Your honor, may it please the court of the new economy I stand before the court to submit three pieces of evidence as probable cause in the bloody murder of a succession of CEOs:
- A pornographic-chat room that is hosted on a major Internet investment site, where a debate is blazing over Oracle CEO and chairman Larry Ellison's "cup" size
- An instance where Wall Street analysts told Ford CEO and president Jacques Nasser that the problem with his stock price was less about tire recalls and more about the loose skin around his neck that distracts listeners from his message
- A phone conversation between the CEO of a small but thriving consulting firm and an aspiring entrepreneur and acquaintance that goes like this:
"Hello Mike," says the acquaintance. "Can I call you Mike?"
"You could," says the CEO. "But my name's Harry."
"Sorry, I meant Harry. Say, would you look at my business plan? It takes up two volumes and includes my theory of the world. It'll just take the weekend. I'll buy you dinner for your trouble."
Your honor, these elements are prima facie evidence for why a passel of CEOs are dead and buried — heart, mind, and soul.
Now, your honor, there is one kicker to this evidence: All three of these pieces of anecdotal evidence are valid — except that none of them happened to men at the top. They didn't involve Larry Ellison's cup, Jacques Nasser's wattle, or "Harry's" real name. All three of these scenarios actually involved female CEOs and their sexual endowments, appearances, and names.
This is the crime of the century: Women get to the top, and then they are murdered in cold blood. People are talking about the murders, but nobody is doing a Joe Friday-style investigation into who the perps might be. I want to know who or what is killing the great women of the corporate world? The clues lie deeper than the misuse of strategy, tactics, or power, and trace back to the primal world of sex, success, and seduction.
Women leaders have fallen like serial victims this year: Mattel's Jill Barad, iVillage's Candice Carpenter, Enron's Rebecca Mark, and Marimba's Kim Polese. Even Pearson's brilliant Marjorie Scardino is looking vulnerable. This trend could be written off in neutral business terms: In a tough new-economy shakeout, these women didn't have the perfect strategy. But hey, this is the year of AT&T's great screwup, and nobody is calling for Mike Armstrong's head (nor is anyone mistakenly calling him Harry). As Machiavelli said, it's one thing to get power, it's another to keep it.
The old cop-out saying is that men make the rules — and rig them to make women fail. Well, those days are over: Now female leaders get to make the rules. So why are they still failing?
I already know who the murderer is. But to be fair, let's consider a few key suspects. We'll start with attitude. Harriet Mouchly-Weiss, 58, a strategist and head of her own PR consulting firm, says that women ask for their own beheadings. "Men don't become arrogant, because they expect to be at the top. Women work so hard to reach leadership positions that when they arrive, they forget what it took to get there, and they become hard — too tough and arrogant. They bring the vulnerability on themselves."
Of course, there is the usual suspect: politics. Candice Carpenter, 48, says that "women have great leadership skills but not great political skills. They have a harder time shifting gears. Jill held on to Barbie for too long. Rebecca held on to a strategy at Enron that didn't pull in profits fast enough. I could have cut costs at iVillage as a concession to investors, but we still would have reached profitability at the same quarter as we'd long planned. Politically, women are not as good as men at decommitting themselves. And yet AOL CEO and chairman Steve Case had 10 years to prove his strategy, and for most of those years, AOL was wandering in the desert. Women just don't get that kind of time to prove themselves. We're too visible — and everybody's watching."
Interesting. Maybe even true — up to a point. But I think the real killer is taboo. Taboo is a desire so dangerous that it has to be repressed.
Female leaders set off some primal alarm in both men and women that screams, "Danger!" Pink suits, long hair, and flirty feminine ways might work for Ronald McDonald, but dress a female CEO in that outfit and what do you get? Eros and authority, a lethal one-two punch that packs way too much input. So the real world says tone down the curves. Pave the earth. Level the forests. Reduce everything to smooth, hard certainty.
The problem isn't just gender. It's way past something as simple as gender. It's Mother. Female leaders are stand-ins for our own mothers. Mothers control our deep-down emotions. In World War II, allied soldiers knew how to break even the toughest German spy who refused to talk. All they needed to do was ask this one question: "Is your mother still alive?" That's all it took to reduce the toughest spy to a blubbering mass. Mothers have enormous, almost mystical power over us. And a female leader is a painful reminder of that.
But the more you look at this taboo, the weirder it gets.
