Book Excerpt: Powering Up!

How America’s Women Achievers Become Leaders

Not since Arlie Russell Hochschild laid out the lives of women who worked inside and outside the home in her 1989, jaw-droppingly astute book, The Second Shift, has someone so clearly articulated the machinations that have held back women from leadership, and what we can do about it. Anne Doyle’s Powering Up: How America’s Women Achievers Become Leaders, is a perfect follow up for those who have marshalled troops to help with the second shift and are already leaning in.

For starters, she points out the difference between achievers and leaders. The United States ranks among the first for women’s education levels, but women are still significantly under-represented in C-suites, boardrooms, and government—at all levels. Her research characterizes the three generations of ‘the highest educated, most professionally accomplished, and politically savvy women in the history of the world.’

The first generation began with the ‘Pioneering Interlopers’ who carved new paths where women were not always welcome—where there were no rules, or the rules were clearly stacked against women entering. Their courage, ambition, and toughness cleared the way for achievements that today seem mainstream. But those experiences didn’t usually cultivate nurturing qualities.

‘Influential Insiders’ followed on the heels, and once they were ‘in the room,’ they sought opportunities to further expand their individual influence by being at the table. Historically, however, they weren’t doing a lot as a group to expand the room at the table for other women to join.

‘I’ll-Do-It-My-Way Innovators’ is the newest generation, of which Doyle says, “Never before has there been a cohort of women so well prepared and perfectly positioned to ascend to leadership in record numbers…Don’t expect Innovators to wait patiently for promotions, to accept being paid less than their male peers, or to stick around long in work cultures that offer little flexibility for their lives beyond the office.” Yet in each group, her observation was that women achievers tended to see themselves as individuals.

In her chapter “Why Girls Don’t Rule,” Doyle doesn’t mince words: “Every woman for herself is a losing strategy.” Leadership is a team sport.

What follows is an excerpt from her compelling book.

When Xerox CEO Anne Mulcahy stepped to the podium to open her corporation’s May 2009 Annual Stockholder meeting, everyone in the world headquarters auditorium knew they were about to witness history. Or, more accurately, herstory.

Topping the agenda was confirmation of what Wall Street had known for months: 50‑year‑old Ursula Burns, Mulcahy’s hand‑picked successor, would be named the next CEO. Not only did Burns become the first African American female chief executive officer of a global corporation the size of Xerox, her ascent marked the first woman‑to‑woman CEO handoff in Fortune 500 history.

Savvy executives Mulcahy and Burns declared that Xerox’s historic leadership transition was simply good business: the best person won. No doubt.

But look a little deeper and ask yourself this: What did it take for two, high‑powered women executives–of different races and different generations–to become trusted business partners, mutual mentors, and unusual allies working toward common goals? It took Mulcahy and Burns to realize they could be more influential and effective as a partnership than operating alone. At some point, two ambitious leaders became a team. Their example was a headline-worthy exception to the norm.

Anne Mulcahy, Former Xerox Chairman of the Board (left), and Ursula Burns, Xerox CEO (right). Photo courtesy of Xerox Corporation.

The more widespread reality, however, is that most women view one another as their primary competition–for everything. Men, jobs, the spotlight, you name it. As a gender, we have little concept of a fundamental principal that men figured out centuries ago: teams can accomplish much more than even the most talented individual.

“Most women have all other women as adversaries; most men have all other men as their allies,” quipped American humorist Frank Gelett Burgess in the early 1900s. Unfortunately, his observation is as true today as it was then. American women are like individual superstars on a team that has never won big.

We now have an abundance of highly-educated, high-achieving women carving out impressive careers and making their marks in nearly every walk of life. But here’s the problem: in leadership, as in sports, it takes more than exceptional individual performance for a group to excel. I’m convinced that one–but not the only–of the primary reasons that women still do not have appropriate influence and power in shaping our nation and culture comes down to one simple fact: Women haven’t learned that leadership is a team sport.

Every Woman for Herself Is a Losing Strategy
The first way I assess a woman is by a very simple litmus test. Is she a female who supports and feels a natural allegiance with others of her cultural tribe? Or does she separate herself from and undermine other women?

If she’s in the first category, I consider her a potential ally. A cultural sister. Perhaps a leader whose vision I would consider following, a peer with whom I’d share my network, or even a potential mentee. I’m interested in learning more about her. If she’s in the second category, however, I keep my distance. I don’t trust her. We will never be more than acquaintances. I’d be unlikely to follow her lead or go out of my way to help advance her goals.

Why do I give this question so much weight? Because I’ve learned that every woman for herself is a losing strategy.

Think about it. Gender is the first way that human beings categorize one another. All the other clues we use to identify with or differentiate ourselves from one another, be they race, heritage, religion, age, economic class, political leanings, or even favorite sports teams, pale in comparison to our instant categorization of one another by gender. Male or female? Nature’s primary differentiator.

Have you ever noticed how uncomfortable people are when they can’t immediately tell a person’s gender? That’s because we’ve been socialized to treat people in different ways based on gender identity. If we don’t know a person’s sex, we’re not sure how to appropri­ately interact with her or him.

As females, we are born into the same cultural tribe. Regardless of the titles on our office doors, our golf handicaps, or even our military records, we are never, ever going to be one of the guys. Every woman is still viewed through a gender lens of deeply-ingrained conscious and unconscious biases. That lens is so distorted and clouded with outdated images of what leaders look like that even women have a hard time thinking of ourselves and other females as having the right stuff to lead.

In addition, non‑Caucasian women of every shade, who are earning college and graduate degrees in record numbers, face the double jeopardy of being viewed through both a gender and a color lens. For females, the game is still rigged.

The biggest mistake women continue to make is to distance ourselves from our own natural allies: other women. Yet I see it happening every day. The only place that behavior gets us is where most of us are right now: individually trying to break through glass ceilings while men keep getting a hand up from their tribal big brothers.

The biggest mistake women continue to make is to distance ourselves from our own natural allies: other women. Yet I see it happening every day. The only place that behavior gets us is where most of us are right now: individually trying to break through glass ceilings while men keep getting a hand up from their tribal big brothers.

“How often have you heard a woman say, ‘I’d never work for a woman’ or ‘I’d never vote for a woman,’” asks former Maryland Congresswoman Connie Morella, now a board member for Vital Voices Global Partnership, which works to identify, invest in and bring visibility to extraordinary women around the world. “I think it is lack of respect and confidence in oneself that makes women pull other women down. I think anytime a woman is elevated all women are elevated.”

When the day finally comes that large numbers of women recognize that we’re all in this together, there will be no stopping us. But right now, three of the biggest reasons that girls still don’t make the rules, let alone rule, are staring right back at us in the mirror.

We don’t believe in ourselves. We don’t believe in each other. And we’ve barely begun to pull together to raise our collective game. Leadership is a team sport because it requires both strong individual performance as well as groups of people pulling together in the same direction.

There’s an African proverb that says, “If you wish to go quickly, go alone. If you wish to go far, go together.”

There is no question that women have made tremendous progress toward gender equality in the last few decades. But we haven’t gone nearly far enough. Going far in the 21st Century means pushing into our next frontier: the team sport of leadership. That will require us to go together. A great way to start is to remember this simple mantra, Every woman for herself is a losing strategy.

View Comments


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *