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On the radar: How Bad is Best?

How Bad is Best?

Two phone calls this week, one from a liberal magazine, and one from an organization representing female executives, were asking questions about two sides of the same issue: "Best" lists for working women. You know the ones "100 Best Companies for Working Mothers," "Fifty Best Places for Latinas to Work," "Best Companies for Diversity," and so on. The magazine wanted to know if the lists are of any use to working women at all, or if in fact they do harm. The female executives wanted to alert me that Wal-Mart, though facing the largest sex discrimination lawsuit in history, made their top 30. Their question was whether a company can be good for exec women and lousy for say, cashiers.

It is not only possible, but it may be usual, for a company to be better for women at the top than those at the bottom. That's also true for men. You see plenty of grayhairs in gray suits, riding around in chauffeured limos driven by guys who make little more than the minimum wage, often with meager benefits to boot. The difference is there are still a lot more men than women in those backseats reading the Wall Street Journal and figuring out how to bust the unions.

The bigger question is whether companies who make these lists are worthy of admiration at all. An example I like to use is a school. Suppose your kid's school was named one of the "Top 100 in the U.S." by two different scholastic magazines. You'd be pretty proud, wouldn't you? Now suppose you learn that the first magazine allowed the schools to rate themselves by sending in descriptions of programs, and they didn't have to provide data on student performance. The second magazine did its own rating, but digging a little deeper you find the actual report cards of the students in the ranked schools are abysmal. The top school comes in with average student grades of 28%, and the lowest rates a miserable 11% average. Furthermore, the school pays a Vice Principal a full time salary just to fill out forms, buy advertising, and underwrite the magazines' award ceremony so the school can make the list in the first place. Still impressed? More likely you'd be outraged.

This scenario happens every day in corporate America. Diversity Manager is the usual title of our theoretical Vice Principal, and she or he has a big budget to throw around so the company makes the list. The company buys advertising in the magazine giving the award (or makes an outright donation if it's an organization with no magazine), and gets to brag about it. Most are Fortune 500 firms where women are stuck at the bottom, and many are defending themselves in court for sex discrimination (or have paid huge settlements) -- some in the same years they get the awards.

This stuff is far from benign. I took a look at some publicly available court papers in a sex discrimination filed against the giant consulting company, Deloitte and Touche, and talked to some women in the company. One told me the company recruiter had touted their "awards" and "Best" listings repeatedly. Once on board, she realized women never seemed to get promoted, and were systematically winnowed out as time passed. It gets worse. When another woman sued for sex discrimination, Deloitte tried to get the judge to throw the case out - strictly on the grounds that it had made the "100 Best Companies for Working Mothers," published by Working Mother Magazine . The female judge said no dice - but who knows what a good-ol'-boy on the bench would have done.

The lesson is simple. Women should be extremely wary of what they read about "good" companies if the information is put out by any organization that stands to profit. And yes, lists can do harm. Just ask the woman who left a good job to go to what she thought was a better one at one of these firms, only to have to sue for pregnancy discrimination two years later. It did happen, it does happen, and "Best" lists only make the problem worse.

 

Martha Burk is the Money editor for Ms, and author of Cult of Power: Sex Discrimination in the Workplace and What Can Be Done About It.