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Women as bosses (Fortune, 1956)

September 23, 2012, 7:03 PM UTC

Editor’s note: Every week, publishes a favorite story from our magazine archives. This week, Fortune launched the 2012 edition of its annual Most Powerful Women list, a ranking of the women who are shaping the future of technology, defense, and media. This piece from 1956 looks at the progress women were making in the workplace — as well as major obstacles.

By Katharine Hamill

There are more women in executive jobs today than there were fifteen years ago, five years ago, or a year ago, and men’s reluctance to give them executive rank seems to be diminishing. That is not to say that the historic barriers against women in top positions have crumbled. But the surface cracks are widening. And when one woman does a good job in a corporation that has been skeptical about women, promotion comes a little easier for the next woman. Some companies are beginning to allow women to take their management-training courses. A woman sitting in on an executive conference is less of a shock to the male than she was only a few years ago. A few big companies–R.C.A., the Home Life Insurance Co., and the New York Central, for example–have even ushered women into the board room.

Women’s opportunities in business and the professions really began to open up during World War II and, far from contracting with the return of peace and men, the opportunities for women have been increasing ever since. Women can be found today at the head or near the top of textile companies, engineering firms, breweries, banks and investment houses, as well as retail stores, magazines and newspapers, advertising agencies, public-relations and real-estate firms. Growing opportunities for women are found not only in such “natural” fields as fashion, publishing, promotion, personnel, TV and radio, but also in research (investment analysis and economic research, for example), in engineering, electronics, and technological jobs (“a field I would strongly recommend for women’s attention,” says General David Sarnoff, chairman of R.C.A.).

From FORTUNE correspondents in a dozen cities come variations on the theme that executive and technical positions for women are becoming more plentiful. The implication is not that women are swarming all over the front offices and “taking over” from men; and no woman has yet risen to the upper executive level in a big industrial corporation. But in almost every report there are generalizations such as “executive jobs for women are easier to come by,” “opportunities are increasing daily,” “certainly more than a few years ago.” And from Los Angeles–“In the aircraft industry there are no women executives, but the number of women engineers is governed only by the number applying.”

How many of them?

The number of women in the U.S. Census category labeled Managers, Officials, and Proprietors more than doubled between 1940 and January, 1956-from 450,000 to about one million. At the same time the number of women in the Professional, Technical, and Kindred Workers category grew from 1,570,000 to 2,400,000 (a 53 per cent gain). In all, then, there would seem to be some 3,400,000 “business and professional women.”

The Census Bureau’s Managers, Officials, and Proprietors category includes, however, owners of small restaurants, gift shops, jam kitchens, and every “management” woman above the level of foreman, most of whom cannot really be called executives. The number of women who are executives in the strictest sense of the word is undoubtedly small. In “Who Is an Executive?” (December, 1955), FORTUNE estimated that there were perhaps a quarter of a million “real” executives in the U.S. It is anyone’s guess how many of these are women, but almost certainly the figure is not over 5,000. There are fewer than 40,000 U.S. women, for example, who earn as much as $10,000 a year (less than 0.2 per cent of all the women who work for a Jiving) and this figure includes actresses, movie stars, buyers, and some of the professional women, as well as women executives.

As to the professions, two-thirds of the 1,900,000 women in the Professional, Technical, and Kindred Workers category in 1950 were teachers (865,000) and nurses (390,000). But by 1950 there were also some 57,000 women accountants, up from 18,000 in 1940, and 29,000 editors and reporters, up from 15,000.

But women’s progress in the professions is mixed. While the total number of women in the professional group has risen substantially, the ratio of women professionals to men professionals, and to all women workers, actually has declined a little. At the same time significant gains have been made in the “higher” professions. Although only 1 per cent of all U.S. engineers are women, the number increased nine-fold between 1940 and 1950, from 730 to 6,475–and the demand today, particularly in the aircraft industry, seems limitless. The chronic shortage of trained engineers, scientists, and technicians (see “Twenty Minutes to a Career,” FORTUNE, March, and “The Worst Shortage in Business,” April) suggests that the opportunities for women in those professions must increase at an accelerating rate. The number of women lawyers and judges increased from 4,185 in 1940 to 6,255; physicians and surgeons from 7,610 to 11,715; architects from 475 to 935. The total number of women in these top professions nearly doubled–14,255 to 27,425. Except for engineering, where women have not quite kept pace with men, these figures represent a relative (compared to men) as well as an absolute gain.

