Published: January 2007
WOMEN ON TOP: Redefining power and the nature of success for the 21st century.
Women on Top - Extract 1:
Reaching Boiling Point
"I quit over dinner. I just got to boiling point and I quit. Walked out of the restaurant, went back to my hotel room, called my husband and said I'd quit. I said, "Everyone else has their own business. Why not me?" So we started, in March 1999."
Cecilia McCloy is a geologist. She worked for SAIC, a research and engineering firm, for twelve years, which by any measure would make her a loyal employee. But she reached boiling point, she says, because it got so hard to have any influence. Reorganization followed reorganization until her ability to have any impact, on the people or the place, just felt negligible. It hadn't helped that, as the only female Vice President, she was always being asked by other women to lend support to their sexual harassment cases. Her main issue, however, was that – despite her rank – people kept making decisions, about her and about her people, without ever consulting her.
Cecilia felt – as so many women feel in corporate America – invisible. Every woman can tell you stories of not being heard in meetings, of work not being rewarded and, of course, of promotions that somehow just didn't happen. These careers follow a predictable trajectory. At the outset of her career, a young woman, pretty and eager to please, is trivialized, appreciated for her charm but little else. As she gains in competence and confidence, she becomes invisible. Struggling to assert herself, she's castigated for being too aggressive, a bitch. If she keeps trying, she may eventually assimilate and be seen as a guy – but then she's shunned by women for having sold out .
These stereotypes dog women's careers and leave them feeling either very depressed or very frustrated. Why, they wonder, can I not be valued for who and what I am? Why must I constantly struggle to fit into a business world that insists on seeing my strengths as weaknesses? That sees my ability to bear children as some hideous, unmentionable threat? That sees my emotions and intuition and empathy as trivial? Where can I go to tap the ability and creativity that I know I have?
"I was working at Unisys and they'd just had their merger and we had had 23 org charts in 30 days," recalls Lurita Doan. "I didn't know who I was working for and with each chart, I fell lower and lower til my UNIX wasn't even on the chart, we were just one little circle on the side. I didn't know what meant but I knew it was bad!"
"I had an idea of how to become a program manager and went to my boss and told him. I'd been up all night working on the business plan for it. I explained that, at our customer sites, there was always stuff left undone. They needed custom work and it seemed logical to me that we should do that work. So I said I'd do it. And they just said "That's the stupidest thing in the world. No one will pay for that."
"I went home and I was so upset. My husband said, "Why don't you just quit? You are so bossy and always know what's right. Why not just do it?" So I did! Best thing I ever did because I do like to have my own way and I am usually right.
For centuries, women have known what it is to be powerless, to be dependent – and now they have the skills and, increasingly the confidence, to stand up for themselves. The independence they seek is not just professional. Women of high-growth businesses place money second in their list of motivators. Financial independence – not being held hostage to a marriage or a job that no longer satisfies – isn't about fast cars and big houses. It is about having choices.
What's so interesting about these motives is that women are not leaving traditional careers just to get out. Lurita Doan wasn't running away and Cecilia McCloy didn't retire to the kitchen to bake cookies. Nor are they just storming out in a huff, to regret it the next day. These women move from positions where they're undervalued, underestimated and deeply unsatisfied in search of something far more demanding. It is an existential flight, looking for a place where who and what women are, how they like to work, the things they care about, can be not just tolerated but given a dynamic and central role in their lives. Disappointed by the rigid, narrow choices that so many careers appear to offer, women strike out on their own to redefine what is possible.
 For more on stereotyping, see Ch. 2 of The Naked Truth: A Working Woman's Manifesto on Business and What Really Matters, Jossey-Bass, 2004. For boredom, see Claudia Deutsch in the New York Times May 1, 2005: Behind the Exodus of Executive Women: Boredom.