More and More, She's the Boss

Women executives are on the move and taking over top jobs in corporations

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Ask most boys what they are going to be when they grow up, and they might answer that they want to be a policeman, an astronaut or whatever Daddy is. But when someone asked Jonathan Sheer, 12, that question, he answered without hesitation: "I want my mother's job."

Jonathan's mother Jane Evans is the president of Monet (estimated 1985 sales: $120 million), part of Crystal Brands. Evans sees her son's answer as a sign of the times. Says she: "If a boy had said that 20 years ago, people would have assumed that his mother was a secretary." Today Mom may be an executive.

Women are now setting their corporate goals high, and more and more are achieving their ambitions. Between 1972 and 1983, the number of executive women in U.S. business more than doubled, from 1.4 million to 3.5 million, and it is still climbing. Says Harvard Labor Economist David E. Bloom: "The growth of women in the work force is probably the single most important change that has ever taken place in the American labor market. Their arrival at high executive levels will be the major development for working women over the next 20 years."

Only one woman, Katharine Graham, chairman of the Washington Post Co. (1984 sales: $984 million), heads a FORTUNE 500 company. Her family controlled the Post when she took over in 1963. Like Graham, women who headed major firms in the past were usually the wives or daughters of the owners. Christie Hefner runs Playboy Enterprises, the company started by her father. Moya Lear became chairman of LearAvia, a maker of corporate jets, after her husband William died in 1978.

But a new class of women executives are heading upward in U.S. companies, climbing the corporate ladder one rung at a time. They are moving higher on the basis of talent, not family ties. Perhaps the most highly placed of these bootstrap female executives is Verna Gibson, who in May was named president of Limited Stores (see box). With estimated 1985 sales of $800 million, Limited Stores is the largest women's fashion chain in the U.S.

Behind those executives, advancing through the ranks in banks, manufacturing companies, retail firms and service corporations are thousands of ambitious young women. Says Rand Corp. Economist James P. Smith: "They are in the pipeline in middle management now. It is inevitable that after 20 years of work experience, a good number of those women will be at the top."

Companies have discovered that selecting only male candidates means ignoring about half of the best talent available, and many are now actively recruiting women managers. Says Caroline Nahas, a partner at Korn/Ferry International, a Los Angeles-based executive-search firm: "More and more companies realize that a good manager is a good manager regardless of sex."

Some firms were quicker than others to regard women as executive timber. In his latest book, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Management Expert Peter Drucker reports that New York's Citibank was one of the first major companies to go after female M.B.A.s, in the 1970s. Recruiters who were sent out in search of the best male graduates in finance and marketing began reporting back to headquarters that many of the best graduates were women, not men. The bank told them simply to hire the best.

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