Beginning of a breakthrough

What are the broad forces propelling women into the professions and. business, and smoothing their way, here and there, right into the executive suite?

1. The first, of course, is an economy that has been expanding almost continuously for fifteen years, creating millions of new jobs. There is more executive work to be done in the U.S. today, as well as more clerical work and more production-line work. And the greatest manpower reserve in the U.S. is women. The number of women workers has risen from 14 million (in 1940) to 21 million, and one out of every three (nonfarm) workers in the U.S. is now a woman. As women become a bigger part of the general labor force, and as a greater variety of starting jobs opens up to them, it would seem natural that more of them should eventually rise to executive levels.

2. Another consequence of prosperity is that more women are getting college educations, though the proportion of women college graduates to the total number is still about the same as it was in 1940 (41 per cent). Of the 6,716,000 college graduates in the U.S. in 1952, 2,930,000 were women; out of 3,400,000 in 1940, 1,386,000 were women. Of the 2,400,000 young Americans now attending college, only 800,000 are women.

3. Prosperity aside, there is no doubt that women’s wartime contributions to industry and business helped push back the limits and dispelled some of the prejudices. Even in the military services, of all places, women did a good job and were greatly appreciated. (“The WAVES,” wrote crusty Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King, “have become an inspiration to all hands.”) Women officers in many instances were in charge of male personnel, and WACS, WAVES, WAFS, and women Marines have been kept on as accepted and permanent branches of the armed forces. There are still 34,000 women in the services.

The net of it all seems to be less fear on the part of men that a woman in the executive dining room or at the conference table will debase time-honored masculine custom, less alarm lest a woman in a man’s world “try to act like a man” (though men still say, admiringly, “She thinks like a man”): And the old feeling that women are “too emotional,” “too personal,” has given way, in some instances, to belief that if a woman does have an emotional and personal approach it can be an asset to the business.

Equal but special

Can women in fact handle any business or professional job that men can handle? The answer given by most successful women will strike many businessmen as a paradox. For business women have advanced well beyond the old feminist fight to be considered “people.” They want to be recognized for their special as well as their equal capacities .

The “special” qualities of female executives have been subjected to examination by Social Research, Inc., of Chicago. In a study of sixty successful women, it was found that their common attributes were day-to-day practicality (“somewhat greater than a random sampling of men”), organizational skill, sensitivity to people, and adaptability (“much more than a run of successful men, they show a flair for moving with the situation . . . for changing when they find a particular approach unrewarding”). They also had unusual energy and confidence, and they took pleasure in achievement.

The obstacles that still stand in women’s way probably will give way if women train themselves properly for top-level jobs and work as hard as (probably harder than) men to get and hold the jobs. There is no scientific proof that women’s abilities are either greater or less than men’s. Dr. Margaret Mead, anthropologist and sociologist, says: “For an average procedure at any level, women can learn anything that has been invented, and perform it competently. But we don’t know about the inventive edge–males may have the edge in mathematics, physics, and music.”

Equal-but-special is not really such a paradox after all. The latent abilities, as Dr. Mead says, are doubtless just about equal. But environment, education, and tradition may well have shaped some “special” abilities, as well as some “special” disabilities. Almost three generations ago John Stuart Mill wrote, in The Subjection of Women, “Whoever is in the least capable of estimating the influence on the mind of the entire domestic and social position and the whole habit of a life, must easily recognize in that influence a complete explanation of nearly all the apparent differences between women and men, including the whole of those which imply any inferiority [on the part of women].” The “influence” has changed considerably since then, but there still is truth in Mill’s words.

The famous seven

The names of a few unusually equal-but-special women in top positions come easily to mind: Dorothy Shaver of Lord & Taylor, for example; Oveta Culp Hobby, ex-Cabinet member, publisher of the Houston Post; Anna Rosenberg, public-relations consultant; Bernice Fitz-Gibbon, past advertising executive at Gimbel’s and Macy’s and now head of her own consulting firm; Elsie Murphy, president of S. Stroock & Co. (textiles); Millicent Mcintosh, president of Barnard College, director of Home Life Insurance and C.B.S.; Margaret Rudkin, founder and president of Pepperidge Farm, $5-million bakery business.

