Grade Inflation

Every year, Working Mother magazine announces its much-anticipated "100 Best Companies." Employers leap to publicize their inclusion on the list, and it's routinely a best-selling issue. But is the "100 Best"-- and similar lists published by other magazines and organizations -- much more than public relations?

Most of the firms that receive the honors are large employers, who are already required by the Family and Medical Leave Act to provide 12 weeks of unpaid leave for the birth of a child or to care for any immediate family member. In addition to meeting federal requirements, most businesses on the list have instituted low- or no-cost policies and perks such as flex time, child-care resource directories, lactation rooms, and additional unpaid leave. Benefits such as paid family leave or free or reduced-cost child care are much rarer.

Magazines and organizations usually compile these "best employers" lists using self-reported data. While Working Mother says the information is fact-checked, most of the companies on the list do not make public the information the magazine says it examines, so there is no way to independently verify it. While the magazine assigns a specific score and rank to every company that applies, those numbers are kept private. "That enables them to go back and do some work without being publicly embarrassed," says Suzanne Riss, editor-in-chief of Working Mother. "We're not trying to say one company is better than the next."

But why not? Wouldn't a ranking system be a great resource for women who are considering taking a job with one of those companies? The application for inclusion on the "100 Best Companies" list is filled out by corporate HR departments. The magazine does not interview lower-level female employees before deciding whether to include a company on the list. In her book, Taking on the Big Boys, Ellen Bravo writes about how Sprint made the 1992 "Best Companies" list: "[O]perators were amazed as they read the descriptions of flextime, job-sharing, and adoption aid, which none of them enjoyed. It turned out the company did have such policies -- but only for managers."

Riss says the Working Mother list now measures what percentage of employees have access to these policies. But it can be difficult to determine whether working parents are actually encouraged to take advantage of them. In many cases, corporate culture dictates that taking too many personal days, or constantly rejiggering a flex schedule, can mean getting passed over for a promotion. Young women entering the workforce seem to expect that. When the Harvard Business Review surveyed women college graduates, 35 percent thought they would be penalized for doing so. And when Martha Burk examined "best employers" lists in her 2005 book, Cult of Power, she found that often work/life policies exist only in the official employee handbook. "Women get to the companies and find it's all so much hype," she says.

One of the important criteria for making the Working Mother list is what the magazine calls a company's "workforce profile," which measures advancement of women (and women of color) into upper-level management positions. On its 2005 "Best Companies" list, for example, Allstate, American Express, and General Mills were named top companies for women of color. Those three companies also made Latina Style magazine's list of top employers for Hispanic women. At each, 30 percent of newly hired hourly workers are women of color, but 0 percent of new executives are. And of the 18 firms in Working Mother's "Hall of Fame," most have only two or three women board members. The average "Hall of Fame" board of directors is more than 80 percent male.

The magazine isn't alone in honoring subpar corporations. Catalyst, for example, an organization that bills itself as focused on "expanding opportunities for women in business," consistently honors their largest donors -- companies that have often done little more than slightly increase the dismally low percentages of women in management. One of this year's award-winners, Goldman Sachs, was recently the subject of a class-action gender discrimination lawsuit.

Indeed, many companies on the Working Mother list have been slapped with lawsuits as well. One such company, Novartis, is currently being sued by a dozen female employees for discrimination in pay and promotions, particularly after they had children. At least two of the companies in Working Mother's "Hall of Fame" have been sued for sex discrimination in the past two years.

In fairness, several companies that appear on these lists are above average. The multinational accounting behemoth Ernst & Young has gone as far as to create special "Offices for Flexibility and Gender Equity Strategy." The company has been lauded by nearly every organization that advocates for working parents for its efforts, and has recently launched a program to encourage men to take advantage of its progressive family leave policies. But these awards are all relative. Ernst & Young still has a long way to go in terms of female representation on its board of directors and in the upper echelons of management.

"The list-makers cherry-pick the data," Burk says. "If they had a stringent external standard, they'd never be able to give any awards." The list-makers and their big business honorees enable each other. Firms get credit for low- or no-cost options -- many of which their female employees may be reluctant to take -- and the magazines get advertising dollars.

Burk says that the publisher of Latina Style, which annually presents awards to 50 businesses it says are making great strides in "advancing the careers of professional Hispanic women," told her that the magazine compares major companies and decides which are better than others. If they applied stringent external standards, he told her, then they would never give out awards.

Working Mother's editorial leadership also claims this is the only way to construct such a list. "We don't want to have a list that no one wants to apply to because they're going to be embarrassed," Riss says. "This is a list companies feel comfortable applying to. There's a lot of prestige attached to it."

It's a win-win situation -- but the winners don't necessarily include mothers in the workforce.

Editor's Note: A shorter version of this piece appears in the March 2007 issue of The American Prospect as part of "Mother Load," a special report on work/family issues.

Ann Friedman is associate web editor of the Prospect. Her biweekly column appears on Thursdays. She also blogs at Feministing.com.

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