IF YOU CAN'T JOIN 'EM, BEAT 'EM Yes, women still face discrimination. But this woman writer argues that the way to overcome it is to stop acting like victims and start outdoing men at their own game.
By Nancy J. Perry REPORTER ASSOCIATE Therese Eiben

(FORTUNE Magazine) – EVER SINCE October, when Anita Hill told America -- before an all-male Senate committee -- that she had been sexually harassed by her former boss, Clarence Thomas, female victimitis has been spreading faster than rubella. So powerful has the virus become that today nearly every story about women delivers the same diagnosis: badly beaten, condition not improving. The truth is quite different: Professional women have never had so many trends going their way. Even Betty Friedan, the mother of all feminists, believes that a ''paradigm shift'' is occurring in corporate America as the need for new ideas and more participative management skills coincides with the entrance into the work force of large numbers of women who can supply those ideas and skills. Diane Dixon, 40, vice president of corporate communications at Avery Dennison, a giant California office products manufacturer, agrees. Says she: ''What I see are all these men in their 50s who will be retiring over the next few years. As they do, there is going to be a tidal wave of women into those positions. We're all lined up and ready to move.'' That is, if all the doomsday books and fatal forecasts don't talk us out of trying. Typical was a January article from the National Law Journal that trumpeted the unsurprising fact that most partners of large law firms are still white males. Though the headline screamed progress glacial for women, minorities, the real news in the piece was that while recession had forced firms to trim associate ranks by about 4% since 1989, the number of women and minority associates had continued to rise. That unrelenting emphasis on the challenges we face, rather than the progress we have made, also characterized All the Right Stuff, a widely quoted 1992 study by three researchers at Loyola of Chicago and Northwestern universities. True, their survey of 1,029 male and female managers at 20 FORTUNE 500 corporations does establish that some discrimination in pay still exists, even between women and men who are equally willing to be transferred and follow identical career tracks. But as Linda Stroh, the study's chief researcher, admits, ''If you go back 12 years there were almost no geographically mobile women, so we couldn't even have done this survey.'' No one has done more lately to keep feminist anger roiling than writer Susan Faludi. In her best-seller, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, she contends that women actually lost ground in the 1980s, partly because the media convinced them that the women's movement was ''women's own worst enemy.'' Well, I don't buy that, and neither do the two dozen women I queried about Faludi's thesis. The result of my admittedly unscientific survey? All but one felt the women's movement had unequivocally improved their lives. ''If you say there are still all these obstacles, it creates an artificial air of discouragement for women,'' says Charlotte Beers, 57, the new chairman of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, which generated some $5.4 billion in advertising billings last year. ''I've been advantaged as a female in as many ways as I've been disadvantaged. Talent and the choices you make are more significant than gender.'' The broad statistics support that upbeat view. If the moviemakers, advertising copywriters, politicians, and countless other villains cited in Faludi's book were so successful at convincing women during the past decade that independence was making them miserable, why did the percentage of MBA degrees awarded to women rise from 25% in 1981 to 34% in 1990? Why did the share of law degrees awarded to women climb from 30% to 42% over the same period? Most important, why did the median earnings of full-time female workers increase nearly 12% during the 1980s, while the average male's paycheck shrank by 6%? Says June O'Neill, a professor of economics at Baruch College in New York City: ''I see no setback anywhere. Women are much further along in all fields now than they ever were. If the average woman compares herself to her mother, I can't imagine she wouldn't feel she was in a completely different situation.'' Don't get me wrong. I'm not arguing that sexual discrimination has been eliminated from the workplace. It has not -- as the previous story makes clear. But let's have some perspective. This woman writer believes that one reason more women -- and plenty of men -- aren't sitting above the glass ceiling is that they haven't tried hard enough to get there. So does Ellen B. Richstone, 40, chief financial officer at Rohr Inc., a maker of commercial aerospace components in San Diego. ''Only about 10% of my graduate school class were women,'' she says. ''I wonder how many of them are still putting in the time and effort required to get to the top? Because there is a toll placed on those individuals. If a woman wants to get ahead in corporate America, she has to put in the same time and energy as a male. It is tougher for her? Yes. Is it possible? Yes.'' Ardent feminists don't buy this. They dismiss as baloney any factor besides discrimination that might explain why more women aren't running the show. Don't tell them, for example, that part of the reason may be that a sizable share of talented female executives decide to have children and opt out of the chase. In a report called Empowering Women in Business, the Feminist Majority Foundation, a Washington research and advocacy group, insists that there is ''no evidence that executive women leave corporations to have children.''

