Up Front: April 2005

Pro-choice

I had considered writing about the time I saved Hunter S. Thompson from getting busted when the father of gonzo journal-ism whipped out a joint in a bar frequented by off-duty Miami vice cops. But the prospect of doing two columns in a row on dead men so depresses me that, rather than ponder the mysteries of life or lack thereof, I’ll try to tackle a thornier question: What is it that women really want?

Before I’m accused of being too in touch with my inner pig, let me point out that this is the crux of this month’s cover story, probably one of the most difficult pieces we’ve ever put together. The problem with making the paucity of women CEOs a Business North Carolina story is that there’s nothing peculiar to North Carolina about it.

Yes, only one of the 14 Fortune 500 companies based in the state has a woman CEO. But there are only eight on the national list, and one of them — Hewlett-Packard’s Carly Fiorina — has been booted since it was published last fall. For you stat fans, that means 7% of North Carolina’s Fortune 500 CEOs are — is — female, compared with 1.6% nationwide. (And that’s with Carly counted; without her, it’s 1.4%.)

A woman running a major corporation is a rarity, not only in this socially conservative state but across the country. And what has held them back has not been all that testosterone at the top. “None of the women I talked to complained about ever being discriminated against because of gender,” says Senior Editor Ed Martin, who wrote the story. “Maybe that’s because the kind of women who succeed don’t face this kind of discrimination or can work around and overcome it.”

Discrimination, in all its guises, exists, of course, but an even bigger factor is at play, one that wasn’t around 30 years ago when my wife and her friends were boarding buses to Raleigh to lobby for the Equal Rights Amendment — which North Carolina still hasn’t passed. Women now have more choices. They’re not always easy to make.

Not everybody — male or female — can or should be the boss. Not everybody wants to. But because only women can bear children, and still bear the brunt of bringing them up, they’re at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to investing the single- minded drive it takes to reach the top. And unlike some of the women in senior management Ed interviewed for his story, most don’t make the millions that afford them nannies and other resources to balance home and job. For many career women, these choices are indeed sacrifices.

Still, these women managers are lucky. For many, maybe most, working-class women, it’s not and never has been a matter of choice. Thirty years ago, this state had the highest female participation in the work force of any industrial state, a legacy of the textile industry and the low wages it paid men and women. “Moreover, women were expected to run their households and nurture their children even after putting in long hours at the mill,” Al Stuart writes in The North Carolina Atlas. “Thus, having a ‘career’ and a family is nothing new to the women of North Carolina.”