Men are deeply drawn to the feminine side of business — but they fear it in equal measure. Listen to this confession that was offered to me by one middle-aged man who is a consultant to several of the world's top Internet companies. I asked him why he's in such high demand. He's very bright, but what he delivers to his enraptured male clients is still a basic commodity: information about possible deals. Any one of a dozen people could do what he does for these companies at far less than the millions that he's paid.
"Well," he replied, "I'm very intuitive with my clients, and I get them to react emotionally to new projects." I'd caught his two-tone Prada shoes and the Italian double-breasted suit as he walked into the room. He seemed to be aware of the figure that he cut. Then I noticed his soft, lilting voice, his almost teasing laughter. Fearfully, I ventured an observation: "There's something in your style that is sweet, flirtatious, almost feminine — although I'd never say that you're anything but straight." I thought he would flip out. Instead, he smiled as if he'd been found out by a fellow spy: "Yes," he said, "I've played the feminine card for years. Why do you think I keep my hair long, and dress so carefully?"
Here is a much-in-demand consultant who is deliberately acting feminine and succeeding way beyond any of his buckle-down, West Point, all-boy counterparts. The most remarkable thing isn't the way he manipulates his clients. It's the meaning of the message that he represents: Corporate leaders will pay big bucks for a feminine approach. They just don't want it from women.
The taboo against female leaders and the scary feelings that they arouse extend beyond corporate America into all elements of our culture. Women have no leadership voice — period. Quick: Name three women leaders in any field. Bet you can't.
And the success of women in management only serves to reinforce the problem. Women — and this is the bitterest punch line to a bitter joke — are succeeding in management at a time when nobody wants to be a manager anymore. "Women have gone from filling 5% to filling 45% of middle-management positions in the last 20 years," says Patricia O'Brien, 48, dean of Simmons Graduate School of Management. "But in senior management, we've only risen to fill 1% to 5% of positions in the same time period." "Men don't mind women in middle management," says Carpenter. "If we're still reporting to a man, we're safe. But if a woman is in the warrior's role, she's doomed."
Do taboos cut so deep that no one can evade them? According to psychologist Polly Young-Eisendrath, 53, there is one way to distance yourself from the taboo: "Men consider themselves to be the subject of their own desires," she says. "They expect to succeed and dominate. But women are not the subjects of their own desires. If they feel powerful, it is because men admire them — not because they admire themselves."
A woman can survive the murderous wrath of taboo, says Young-Eisendrath, "if she walks right through the criticism, like Madeleine Albright. Women shouldn't correct for it the way Hillary Rodham Clinton did. She baked cookies in response to criticism. She changed her hairstyle innumerable times. But that's not the way to be a leader."
An outrageous example may prove the point. A few years ago, I met with a dominatrix who I thought might have a clue about leadership and power. Her clientele consisted of "tops" and "bottoms" from Silicon Valley. With her, men of power could willingly be submissive. It was a relief for them to give up their hold on power (even Atlas happily put down his globe for a few hours). Having her "boys" down on all fours acting like dogs was, in the lexicon of the new economy, a win-win situation.
I will never forget the afternoon we met for lunch in the lemon-yellow restaurant at Palo Alto's Garden Court Hotel. She was stunning — that is, her look left people stunned. Half of her head was shaved into a buzz cut, while the other half trailed long, blonde locks. When she turned one side of her profile to me, she was Eminem; from the other side, she was Heather Locklear. She had control of everyone in the restaurant. By shamelessly playing to every stereotype, she made herself unassailable. The men in that room could never have dismissed her.
The dominatrix told me something that I can't forget: "The leader is not the person who's on top. Even when he takes the whip, I'm in control. I've written the script beforehand. I'll only let him go so far, and then I'll take over." It was interesting to hear this dominatrix assume that leadership doesn't always mean being at the top. Power came in two flavors: direct and indirect. In showing a masculine side and then a feminine side, she was saying, in effect, "I don't care what people think of me. I work totally outside the box. The minute I care about how people judge me, I'm dead."
It's still early in the game for women leaders. But I know this: For the past year, I've been hearing women and men lament women's nonexistent influence on the new economy. It had been hoped that women would humanize the Internet space. Who knows if one gender could clean out those stables?
But we can't humanize anything if we're dead from the get-go. Not even an all-powerful mother can do windows from the grave.
Harriet Rubin (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the author of The Princessa: Machiavelli for Women (Doubleday, 1997) and Soloing: Realizing Your Life's Ambition (HarperCollins, 1999).
A version of this article appeared in the December 2000 issue of Fast Company magazine.