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A. B. Wilson Communications

Bow Wave: Women Leaders Coming to the Fore In High Tech Businesses

Given by Antoinette M. Bailey, Vice President Community and Education Relations, President — Boeing-McDonnell Foundation, The Boeing Company, International Women in Aviation Conference, Reno, Nevada, March 23, 2001.

Good morning.  I have certainly learned the importance of "strategic positioning."  Can you imagine having to follow Gen. Chuck Yaeger in anything but a "chase plane"?  Or what about speaking after Patricia Cornwell has made her presentation?  She is not only a helicopter pilot, but has the additional talent of being a best-selling author with the wonderful imagination to create "Kay Scarpetta."

Well, ladies and gentlemen, they are going to follow me and I would like to take them and all of you on a brief journey.  Suppose we have gone down to the beach on a quiet day.  We are standing in the water, admiring the view. Suddenly, a speedboat zooms by at full throttle. Seconds later, we are struck by a powerful wave.  This is a bow wave, and it can knock you off your feet if you aren't prepared for it.

A very large and fast-moving bow wave is just now beginning to hit the aerospace industry.  This morning, I want to talk about what we, as an industry, and we, as women, should do to prepare for it. 

We have two basic choices.  We may choose to be passive, allowing this wave to rush under us and over us — causing only momentary panic or discomfort.  Or we may choose to be active, determined to "catch" the wave, to ride it, and to make full use of the energy it contains.  It is not too much to say that the choice that we make here — and it is a choice — will determine the future competitiveness of our companies and our industry.

There has been a profound shift in the desire, the determination and, above all, the ability of women to act in the fullest way as leaders in high tech businesses. This is the source of the high-energy wave I am talking about. It is the reason why next generation of leadership in high-tech businesses such as our own will be very different than the present.

Let's look at the present generation.  Looking at myself, I can tell you that the thing that is most typical about me is that I am thoroughly atypical of senior management as a whole.  This is not because women are from "Venus" and men are from "Mars."  In my case, it is not even because I happen to be a Venusian of color.

While I have an advanced degree, it is not in engineering, math or any of the so-called hard sciences.  Rather, it is in counseling.  Like Amelia Earhart, I came into aviation from a background in social work.  By contrast, other members of senior management, for the most part, come from scientific and technical backgrounds.

While the portion of women in senior management in large aerospace companies is still very small (well below 5%), comparatively few of our small number are technically or financially inclined. As a result, we have gone into areas such as community relations, public relations and advertising, human resources, and legal counsel that are not usually seen as jumping off points for the top job.  As this is so, a place at the table in top management may create what a friend of mine calls "the illusion of inclusion."

Now let's fast forward to the future, which is racing toward us even as I speak. 

If you want to locate the bow of a metaphorical speedboat that is guaranteed . . . I say, guaranteed . . . to produce change, don't look at what's going on inside today's business world.  Look instead at what's going on inside our schools, beginning with the top colleges and universities. As it happens, part of my job is to be aware of trends and developments in education.

At MIT, which many consider the nation's premiere scientific and technical university, the undergraduate population is on its way to becoming 50% female.  It has gone from 15% in 1975, to 27% in 1985, and to 42% today.

Women now account for about a third of the enrollment at the nation's top five business schools. Harvard Business School has gone from having no women at all in 1950, to 15% in 1975, and to 33% in 2000.

Things become even more interesting if you examine trends in the primary and secondary levels of education.  Over the past several decades, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, has charted the progress of boys and girls at ages 9, 13 and 17 in a variety of subject areas.

In 1969, when the NAEP began testing, girls scored higher than boys in reading, but were clearly behind in math and science.  Guess what has happened since.  Girls still do better than boys in reading, but they have pulled even in math at each age, and they are moving up and almost even with boys in science. In other words, the old saw that "girls can't do math" or "girls don't do science" is totally out the window — not just among the brightest girls who wind up at places like MIT, but straight across the board at the grade school and high school levels.

Part of what has happened here, I believe, is that women have learned to be survivors; they have learned to be fighters . . . and, as mothers, they have passed that along to their own daughters in letting them know, in no uncertain terms, that they must prepare themselves for a highly competitive workplace that values brainpower and knowledge above everything else. The sharp rise in the number of women who remain — or become — single in their twenties, thirties, forties or even fifties has certainly contributed to this mentality. As women, we know that we may face the dual challenge of pursuing a career and raising a family entirely on our own. That may help to explain why women at a young age now seem to be more motivated than their male counterparts. They are preparing to climb a higher mountain.

