The Female CEO ca. 2002

Here are the five naked truths about women in business. Together they add up to one big message: The future of business depends on women.

The Female CEO ca. 2002

To: All You Businessmen
From: Margaret Heffernan
Re: Can’t We Just Work Together?
CC: All Us Businesswomen


Hey, guys! What’s the deal with you? You know how important women are — to your businesses as coworkers and as customers and to your lives as, well, fellow human beings — and yet you still can’t figure out a reasonable way to work and live with the more than 50% of the world that happens to be us. Well, I think I can help — just by telling you five naked truths about why women still get screwed in the world of business.

But first, I want to tell you a story — and it happens to be a true one.

I was riding on the elevator at work when the doors opened and a young woman got on. After a few seconds of the usual silence, she looked at me and said, “Excuse me. Are you Margaret?”


“Yes,” I answered, not knowing what to expect next.

“I just wanted to meet you and shake your hand,” she said. “I’ve never seen a female CEO before.”

It’s a true story, and it doesn’t date from the Middle Ages — or even from last millennium. It happened in Boston in the year 2000 in the offices of CMGI. And what made it remarkable was that it wasn’t unusual: Most men and women in business have never seen a female CEO — much less worked with one.


And it looked like we were doing so well! (Or at least that’s what we told one another.) More women than ever before hold senior executive positions and sit on corporate boards. Legislation protects pay, maternity leave, and employment rights. The top financial-services firms are busy developing new products and services for a generation of professional women who manage substantial portfolios, who use their tremendous buying power with sharp business acumen, and who will outlive their husbands by a good number of years.

Every one out of four women earns more than her husband. Women control about 80% of household spending and, using their own resources, make up 47% of investors. Women buy 81% of all products and services, buy 75% of all over-the-counter medications, make 81% of retail purchases, and buy 82% of groceries. Women account for 80% of household spending. Eighty percent of the checks written in the United States are signed by women. Forty percent of all business travelers are women. They are responsible for 51% of all travel and consumer-electronics purchases. Women influence 85% of all automobile purchases. They also head 40% of all U.S. households with incomes over $600,000 and own roughly 66% of all home-based businesses. Women have been the majority of voters in this country since 1964.

Small wonder, then, that car companies and electronics companies are honing their products’ designs with women in mind. It makes sense for Fortune magazine to convene an annual conference of powerful women and then to feature Oprah on its cover. Then there’s Meg and Carly, Pat and Anne — exhibits A through D to make the case that it’s only a matter of time before women reach a state of total equality. And you don’t hear women whining anymore, do you?


Well, it all depends on who you talk to. I’ve spent the past year talking to women, hearing funny, sad, outrageous stories. Those women aren’t whining. They’re not even complaining. But they do tell a different story than the one that we’d all like to believe.

For example: The wage gap between male and female managers actually widened in the prosperous years between 1995 and 2000. In the communications industry, for instance, a woman earns 73 cents for every $1 a man takes home. Five years earlier, she made 86 cents. The widest pay gap, of course, is between parents. Fathers simply make a lot more than mothers do. Only 4% of the top earners at Fortune 500 companies are women. Women fill only 7.3% of the total line positions held by corporate officers. Where women do hold executive positions, they are more often in management jobs that have relatively lower status — and hence less power. In the past 10 years, the percentage of business-school applicants who are women has not risen at all. It has remained stuck at around 38%. Meanwhile, women are leaving corporate America in droves. And by the way: Between 1992 and 2000, the number of sexual-harassment claims increased by 50%.

What’s going on?


During the past 10 years, I have run five businesses, including old-economy and new-economy businesses in both the United States and the United Kingdom. I’ve hired, fired, and managed hundreds of women (and men) in every discipline and at every level. During the past year, I’ve interviewed many more women about their careers and their lives — and about the connections or gulfs between the two. What I’ve learned is just how wrong the conventional wisdom is. Here’s the naked truth about women in business today.

