-based barriers. There are compelling reasons for women in high technology and in all professions to make networking an integral part of their daily routines, formalize their efforts and set specific goals.

Do the Numbers

The ongoing recession of the last two years has made the Pink Ghetto more palpable than ever. The competition for job retention, for promotions and to secure new positions is intense. The ongoing economic crisis has spared no one. And with the unemployment rate hitting 10.2 percent in October — the highest level in 30 years — everyone is feeling the pressure. Consider these statistics:

  • Women now constitute roughly 50 percent of the workforce, but they make just slightly more than three-fourths the salary of their male counterparts, on average.
  • The most recent Bureau of Labor statistics show that salary disparity between men’s and women’s wages widened slightly during 2008. On average, a woman now earns 77 US cents for every $1 a man earns, down from 78 cents in 2007, for an annual median salary of just over $36,000.
  • The National Research Council reported that women leave high technology, computer, science and engineering careers twice as frequently as men; and women’s salaries in those professions still lag behind those of males by 12 percent to 15 percent.
  • The number of women CEOs declined slightly in the past two years. Currently, women hold the top spots at only one dozen Fortune 500 companies; just 24 Fortune 1000 companies are run by women, according to Fortune Magazine.
  • Men bore the brunt of recent layoffs, representing 72 percent of the 7.3 million jobs lost since the recession began in December 2007, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported on Nov. 6. The disproportionately higher number of job losses among men is attributable to the fact that over 50 percent of the jobs lost have been in male-dominated fields such as the auto, construction and manufacturing industries.

With so many men losing their jobs, many women now find themselves the family breadwinner, so the pressure is on to make up the salary shortfall and move up the corporate ladder.

A Few Cents Here, a Few There

The average disparity of 23 cents between a man’s and a woman’s wages may sound negligible, but over the long term, those pennies add up. The wage gap costs the average American full-time woman worker between $700,000 and $2 million over the course of her lifetime, according to economist Evelyn Murphy, president of WAGE (Women Are Getting Even), a nonprofit, grass roots organization formed in 2006 to close the salary gap.

In the high technology, engineering and scientific sectors, the macro-economic levels of male vs. female do not obviously “show up,” noted Caroline Simard,vice president of research and executive programs for the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology. Simard’s research indicates women are more vulnerable, specifically because they are less networked and therefore more susceptible to losing a job. They also face more challenges when seeking new employment opportunities.

“It’s hugely important for women to network; it’s not enough to just work hard. Networking is one of the most powerful predictor’s of advancement and salaries,” Simard said.

Good Old Boys

Anecdotally, men are very supportive of other men and have typically lobbied on each other’s behalf for swifter promotions, bigger raises and better performance reviews. One woman who spent over 20 years performing admirably at her consulting firm in the Northeast, including traveling the globe and being a top revenue generator, was consistently passed over for a promotion to vice president.

Male counterparts with a fraction of her experience came in at lower grade and salary levels, but they quickly passed her in the ranks, achieving the coveted “VP” title in two or three years. Another woman in this same organization was assigned to report to a younger, less experienced male colleague who was pegged as an up-and-comer and put on the fast track for promotion.

When it came time for performance reviews and merit raises, the more experienced woman got a minuscule salary increase and was bypassed for a promotion because her younger boss deemed that her writing lacked the necessary analytic abilities. Ironically, the woman in question had garnered numerous writing awards and was in great demand among the consulting firm’s clients!

While women in high technology will often chat and engage in social activities during the regular office day, they have not heretofore made a concerted effort at networking.

The traditional tried-and-proven male methods of networking — like golf outings or bonding over drinks after work at a local watering hole — do not come easily or naturally to women. More often than not, a woman engineer, IT manager, software developer or C-level executive will be part of a very small minority — perhaps the only female in her immediate group. This can be an isolating and daunting experience.

While not specifically excluded from accompanying her male peers to sporting events as a participant or spectator, or from going with them for drinks after work, many women feel uncomfortable doing so. And many women, who are also wives and mothers, simply don’t have time to indulge in the luxury of going to bars after hours for networking over peanuts and beer.

Better Ways

“Women must network laterally and upwardly — including with supportive men. Women need the connections to help open the doors to upward mobility,” Simard said, observing that “if you’re the only woman in your group, it will be harder to network.”

Women are well advised to get on internal corporate — as well as industry — committees and task forces, and to join their specific industry associations in order to gain external recognition. They can then use it as leverage within their organizations.

“Working harder does not make you more visible — it can make you invisible,” Simard observed. “Women need to view networking as being a part of their daily work,” she added.

The Anita Borg Institute runs programs to teach women specific networking and negotiation skills. Women who don’t negotiate for better pay and benefits at the outset of their careers are negatively impacted over the long term, and will almost certainly get paid less over the course of their careers, Simard said.

Theory and practice are frequently at loggerheads. The growing bodies of research on gender-based workplace disparities clearly indicate that women must become more assertive in order to be heard, especially in male-dominated fields. The conundrum facing women is that if they’re too assertive, then they will be viewed negatively and classified as “intimidating” — or worse.

“Women must learn to navigate that high-wire act,” Simard said, noting that even women will view an assertive woman negatively. To correctly assess the tone of their organization, women should seek out a mentor who can help them identify and understand various work-related issues, and provide advice on the best courses of action for dealing with specific situations and a variety of personality types.

Another way to burst out of the Pink Ghetto is to address the innate gender bias that exists in many organizations’ hiring, recruiting and retention practices. The Anita Borg Institute’s initiatives center on helping companies realize that they need and want diversity in their corporate culture and communication styles. “The upcoming generation is the most diverse this country has ever seen. Good managers are those that can adequately deal with diversity,” Simard said.

Women in high technology who want to wend their way through the organization and reach the upper echelons in salary and job titles should avail themselves of the growing number of women’s conferences. Online social networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn are also great sources for networking, reconnecting with former colleagues and supervisors, and meeting potential mentors. Don’t hesitate to ask Facebook and LinkedIn connections to write references and recommendations for you. And above all, cultivate these relationships, seek out mentors and be a mentor.


Laura DiDio is the principal at Information Technology Intelligence Corp. (ITIC), a research and consulting firm that covers the high-tech industry.

1 Comment

  • HI

    Good information and women are well advised to get on internal corporate — as well as industry — committees and task forces, and to join their specific industry associations in order to gain external recognition.

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