Gender Gap

Former U.S. Labor Secretary Alexis Herman sat down with editor Latif Lewis to discuss some of the challenges women face in corporate America. Here’s what she had to say about the glass ceiling, pay disparities between men and women, and moving up the corporate ladder.

Can you recall any experiences where you felt discriminated against because you are a woman?
ALEXIS HERMAN: I think, obviously growing up in the Deep South, I ran into discrimination quite a bit. It was a part of life. But I think the first incident that really stayed with me was right after I left college, really going on my first job pursuit. I went on job interview after job interview in my hometown of Mobile, [Alabama,] and I was turned down repeatedly. When you talk about the sexism aspect of it–and I often told this story when I was Labor Secretary–there was this one bank executive in Mobile [who said,] “I really would like to hire you. We’re starting to give women jobs in this bank. Maybe I can hire you as a teller,” he said. “And the other really good job for a woman here is a secretary. If you’re lucky, maybe I can bring you in as a secretary.” But the only jobs they were hiring women for in the bank were tellers and secretaries.
Well, I did not go to college, first of all, to try to land a job as a secretary. And secondly, I was crushed that he was even saying to me [that] perhaps if I was a white woman he might be able to get me in. But I couldn’t even get that because I was a black woman.

There was a study conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics that came out [in 2002] called The Labor Force Experience of Women From Generation X. It says that women are still making up a large percentage of traditional so-called women’s occupations [i.e., teachers, legal assistants, etc.]. Do you think this trend will continue?
HERMAN: I think it’s going to change in the future by virtue of the pipeline. I think it’s going to be something that the market itself is going to alter because this economy, in order to grow for the future, is going to need the best talent it can find wherever it is. And that talent happens to be, for the future, women minorities because that’s where the pipeline is.
B.E.: In many boardrooms in corporate America, the senior managers are usually white males. Why do you think it’s so difficult for women to climb the corporate ladder, even if they’ve actually already secured a position within a company?

HERMAN: I think there are several factors. You have to remember that both formal and informal cultures drive hiring decisions. In the informal networks, because women have not been there, we don’t have the role models and the champions who are promoting and fostering other women in greater numbers. Now, luckily, you’ve got more enlightened males in