Thank You Ma'am, May I Have Another?

Harriet Rubin's commentary on the changing nature of sex relations in the business world.

I have always loved men and always hated their power. Too often I've seen them wield it in ways that are cruel, unfair, antagonistic. But recently my perspective on men's power has begun to shift. Now trying to find my old righteous anger is like trying to fake a sneeze. Something's changed, on the order of the momentous. The signs are there: male dominance in business ends in the 1990s. The battle between the sexes is ending. In fact, the sexes themselves may be on the verge of disappearing from corporate wars.

I had my first sniff of change last summer. I was invited to a conference of metabolic princes -- the heads, or maybe the halos, of several of the country's superpower companies. It's the kind of woodsy retreat where everyone's on the cellular and four FedEx trucks arrive each day to keep the 200 attendees feeling important. I was thrilled to be there. I felt I'd been summoned as a Player in her own right.

And then I went to the opening-night barbecue. The covers of Fortune magazine had come to life and assembled in a single field of wildflowers and burning beef. White men, all facing right. I headed toward a group of three men who together could buy and sell half the United States. No prince or king ever held more power. I extended my hand as introductions went around. The potentates glanced at me, ignored my extended hand -- and went on with their conversation.

I looked around. Had I disappeared? The men had treated me as if I were the Venus de Milo on loan from some other rich guy's museum -- a nice piece of background but clearly without a hand to shake. I had disappeared, and so had all the other women. We were in this verdant, smoky field as "guests." That was our official status. We were not there to speak. And no one was there to listen.

In the past, situations like this evoked holy ire in me. But not this time. And not a month later, when I met up with one of the business patriarchs who'd been there and asked him why no powerful women had been invited as full participants.

"Why should I invite women to participate?" he shot back. "They will never have power. It's obvious why. They are either breeders or neuters. If they're breeders, their energy is dissipated onto their children. If they're neuters, they're as good as spayed -- not fit to fight."

The words were those of a gender Nazi. But there was no force behind them. And then he sneered, like a vaudeville villain. "If you ever repeat that outside this room, I'll deny I said it." Of course he would. How could he cling to such an outmoded idea?

The answer, I knew, was simple: men are still clinging to the hope that women are powerless, because they haven't got much else to cling to. The leadership elite in this country is in as much trouble as blue-collar men whose jobs are disappearing, never to return. The leadership elite is finding that power -- the basis of masculinity, control, and prestige -- is also disappearing.

You see this in the darndest places. Talk about being spayed. Penile implants undertaken as "remediation" is the fastest growing category of elective surgery. Dominatrices are doing land-office business. A well-known San Francisco dominatrix tells me that powerful men are desperate to break the compulsion of always having to be in control. CEOs regularly roll themselves under her Manolo Blahnik pumps. It rang true. One CEO I'd pursued for a book (he never signed) said to me, "Ask anything you want of me." "Right," I laughed, "like you'll take orders from me?" He looked surprised. "Of course I will. I love being controlled. It's like being in an airport. I want signs that tell me: go here, go there, eat now, pee later."

I think of myself as a canary in a coal mine. I make my living finding new ideas and putting them into words. I always need to work five years into the future. One of my authors calls me the diva of business publishing, but I don't sing. I listen and absorb. These days, I notice, more and more of the men who come to see me don't want to talk about business. They want to give words to things they don't know, not things they do know. Mostly what they don't know is who they are.

These men have subordinates who insist they keep alive the routines of power. Most have wives they are proud of but can't talk to about their fears and weaknesses. To many, Shanghai is less foreign than love. If they could find the language and the tenderness, they would trade power for love in a heartbeat. Privately, many are asking themselves what kind of power there really is in selling their services or marketing their products or making their end-of-the-year numbers.

A colleague sat in on one of my conferences with a prominent male executive who wanted to talk about writing a book. Afterward she asked, "Do you think he's on the verge of a nervous breakdown?" Maybe the country's entire leadership elite is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Some of these men sound so frail and lost that I have to remind myself that they steer major corporations. If they were driving Amtrak trains, somebody would say to them: Time to come in for a little testing.

This is a man's glass ceiling. You don't bump your head against it. In fact, you don't bump up against anything. It's empty up there. Once you arrive, you're left with nothing.

For men of power, the glass ceiling is the top of a 100-foot glass pole. Where do you go when you reach the top of the 100-foot glass pole? Do you jump off? Climb back down? Hang on for dear life? Wave dumbly like a flag in the breeze? Or are you left up at the top of the pole with a sick look on your face, finally realizing that the whole idea of needing to climb to the top of a pole was one big joke?

I know three men who think that they only imagined a pole in the first place. One is an entrepreneur who is building a new home for himself a continent away from his company's headquarters. Another is a computer gazillionaire who has hired a PR genius to help him manage neither his business nor his product, but his future -- which he defines as the moment he escapes from the company he's built. The third is the PR genius himself, who feels more alive sitting, small and humble, in rooms filled with surreal paintings than working stiffly next to any of his clients in their standard-issue chairmen's chairs.

When American Express president Jeffrey Stiefler resigned last September, he made big news. His was no ordinary job kiss-off. Stiefler, 49, referred to his departure as "growing up." He didn't want to feel "constantly conflicted" by the demands of work and his desire for a personal life. The fight had gone out of the game for this man who couldn't play social tennis without ramming 100-mph shots at his friends' wives. No more.

Once upon a time power was in patriarchy, a key motivator. It created great products and efficient systems. The subordination of women made for success. Now the opposite is true. The sectors that are growing are those in which there is no sexual identity -- such as on the Internet. Investors are removing capital from companies in which gender wars are waged and patriarchy still reigns. Capital is the real power in this world. And so Netscape is worth $5 billion. Not surprisingly its business model is fundamentally female -- a web created of relationships.

The dirty little secret is that no one ever liked patriarchy in the first place. Including men. Perhaps that's why so many are brushing up on their searching, loving values. They know the game is up. Men who can't play in a genderless world or a world of feminine values won't be able to play at all. The market will vote against them. They'll be gazing off into an empty sky.

Harriet Rubin (hrubin@fastcompany.com), a Fast Company contributing editor, is based in New York City.

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