Living Dangerously - Issue 34

"Girl-gang members are the new mistresses of misrule."

A group of women has finally figured out how to succeed in a man's world: Change it into a woman's world. (For men who dare to read this, at the end I offer a few ideas on how to survive in this new world of leadership.)

Over the years, women have tried everything to succeed in business: fitting in; biding their time in order to rise in an organization; taking shelter in pink-collar ghettos. They've finally found an approach that works: forming "girl gangs."

It should have been an obvious solution. After all, secret societies have long been a source of power. Think of Mao in 1928, making his home in the mountains, far from the political mainstream. Living in a secret society taught him the power of abiding by your own rules. He learned a kind of leadership that eventually toppled centuries of Chinese tradition — the equivalent of overthrowing the status quo that reigns in most old-line organizations. Mao also learned the importance of overthrowing his own organization. He identified himself with the Lords of Misrule, an institution common to medieval European festivals in which the apprentices took over their masters' guilds for a day or two. (In some festivals, the practice was for women to take over the regular duties of men.) Mao took the institution of misrule seriously.

Girl-gang members are the new mistresses of misrule. Their very existence subverts the laws of organizations. I talked with members of a girl gang that is based inside a major organization. The women involved have sworn me to secrecy: I can't reveal their names or the name of the company. "It would only hurt us if we emphasized the female nature of our group," says the gang's founder. "We're trying to be extremely discreet. You can imagine the ramifications of public attention at a place like [company X]."

Female teams like hers are not unique. Every day, 1,000 businesses are started by women in the United States. Most are small, and many begin with an all-female staff. While the assumption is that over time, those businesses will become integrated, some research reveals that perhaps women would be better off if things stayed the way they are at their companies.

Consider a study of the best predictors of female success, published in 1999. In the study, researcher M. Elizabeth Tidball surveyed entries from "Who's Who of American Women" to find out what women who are college presidents, award-winning scientists, and high-ranking corporate officers have in common. The answer: The most successful women in history have gone to schools with predominantly female faculties. Women are most successful when they spend their formative career years isolated from men.

Is this a brilliant business model for women today? Or is it "Lord of the Flies" for girls? Or is it both?

The leader of the all-female team with whom I spoke had been working very well in a group of dozens of high-achieving men. But there was one problem: "I was very lonely," she says. "I'd been working with men at X for seven years when another job offer came along. I accepted it. When the head of my division found out about my decision, he came to see me — something that he had never done before. He said, 'They can't be offering you as much money as we pay you. How much are they offering?' Money was his yardstick for happiness. When I told him what the other company had offered me, he was blown away. He said, 'Maybe you should go.' My female boss, however, intervened. She said, 'What's wrong? What do you want?' I responded, 'I want to work with women.' And she said, 'Stay. Start your own department. Hire whomever you want.' "

And that was the genesis of this particular girl gang. The leader built a department of five women, all of whom report to her. The change was immediate: The loneliness, the isolation, vanished. Just as important, the quality of the work changed and improved. The job took on new meaning.

These women make their own rules, and that alone gives them a sense of control over their own destiny. Says the team leader: "We don't start working until 9:30 AM, because we need to get our kids off to school in the morning. Problems are not problems when you can create your own solutions. We work with an integrated group in another city. The men in that group insist on holding 9 AM board meetings. We've told them not to expect us before 10 AM. It's not that we don't work hard. We do — but on our own terms."

Girl gangs offer protection against the larger world. Strength comes in unity, not diversity. The leader of this all-female team says, "We are all there for one another. We look after one another, help one another. I'm so happy."

The organizing principle of this girl gang is love, and love brings out the best in any person. There is a lack of inhibition when the leader describes her group. Her tone is blissful. For her to express that much love suggests that she, in turn, must also be getting a tremendous supply of it.

I ask her how her team differs from others. She immediately replies, "We have love. With one another, we are neither jealous nor territorial. What's important to us is not to let our boss down. She is unbelievable — intoxicating in her fineness. There are only two other adults in my life whom I feel that way about: my brother and my father. I'm talking about love that is possible when you care for someone in a familial, or even sexual, way. Women have been mothers, wives, and daughters, so we're used to being expressively loving. Being surrounded by women brings out the best in people."

