The Good-Guy Awards

It’s that time of year again.

Corporate good-guy awards are handed out like candy by publications, with headlines screaming “Best Companies”—many for minorities and women. Meanwhile, public relations shops in the chosen firms work overtime cranking out press releases touting how they value women employees equally with the men and promoting their dedication to diversity.

Trouble is, the fancy words sometimes don’t match reality. Too often the companies aren’t all that dedicated to advancing women. Their real purpose is to get on as many “best” lists as possible. It’s great PR and, besides, nobody gets hurt. Or do they?

Take this past year’s “100 Best Companies” from Working Mother magazine. Working women with kids will take the list seriously—some may even change jobs because of it.

Looking behind the hype, we find that some top-rated companies have great policies; others aren’t all that good for working moms. Honorees are patted on the back for providing paid maternity leave (some give one measly week) and paternity leave. But 17 grant new dads less time than moms, and others give no paternity leave at all. These discrepancies could actually handicap a woman in getting hired or promoted, because she might get pregnant and have to take time off. And the bigger leave issue is what’s missing from the rankings. So few of the top 100 provide paid family leave to care for sick kids or aging parents, Working Mother doesn’t score either as separate categories.

Speaking of what’s missing, there’s not a peep about equal pay. The article doesn’t state whether they do internal analyses of pay and promotion, never mind provide hard numbers by gender and job category. As a weaker substitute, Working Mother scores percentages of women who take part in mentoring or management training.

There’s no “promotion” category either, perhaps because the figures aren’t great. Women make up an average of 46 percent of the workforces in the list’s top 100 firms. But the proportion of women drops when only managers are counted (44 percent), keeps sliding at the senior management level (35 percent) and is lowest of all in the corporate executive ranks (28 percent).

Falling seriously below par in female advancement did not prevent some honorees from being ranked at the top. Prudential Financial was named one of the top 10 despite having a severely low percentage of female senior executives—a paltry 9 percent.

Governance is another problem overall, including in the top 10. Only three (23 percent) of IBM’s 13 board members are women; one is an African American man. Working Mother had to really lower the bar to include McKinsey & Company in the top 10—it has exactly zero women board members.Then there’s the little matter of sex discrimination at some companies on the list. Bank of America (top 10) settled a sex-discrimination case last fall with a leading woman banker—incidentally, a mother of three—who charged that the company operated as a “bro’s club.” Merck got embroiled in a giant class-action suit in 2016. Plaintiffs say the company systematically discriminates in pay and promotions against women sales reps generally, and pregnant women in particular.

The Working Mother article does contain some good news. Besides traditional benefits like child-care assistance and flextime, there’s a grab bag of others—including a few innovative ideas—offered by companies on the list. Some give an automatic phase-back benefit where new moms work reduced hours when they return to work. Some give mortgage or legal assistance. Then there are the fertility-extending benefits of in vitro fertilization, egg freezing and surrogacy expenses.

Don’t get us wrong. Not all companies view women’s progress as a mere PR opportunity. And, without question, some on the “best” list are indeed leaders when it comes to working moms. But too many are more hype than heft.

So the next time you read about one of those good-guy awards, remember this: Corporate fraud is not always financial.


Martha Burk is money editor at Ms.