ADVOCATES OF WOMEN EXECUTIVES SEND A SMART MESSAGE

How does it feel to be the only male on a food industry conference panel about advancement of women executives in the workplace?"As a male food industry executive, I feel like I'm at the dentist. This hits an exposed nerve," Bill Grize, president and chief executive officer of Ahold USA, told the audience at last month's Food Marketing Institute Midwinter Executive Conference in Boca Raton, Fla. (See

How does it feel to be the only male on a food industry conference panel about advancement of women executives in the workplace?

"As a male food industry executive, I feel like I'm at the dentist. This hits an exposed nerve," Bill Grize, president and chief executive officer of Ahold USA, told the audience at last month's Food Marketing Institute Midwinter Executive Conference in Boca Raton, Fla. (See story, Page 25.)

As it turns out, Grize, a longtime advocate for women in the workplace, need not have felt discomfort. That's because his fellow panelists and many others pushing the case for women in the workplace today are bringing a focused, non-confrontational message to the endeavor that seems sure to bring some success.

Not that they are sugarcoating the facts. The speaker introducing the panel, Margaret Heffernan, a columnist and expert on the workplace, provided statistical evidence that the food industry lags behind other business sectors in furthering women's careers.

Yet advocates of change aren't relying on finger-pointing or threats of lawsuits. Instead, their focus is on the solid return on investment that awaits companies enhancing the careers of female executives. Those relaying this message include the Network of Executive Women, which focuses on women's careers in the food industry, and some top industry women executives, such as PepsiCo's Carla Cooper and Ahold's Kimberly Betts, both of whom were part of last month's panel. Betts is president of NEW.

In another article in this week's issue, Pathmark CEO Eileen Scott urged women to mentor each other in the workplace. (See story, Page 28.)

The most notable element of the return-on-investment argument is its uncomplicated logic. It leaves one wondering why the problems didn't disappear long ago. We all know that the great majority of supermarket shoppers are women. So why aren't more companies figuring out that having women associates in high places will help management better understand shoppers?

We all talk endlessly about the need for diversity, as well as retention and promotion of talented employees. So why aren't more firms tapping their in-house talent pools to lift up accomplished women?

This topic is actually at the core of the supermarket agenda, emphasized Grize, who recast it as a people issue rather than a women's issue. We all know how often top executives say people are their most important asset, so women would fall under that people category.

There's much merit to all of these arguments. But can they alter behavior on their own?

I was intrigued by Heffernan's answer to the question of what will actually lead to changing behavior.

"Lawsuits are scary and expensive, and they cause some change," Heffernan said. "The bigger change comes about when guys see what their daughters are having to put up with at work."

That's an eye-opener. It seems some people don't fully grasp the problem until it lands on their doorstep. So a few people will have to be hit over the head with this message. For the rest, focused and sensible arguments will go a long way.