These seven, among the most publicized of U.S. career women, have little in common with the early feminists who battled their way into men’s jobs, and out of men’s favor. They have exceptional ability, exceptional energy and drive. All but one (Miss Shaver) are married and mothers. They are not trying to “copy men” in dress or mannerisms. They bring their own abilities and sensitivities to the business scene. Another top woman executive, Frances Corey, senior vice president of Macy’s, says, “I like being a woman. My attitude is that I can contribute something as a woman. I’m not as self-conscious about warmth as a man would be. My reaction is much more emotional–and emotion is a very necessary commodity. There are places here where I can’t fill the bill as well as a man and I don’t try.”

A striking example of a woman who takes pride in achievement on her own terms is Elsie Murphy, who had worked up from saleswoman to executive vice president of S. Stroock & Co. of New York and was then asked to be president of the company. She says she hesitated at first to accept. “I finally decided to do it, because I had such a feeling for the company. I thought I knew how it should go on growing and I felt I could make it grow that way and that would be compensation.” She carried the company to a new peak and today is relaxed enough to spend time happily with her grandchildren.

“Just habit and tradition”

The women named above are; it is true, exceptional women, but as the list on page 108 shows, there are a number of others who have done as well.

Among these outstandingly successful businesswomen, it will be noted that almost all of them made their way up in small or middling-size companies. In spite of the loosening of prejudice, women still have not been given top jobs in big corporations. General Motors has no women executives, and not even a woman designer or engineer. General Electric has a few technicians, research associates, and women in personnel, but no women executives except for the head of the advisory consumer institute. DuPont has a woman laboratory section head and a departmental-control manager. R.C.A. Chairman Sarnoff startled a Women’s Bureau conference on “The Effective Use of Womanpower” last year by saying, “If you were to ask me to give you one good reason why we have no women vice presidents in R.C.A., I couldn’t. It is just habit and tradition, as well as the fact that women are not looked upon as permanent in their positions.” U.S. Steel has no women executives. (“There is no prejudice here against women; They just don’t get to the top.”) A.T.&T., although 60 per cent of its employees are women, has in its central executive group a lone woman assistant secretary. Standard Oil of New Jersey has two assistant secretaries. U.S. Rubber for years has given women supervisory jobs in certain plants, but no department heads are women. In a few companies the personnel directors admit that some of their women employees rate better job and pay, “but there is great reluctance among certain individuals in top management” to promote them.

In a recent book, Big Business Leaders in America, W. Lloyd Warner and James C. Abegglen have studied the sociological backgrounds of almost 9,000 business leaders. Not one of the leaders is a woman; the chapters that deal with women are headed “The Wives of Ambitious Men” and “The Kinds of Women Who Make Successful Wives.” Vassar professor Mabel Newcomer, in The Big Business Executive, states flatly, “And it may be said without further comment that no woman and no Negro has been found among the top executives of this study.”

Officers of big companies are somewhat embarrassed to admit the scarcity or lack of openings for women. The most usual reasons given are that women don’t look on jobs as permanent careers, that women are not trained properly, and that they don’t like responsibility. There is truth in all three. Women in general do think of jobs as temporary, and many are not trained well or conditioned for responsibility. But a certain number of male executives will admit that there are individual women, a growing number of them, whose capabilities are not recognized by men employers and who are held back by tradition and prejudice. They are paid less than men in comparable positions. The rare woman executive, such as President Dorothy Shaver of Lord & Taylor, may make as much as $150,000 a year. In general, a woman executive who makes from $12,000 to $20,000 is considered to be doing very well indeed.

Not tough enough?

A few themes keep recurring in the comments of employers (women as well as men) on women’s chances for top jobs in business.