COME ON. What about the women we all know who have left their jobs to do just that? Says a former high-powered Hollywood executive, who, five months into her first pregnancy, kissed her 16-year career goodbye: ''I found I couldn't manage the particular job I had and be the kind of wife and mother I wanted to be.'' Ironically, many of the same women who fought for choices in the 1960s are the ones now saying it's unfair that women have to make trade-offs between family and career. Fair or not, it's a reality that won't change anytime soon. Women have babies. That's a biological option men will never have. One woman corporate America has not been able to overrule is Mother Nature. Still, the choices of having a child or pursuing a career need not be mutually exclusive. With talent in such short supply, bosses today will go to great lengths to accommodate talented people -- and that includes women with children. Jill Barad, 41, president of Mattel, got her first big promotion -- to marketing director for the Barbie line -- when she was pregnant with her second son, Justin. Exxon's chief economist, Kathleen Cooper, 47, also has two sons and a healthy career. But both of these women returned to work soon after their children were born -- a decision some women don't feel comfortable with. Corporate day care centers, after all, don't remove the guilt when Johnny falls and chips his tooth and Mom isn't there. Is it fair that women who take long maternity leaves or work only part time to be with their kids should lose ground at work? Most executives -- male and female -- don't see any other alternative. Says Cooper: ''We think of missing the development of a child. But the employer is thinking the same thing about his employee. I don't think that's wrong. Treating everyone equally is unfair to the woman who stays and puts in the hours.'' Like it or not, corporations are in business to make profits. So let's start talking in terms they understand: namely, results. Says Carol Kerley, 34, chief financial officer of Callaway Golf, a fast-growing maker of golf clubs: ''Worrying about discrimination is a waste of precious time and energy. I'd rather devote my energy to doing an outstanding job. That's what's going to get you promoted.''

But to play the game, we have to step up to the plate. For most men, raised on sports, competing comes naturally. For many women it does not. In the workplace, we tend to be our own worst enemies. Research shows, for example, that when men and women are together, women are less likely to speak up. In a 1989 study of Wheaton College two years after it became coed, Harvard School of Education researcher Catherine Krupnick found that although men made up only 10% of the students, they did 25% of the talking. Says psychologist Toni Bernay, co-author of the book Women in Power: The Secrets of Leadership: ''Timidity does us in more than aggression, because we become invisible.'' Men aren't shy about promoting themselves, and neither should we be. Stepping up to the plate means joining management clubs, accepting job transfers, pushing for line jobs and fair compensation, working on deficiencies, and cultivating relationships -- even when that means taking time off from the task at hand. Says Margaret Hennig, co-author of The Managerial Woman: ''A woman will skip a business lunch that would give her exposure to her boss's boss to get the job done. A guy won't. He'll figure out how to get the job done later.'' Psychologists and consultants say that even women who were discouraged from taking risks as children can develop a can-do attitude as adults. But it takes some doing. Caroline Nahas, 44, the first woman partner at Korn/Ferry International, offers this advice: ''Risk taking doesn't mean going after the CEO's job. Just reach out a little each day. If public speaking is painful, join a group that makes you get up and give presentations. It's amazing how much better you get -- and suddenly your self-esteem goes up. Take a leadership position on the local Chamber of Commerce. Instead of going home and watching TV, do something that pushes you to grow.'' By worrying less about persecution and more about performance, we are likely to start winning some of those top jobs that previously had men's names on them. And while we're at it, can we all lighten up a little? I'm thinking of a Ms. magazine cover I saw recently, packed with women protestors, that growled rage + women = power. It made me wince. To be sure, during the past year the neofeminist movement has found plenty to get mad about. In Detroit the National Organization of Women has thrown a tantrum over a plan to open a school for black boys, an experiment almost certainly worth trying. In Santa Monica, California, feminists want into . . . the men's room. A new ordinance that makes it illegal for adults to use restrooms marked for the opposite sex has feminists enraged. Please. Says consultant Marilyn Moats Kennedy, 49, founder of Career Strategies: ''It's become one long whine.'' Far better to adopt the attitude: If you can't join 'em, beat 'em. If you think your company doesn't appreciate you enough, find one that does -- or start your own. Many women have. According to the National Association of Women Business Owners, women-owned firms by the end of this year will employ more workers than all the FORTUNE 500 companies combined. One such entrepreneur is Maryles Casto. For six years Casto worked hard to help build a travel agency owned by a man who repeatedly overlooked her for promotion. So she quit and started her own company. A month later Intel CEO Andrew Grove, a former client, moved his travel business to Casto. A little later Apple Computer signed on as well. That was 18 years ago. Today Casto, 51, runs a $70 million company with 145 employees. The moral of her story? Says she: ''I knew I was better than he was. So I beat him at his own game.''