Without a doubt, technically oriented female executives have begun to break through in many places.  Laurette Koellner, for example, was recently named President of Boeing Shared Services and is now the youngest member of our Executive Council.  Laurette comes from a strong business and financial background.  Several of test pilots in our commercial airplane group are female, and all have advanced aeronautical or other engineering degrees.  There are many other examples that I could cite of technically qualified women moving into former male bastions. For those of you who have not done so, please stop by the Boeing exhibit and read a short bio on some of our senior management women.

If that's the good news, the bad news is that our industry as a whole is definitely not at the leading edge of change.  We are, rather, at the trailing edge, back — if you think of an airplane's wing — where you find the flaps and spoilers.

Fortune magazine's most recent listing of the top 50 women in business is highly revealing. Carly Fiorina, HP's CEO, tops the list of Fortune's "Power 50," and it is clear from looking at the list that Silicon Valley is one place where a disproportionate number of smart, creative women want to be.  I was struck by the number of women who have launched their own businesses or joined startups. Donna Dubinsky, for instance, co-founded Palm, sold it to a larger company, stayed on for a while to run it, then left to start Handspring.  Several on the list — including Heidi Miller, who quit her job as CFO of Citigroup to join Priceline — have walked out of secure jobs at giant corporations in order to experience the thrill of developing and building a business from the ground up.

You won't find a single woman from aviation or aerospace in the "Power 50." Debby Hopkins made the list a year ago as Boeing's CFO, and she's back on this year's list, but with another company — Lucent Technologies.

Does it matter if our companies and our industry are less successful than others in attracting and retaining the best female executives?  Of course it does. And it matters more and more with every passing minute.  It's one thing if your company has little appeal to — let us say — 15% of MIT's latest group of graduates.  It's something else again if you have little appeal to 50% of them. That's the bow wave that is coming our way.  As Carly Fiorina says, "Companies can no longer afford the luxury of bias.  They have to play the talent game to win."

To win the talent game, I believe that our industry needs to do a better job of creating a welcoming environment for women.  I do not mean preferential treatment.  I mean making sure that women are valued and evaluated on equal terms with men.  Where there has been a history of exclusion, it requires real action and a strong commitment to change to remedy the situation. Clearly, that must begin at the top. 

If you are a CEO and you want a model for how to proceed, I would suggest examining how a far bigger company than your own — namely, the U.S. Army — tackled a similar challenge. Under leaders like Colin Powell, the Army has done a superb job in recent decades in becoming much more inclusive — particularly in the officer ranks — while, at the same time, becoming much more highly motivated and efficient.  How did they do that?  Basically, they set out purposefully to create an environment that would attract blacks and other minorities.  They did that by offering great opportunities for personal growth, combined with a strong commitment to equal treatment.  Along the way, they got rid of a lot of the people who couldn't, or wouldn't, "get it."  The same rules apply to gender as to race.

With the couple of minutes remaining, I want to address the question of what we, as women, should do to help create a more welcoming environment. Two things spring to mind.

First, we have to support, nurture and respect each other.  This is fundamental, but not automatic. Not too long ago, I was interviewing for an executive assistant and one of the applicants told me that she wasn't sure that she could cope with working for another woman!   What a profoundly revealing and distressing statement!  While I didn't encourage details, I suspect her negative experiences were related to poor management, a gender-blind fault.

We need to utilize the qualities that are attributed to women:  We should be recommending . . . and enhancing . . . and encouraging one another.  That's why I love groups like "Women in Aviation." We can draw strength from one another (utilizing that incredible nurturing thing we are noted for possessing).

Second, while it is not my job or your job to educate men, it is necessary sometimes to take a stand, as Rosa Parks did when she refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama.  I hope to see more and more us standing firm and speaking out when the occasion calls for it.

We can make a difference building a house from the ground floor up or we can make a difference right where we stand! And it's nice to know that reinforcements are on the way — lots of them.


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Andrew B. Wilson

26 Taylor Place Drive
St. Louis, MO 63108
Phone: (314) 361-1195

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