Dwight Joyce, president of Glidden Co., Cleveland: “We’ve never had girls who wanted to go to the top. They either work until they get married or work a while afterward until they have babies. Most women I’ve seen are not fitted by nature for top executive jobs. I don’t believe they’re tough enough. A woman in an executive spot creates a morale problem. People resent working for women. It’s a basic thing that can’t be overcome. As long as we are going to have families, women will be handicapped in business.”

Westinghouse, Pittsburgh: “We look for women to get more and more into everything, especially in consumers’ specialties, where they could be really helpful.”

National Steel Corp., Pittsburgh: “Women are found just where you’d expect to find them, as heads of stenographic departments and the like. Steel is traditionally a man’s game. We never gave women much thought.”

Ruth Fair, president of R. Fair Co., Dallas designer and manufacturer of women’s sportswear: “Few women are in top executive jobs because it’s too tough.”

Annette Ducheon, vice president of Spartan Mills, Spartanburg, South Carolina: “I definitely think women can get top executive jobs if they want them, but comparatively few have made the decision in their own minds that they want to take on that kind of career.”

An executive of a Detroit automobile company: “Women aren’t able to stand up to the stress and strain of the business.”

An executive of another Detroit automobile company : “Women are not top executives because they are not interested enough in the business to devote thirty years to working their way up through the ranks.”

Mrs. Lee Worthington, secretary and advertising director of Tranter Manufacturing Co. (refrigeration and heating), Lansing, Michigan: “I run across many young women with the ability to get ahead, but they refuse the responsibility that is offered to them.”

Lillian G. Madden, president of Falls City Brewing Co., Louisville: “I’ve found that men are very fair. In many cases women aren’t willing to make the sacrifices necessary to work up. They just won’t stick it out like a man.”

Margaret Divver, advertising manager of John Hancock Mutual Life, Boston: “Progress depends largely on the initiative of the individual woman–with a willingness to make a sacrifice. Women just don’t want to pay the price.”

The “circular dilemma”

Lack of permanence, real and imagined, probably is the basic reason for employers’ reluctance to train women for higher jobs and promote them when they merit promotion. Most young women just out of school or college want and expect to work, at least until they are married and have children–and all but a fraction expect to marry and have children. A study of women undergraduates at several colleges made by Dr. Mirra Komarovsky, Columbia University sociologist, showed that 90 per cent expected to work; of those, 50 per cent expected to stop work for good when they married and had children; 20 per cent wanted to continue steady work whether married or single; 30 per cent wanted to stop work while they raised their families and then return. Generally consistent with these expectations, a survey of 4,000 women college graduates made by Time magazine showed that: 42 per cent were housewives; 19 per cent were working wives; 31 per cent were working women (single, divorced, or widowed); 8 per cent were taking graduate courses or unemployed.

There is no doubt that many of the young college women who go to work look on the job as temporary, and do not prepare for it, or work as hard at it, as do young men who know they are going to work all their lives. This sense of impermanence leads to what Dael Wolfle, director of the Commission on Human Resources and Advanced Training, has called women’s “circular dilemma”: the young woman doesn’t invest in graduate work or special training because she fears it will be wasted in a hostile market, and she has little chance to advance because she lacks graduate work and training.

Too emotional?

It is true, of course, that a great many women, about two-thirds, do quit their jobs when they marry and have children. The employers, usually men, have some justification for their lack of enthusiasm about training and promoting them. Younger men, whose mothers or wives have worked, seem to be less bound by traditions about women in business, more willing to give them a chance at good jobs. And even in those regions, particularly the South and to a certain extent the Far West, where the general belief is that woman’s place is in the home or at the typewriter, the roads seem to be opening up.

The only management school designed specifically to train women executives is the Harvard-Radcliffe Program in Business Administration. This year there are seventy-nine students, most of them studying for positions in merchandising, personnel work, research, and staff administration. Almost all graduate schools–business, medicine, law, engineering, ministry, architecture–accept women, but many of them have quotas (usually unacknowledged) of from 5 to 10 per cent.

