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Midlevel Women Execs Face Job-Search Hurdles

By Perri Capell

Midlevel executive women face greater job-search limitations than their male peers, largely due to real and perceived constraints related to women's roles as primary caregivers for children.

The result is that women tend to:

network less than men;
narrow their job choices to a greater degree than men;
face greater scrutiny than men on their work ethic, appearance and behavior during interviews.
While male executives also struggle to find new positions in today's tough job market, midlevel executive women may have to work harder to find jobs that fit their professional needs and lifestyle requirements.

Executive recruiters point out that these barriers don't exist for women who have reached executive vice president and corporate-officer or C-level positions. Women who reach these rarified levels typically have resolved child-care issues that may hamper women executives below them.

At the midlevel, women managers and directors may feel the job market favors men. Here are three key limitations they must deal with and why they exist:

1. Networking difficulties.

Many men and women job seekers dislike networking for leads and referrals, but women executives use this tool less than men. In 2002, 15.8% of women job hunters used talking to friends or relatives as a method to find jobs, versus 18.4% of men, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And DBM, a New York-based outplacement firm, reports that 56% of its women clients found new positions through networking in 2002, compared to 63% of the men.

One problem is that while women may hold nearly half of all professional specialty and managerial jobs in the U.S. workforce, they tend to be clustered at lower pay levels. This leaves them with fewer influential contacts with whom to network for opportunities. One sign of this is that women make up only 12% of the members of Netshare, a Novato, Calif., executive-job-networking group for candidates earning $100,000 or more, according to founder Dave Theobald.

Women professionals often don't meet contacts or get news that could help their careers due to child-care issues, says Diane K. Danielson, co-author of "Table Talk: the Savvy Girl's Alternative to Networking" (1stBooks, 2003). As the primary child-caregivers, they typically drop off and pick up their children at day care. With commitments on both ends of the work day, they often work through lunch and can't attend the get-togethers where work-related information is exchanged, she says.

"The guys go to lunch every day and usually talk about what's going on in their industry," says Ms. Danielson, "but time-management issues are very real for most women, and they don't get out of the office for lunch or after work because they have to do the day-care pickup. The normal times for networking don't suit women."

When Catalyst, a New York-based research organization, surveyed senior women at Fortune 500 companies, 41% cited exclusion from informal networks as an obstacle to women's advancement.

Sue Smedinghoff, 46, was a vice president and strategic project manager for CCC Information Service in Chicago, which develops commercial software for the auto insurance and car-repair industry, until her job was eliminated last July. She's now seeking a position in a consulting firm, but after 12 years with CCC, has had to create a network from scratch. "My network was pretty much my colleagues and customers," she says. "I've had to rebuild it from the ground up."

Women also avoid networking because they don't like mixing business and pleasure, says Tory Johnson, founder and CEO of Women for Hire, which produces career fairs for professional women. "They don't want to be seen as taking advantage of or using personal relationships for professional gain," she says. "Men do it all the time and it's never seen as that. It's seen as the right thing to do."

Karen Smith, a 57-year-old former director of e-commerce customer support for Newark Electronics in Evanston, Ill., believes a big reason she hasn't found work since being laid off in 2001 is her inability to network. "I can call when I know there's an opening, but I just can't contact people and tell them I'm looking for advice when we both know better. I just don't know what to say," she says

2. Limits on types of jobs they'll accept.

Women tend to set more restrictions on the type of new jobs they'll accept than most men because of child-rearing responsibilities, an inability to relocate and a greater need for meaning in their work.

Women are more apt to evaluate a potential employer's organizational culture and how much flexibility they'll be given to deal with family issues - factors men don't usually need to consider as much. For instance, in 2003, 26% of new women M.B.A.s cited a positive organizational culture as a factor in accepting new positions versus 17% of new men M.B.A.s, reports the Graduate Management Admission Council.

Amy Sample, 40, worked 100-hour weeks as director of benefits strategy and design at U.S. Airways Inc. in Arlington, Va., for the year and a half while it was reorganizing under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. She resigned her job in July and sought a director or higher-level human-resources position at an organization that would give her the flexibility to have more balance in her life and time with her two small children.

"This is a huge conflict for me because part of me wants to move up and be CEO, while part of me doesn't," she says. "I would like to find a company where work-life balance doesn't take you off the vice-president track."

Through a graduate-business-school contact, Ms. Sample was able to apply for an unadvertised position as director, strategic sourcing, for a large Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, which hired her in October. "The salary is less than I would have accepted at a for-profit entity, but the trade off -- a 35-hour workweek, flexible schedule, outstanding benefits -- is worth it," says Ms. Sample.

Women who aren't primary breadwinners in their family usually won't relocate for new jobs, says Deleise Lindsay, a managing consultant for DBM in Atlanta. Not being able to move for a new position hampers their career advancement.

Lastly, due to the personal sacrifices they must make to work, some executive women will consider jobs only in fields they feel passionate about, which limits their choices further, says Bernadette Kenny, executive vice president of Lee Hecht Harrison, a career-management and outplacement firm in Woodcliff Lake, N.J. Ms. Sample, for instance, says her new employer has a "great mission" and appears to be a place where she can make a significant contribution.

"Women have a higher need to be motivated by something in the career world than men," says Ms. Kenny. "Men are simply motivated by the career world and moving ahead at all costs."

3. Gender-based stereotypes and biases.

Although it's illegal to discriminate against job seekers for gender-related reasons, biases still exist. Of the senior women executives at Fortune 500 companies surveyed by Catalyst, 33% cite stereotyping and preconceptions of women's roles and abilities as a barrier to advancement.

Liz Ryan, founder of WorldWIT Inc., an online networking organization for professional women, says many hiring managers make negative assumptions about how committed women will be to their jobs.

"There is this huge perception that women are burdened with entanglements outside of work related to children or parents and that they'll bear the brunt of the responsibility so much that they'll neglect their work," says Ms. Ryan, a former human-resources executive. "The perception among HR and hiring executives is, 'Is she going to be able to do what the job requires?'"

A 34-year old director of business development at a television network earned $200,000 annually until she was laid off last November. When she began job hunting, she sought director-level positions in entertainment and technology. Now, she's looking for a starting sales job that would give her a toehold in a company. The Dana Point, Calif., resident has interviewed for two such openings, both paying between $30,000 and $50,000 annually.

California's dearth of entertainment technology jobs has been the primary obstacle, coupled with her inability to relocate due to her husband's business. However, she believes stereotypes have been a factor as well. She reports being asked "outright" in interviews whether she has children. One female interviewer started an interview by saying the company was a great place for mothers because it gives them the flexibility they need to deal with child-care issues, she says.

Being unstylish, overweight or physically unfit harms women's candidacies more than men's, say experts. Ms. Kenny notes that women must maintain higher standards of appearance than men. "It's a look thing, not an age thing," she says. "You have to be well-put-together and attractive."

Ms. Ryan says age is more of a problem for women than men job seekers because "it cuts both ways," she says. "It's a problem for women over 50 in particular, but if you're young and lovely, it means you're green, unsophisticated and not to be taken seriously."

Ms. Smith, the 57-year-old former director of customer support, says she thinks age has been an obstacle in her search. She notes she looks older than she is -- "maybe 60."

"I've kept up getting my hair done regularly, and I have some expensive suits that I bought for interviews," she says. "I've gotten good feedback."





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