Line up: Gals, skip those support staff spots

It's time for a new approach to squelching the gender wage gap and getting more women into senior management.

For one thing, today's wage gap doesn't begin until women are in the middle of their careers. A big contributor to this statistic is women cutting back on work to raise children.

But another contributing factor is the tendency of women to choose support roles rather than line-manager positions. While men move up into senior management as line managers, women get to middle management as support staff and find they've hit the ceiling. This pattern leaves women with stagnant salaries and companies with no women in senior management.

When you're planning your career, set yourself up for a line position. (This advice applies to men as well as women, though men seem instinctively to steer away from support roles.)

Don't know the difference between the two types of jobs?

Line managers are directly responsible for generating money for the company (think product management or sales).

Support staff is responsible for making things run smoothly so the line managers can generate money (think human resources, public relations, or customer service).

Support roles are dead-end career paths. They end in middle management with no place else to go. Support managers don't have the profit-and-loss experience necessary for a senior management position. But you never hear someone say a line manager doesn't have the support experience necessary for a senior job. That's because every line manager has to deal with people on a daily basis.

Of all the CEOs who worked their way up the ranks, you'd be hard-pressed to come up with someone who made her mark on the company in a support role.

When a company blows Wall Street away with amazing revenues, does anyone give customer service credit? No. Does anyone ask PR managers for their opinions on company earnings? No. (In fact, PR managers get fired for giving their own opinion.) The only time anyone interviews HR managers is when line managers need help getting jobs.

Women end up in support departments because women think of themselves as "good with people." And then a terrible career adviser says something like, "How about public relations? You can talk to people all day!" But you know what? Telephone operators have to be good with people, too; that doesn't mean you should aspire to be one.

In fact, being good with people is an essential trait for managers in all areas of a company. If you think you're good with people, then you’re a great candidate for senior management. So put yourself in the senior management track by aiming for profit-and-loss responsibilities.

If you're a college student, be careful to interview only for jobs in departments led by line managers. If you're already in the workforce and you're in a support role, do everything you can to move into another department. Take a pay cut if you have to. You'll more than make that money back in the middle of your career when you still have room to move up the corporate ladder.

Corporate leaders should take a look around and ensure that the company has diverse senior management in the future by moving women into line positions now. Those of you who have built a career in human resources probably will not change the world by becoming a CEO, but you can change the world by leading internal initiatives to get more women into line management.
Penelope Trunk has worked for many businesses and even started a few, and now she's too busy to write her column. This good advice is reprinted from an earlier edition of the Hook.