Women, then, seem to lack permanence and to lack training. In addition, some women are reluctant to seek promotion, fearful of responsibility, inclined to lean back on a secure job with adequate pay and let someone else strive for the top. And not only do many men consider them “too emotional,” but it is widely alleged that men won’t work for women and women won’t work for women. Dr. Mead thinks men’s resentment against women “bossing things” may start at an early age when girls mature faster than boys and outshine them in school. Yet women do in fact boss men (and other women) without trouble. Young Miss Jerry Stutz (thirty-one), for example, is general manager of I. Miller’s retail shoe stores and bosses not only the advertising and promotion men in the office, but the salesmen in the company’s thirteen stores. Lillian Madden is president and chief executive of Falls City Brewing Co., which has 400 employees, mostly men. And Mrs. Lucy Bryan is employment manager of the supervisory force of Cerro de Pasco’s Peruvian mining operations.

Why do it?

So much for the barriers, some still firm, some falling. Why do women want to try their chances in this half-promising, half-hostile world? Women in executive and professional jobs work for the same reason that women work in factories, which is the same reason men work: to earn money. The single woman is supporting herself and, perhaps, dependent relatives; the married woman often is improving the family’s standard of living, and even though her husband has a good position it may be her salary that provides the margin for extras and luxuries, including perhaps a better education for the children than the family could otherwise afford. There is something of a dilemma, though, for a married woman with children who earns a moderately good salary. Her income added to her husband’s puts them in a higher tax bracket. Because of that, because of the wages she must pay a housekeeper (if she can find one), plus the cost of suitable clothes, lunches in restaurants, commutations tickets, and all the other undeductible expenses connected with the job, she or her husband may feel that it is uneconomical for her to work.

Money is not the only motivation, of course, and there is no doubt that some business and professional women work because they like to – particularly married women who don’t have to work to exist. (In a wartime study of 13,000 working women made by the Women’s Bureau, 20 per cent of the married women and only 4 per cent of the single women said they worked because they liked to.) Forty per cent of U.S. married women go on working the first year after marriage, often to help their husbands finish college or get started in business. Fifteen per cent go on working even while their children are young, often because they have to, sometimes because they are lonely and bored at home, occasionally, perhaps, because they believe with Bernice Fitz-Gibbon that their children “will be far, far happier if Mama is in town carving out a career for herself.”

Many widows and divorced women return to work, and women with grown children often come back into the market place to take up careers they had dropped, to do a job that has special interest for them, or perhaps merely to fill the emptiness in their lives. Between 1940 and 1955, while the total number of women in the working force was increasing 48 per cent, the number of working women over forty-five increased 170 per cent.

Job vs. home

In the earlier days of militant feminism, women thought they had to choose between marriage and a career, between the home and the office. Today, they may, clearly enough, and often do, choose both.

The price a married woman with children ahs to pay to hold an executive job is considerable, and yet a good many women are paying it willingly and handsomely—with gracious bows to their “cooperative” and “understanding” husbands. Mrs. Alice Leopold, Assistant to the Secretary of Labor for Women’s Affairs, onetime department-store executive and later Secretary of State for Connecticut, says she always knew she would always want to keep on working. Her husband knew it, too, and has never objected. Mrs. Pauline Wagner, for many years vice president of Benson & Hedges, now assistant secretary of Philip Morris, says, “To be successful you have to have a husband who is very unselfish. Mr. Wagner called for me every night, even if I worked till midnight or two in the morning.”

If women are efficient in business they usually are efficient in planning the orderly running of their homes, and if they have ood enough jobs they can afford to hire good household help. Women, more often than men, will stay at home to be with a sick child or tend to some family crisis. Practically every married woman executive puts her home and family ahead of her business, but most of them feel that they can handle both jobs-if they want to badly enough.

Some women resolve whatever conflict 1s left between marriage and careers by taking part-time jobs, but these are likely to be volunteer or poorly paid jobs. An executive position or the running of a business is a full-time affair. A woman may feel guilty because she is away from the children all day, even though they get on her nerves and she on theirs. Doris Fleischman Bernays, wife of Edward L. Bernays and partner in his public relations firm, has written, in her recent A Wife I s Many Women, “For many of us, outside work is a pleasant escape from the overwhelming muddle of running a home. I find my work as public-relations counsel quiet and easy in comparison. Only in my office have I been a professional trained for the job. In all my other lives a beginner, a bewildered dolt, who has bluffed and tried hard to do an average job as wife, mother and housekeeper.”