Justice is another important principle. For this woman, work has become not just a way to achieve success or meaning, but also a way to settle personal accounts. Like Mao's guerrillas, girl gangs are out to redress old wrongs. That's a big motivator. The gang offers strength in the fight — and enough protection to take on larger issues.

A woman living in a man's world identifies with the underdog every minute of her life. Work for this particular woman is a matter of personal history. It's a chance to correct wrongs done to her parents, who had to hide things about themselves in order to be accepted. "I was raised by an unusual mother," she says. "She has a huge hunchback. She said that it never bothered her because it was behind her. And, all his life, my father hid the fact that he was Jewish. I didn't even know that about him until after he died. It was stunning to me that he kept such a secret. He kept it because he was afraid that the discrimination that he faced as a child would affect his work as an adult. I hated the pain that my parents endured. I wanted to redeem their suffering. I guess that's the selfish part." The nonselfish part: "I believe that I have huge gifts to offer. And if I have women to inspire me, then I'll use those gifts. If I create a loving environment, then I'll be able to do big things."

Is there a downside to working exclusively with women? "We don't meet a lot," she says. "If we did, we'd probably start feeling as if we didn't have enough personal space. And the male head of our operations, who's located in another city, has to keep us disciplined. Otherwise, we would chat too much."

The greater danger to her group: hostility from men. "They're extremely jealous," she reports. "Our team organizes an annual women's dinner, which nearly 100 women from our firm attend. The men in the firm occasionally hear about it, even though we don't advertise it. One time, at a restaurant where we were holding a meeting, I ran into one of the men. He said, 'If the head of the firm ever did that — held a dinner for men only — there would be a war.' And I responded, 'Men have been doing just that for centuries. Do you know what we women talk about at these dinners? We talk about St. John Knits and our children's schools. We talk about things that we can't really bring up at work.' Our team knows how hard it is for women, especially mothers, to succeed. The men? Most have wives who help out with things at home. I can't complain to them. They don't understand me, just as I don't understand Mandarin."

But the greatest threat comes from the organization. Companies as traditional and blue-blooded as X are famous for neutralizing anything that poses a challenge to the status quo. "Our boss understood how to market our team: Just build it, and don't say anything about it," says the girl-gang leader, who views the team not as an option but as an imperative. "Look, if I didn't love what I'm doing and the people I'm doing it with, I'd go home and be with my kids."

Do men have anything to fear? History says no. "It has been argued that perhaps there has never been a fully and pervasively matriarchal society," says cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson, "a society in which women have dominated at every level, as men do in some patriarchies."

But the organization may have something to fear. The very definition and practice of leadership as X knows it could soon change — a threat posed by female leaders who are not beholden to male leaders, who learn to make their own rules, who earn their chops by dint of their own strengths, who prove to themselves that their way is the best way. Girl gangs have their own brand of leadership, one that differs from the prevailing culture at most existing companies. They pose a shock to the system — a shock that enables them to take charge.

What can women — and men — do to encourage the new leader-ship that these gangs engender? They can realize that women are the only hope for reforming the institution of leadership in the United States. Men need to invite women onto their boards. Women must invite women onto their boards. We should lobby to get women to remove investment dollars from companies whose boards aren't at least 50% female. We should resist the integration of female teams.

There is an important lesson in the Greek myth about how the sage Tiresias became blind. According to the myth, Tiresias was out walking when he saw two coupling snakes. He struck the snakes with his staff to separate them, and by divine intervention, he was turned into a woman. He lived as a woman, in a woman's body, for years. Then, one day, he saw the snakes again. Just as he had before, he struck them. And this time, the gods turned him back into a man.

Later, when Zeus and Hera were debating whether sex was more fun for the man or the woman, they called on Tiresias for an answer. He said that the woman enjoyed sex more. Furious that he had sided with her husband, Hera blinded Tiresias.

Perhaps there's another secret here: Work, too, is more fun for women — especially when they work on their own terms.

Harriet Rubin (hrubin@fastcompany.com) is the author of "The Princessa: Machiavelli for Women" (Dell paperback, 1998) and "Soloing: Realizing Your Life's Ambitions" (HarperCollins, 1999). She is also the director of Working Diva, a new Web site on iVillage (www.ivillage.com).

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