1. Toxic bosses still create unfriendly work environments.

“Neutron Jack” Welch and “Chainsaw Al” Dunlap may have inspired men, but macho leadership styles continue to alienate women. The Boom Boom Room of Smith Barney was more luxurious than the cubicles of software startups, but I’ve talked to too many women in both environments who have been — and who continue to be — subjected to routine sexual harassment. I’ve even unwittingly hired some of the perps — liberated guys who definitely know better.


The truth is, the macho exhilaration of coding through the night holds no charm for female engineers. For women executives, racing rental cars around the hotel parking lot is not a cheap thrill. But you will find women enduring these events — sometimes even competing to join them — because they know that it’s where the important information always surfaces. When women are asked to name the most significant factors that are holding them back from advancement, the top two answers are “exclusion from informal networks of communication” and “male stereotyping and preconceptions of women.”

And it’s not just about sex. There’s also the money: Men still routinely underpay women and think nothing of it. For years I was the only woman CEO at CMGI. But it wasn’t until I read the company’s proxy statement that I realized that my salary was 50% of that of my male counterparts. I had the CEO title, but I was being paid as if I were a director.

Of course, I was already accustomed to environments that were riddled with stereotypes. At one point in my career, I received the following email: “I am concerned that you are building a company with too much of a female orientation. We are very strong in female subject promotions and very weak on the male subjects. Your employee population and Board of Directors composition seem to reflect this, as well. For instance, we seem to be strong on promoting gossip, cooking, stars, TV dramas, etc., but much lighter on the major sporting events, business, financial markets, science, autos, etc.”


I saved that email. What amazed me about it was that man’s preconceptions about “female” and “male” interests. Apparently, women aren’t interested in sports, cars, or money.

Here’s the bottom line: Toxic bosses claim to like women. But they like them strictly as ornaments, not as power players. Toxic bosses aren’t overtly, outrageously sexist — except in occasional emails. And they’re not even impossible to work for. But they do poison the atmosphere and pollute the environment. They do create alienating, macho cultures in which it’s tough for women to have much fun. Somehow, they can never quite get over their feeling that women in business are charming, submissive, fun to have around, and nice as eye candy — but never quite “one of us.”

Which is why women are leaving big companies as fast as they can. By 2005, there will be about 4.7 million self-employed women in the United States, up 77% since 1983. The increase for men? Just 6%. Women leave because they want to work differently and because they don’t want to have to add the second job of becoming a change agent to their existing job. Women don’t want to redecorate the company. They want to build something new, different, and theirs — from scratch.


2. Women’s choices are limited: What’ll it be? Geisha, bitch, or guy?

Everywhere I go, I hear women tell me that in order to progress, women must assimilate. They have to learn to act like a guy. Carly Fiorina’s grim stare from the cover of Business Week, complete with cropped hair and dull-gray suit, suggests that assimilation works.

It just doesn’t look like much fun. “Of all of the female lawyers who joined my firm when I did, only one remains,” one female Boston attorney told me. “And she’s just like a guy. I left because I didn’t want to play the game.”


Not surprisingly, none of the women I’ve spoken with really wants to be a man. And their stories have made me rethink my own. At one of the companies I ran, a core part of my job was to negotiate agreements with the labor unions. One of the union bosses took me out to lunch at a Chinese restaurant. He used the opportunity to order the most gruesome items on the menu: webbed chicken feet, ducks’ tongues, lambs’ testicles. The challenge was obvious — and I rose to it. I wasn’t about to let him intimidate me; I ate it all. But where I used to tell that story with pride, I now realize that, in a way, I fell into his trap. A far better response to his test would have been to simply order my own dishes, food that I preferred. I should have refused to do the guy thing.

The alternative roles aren’t any better. Geishas get jobs because they’ve got great legs, dress well, or in some way decorate the boss’s office. They endure routine flattery — “You’re such a treasure!” — and in the process, they end up trivialized. Assertive women get labeled as bitches. There’s even a program in California for “bully broads,” women whose assertiveness scares men and whose companies send them off to finishing school to learn how to temper their “challenging” behavior. The Taming of the Shrew comes to business.

“You can be a mistress, a daughter, a wife, a mother — or a guy,” a high-ranking female property executive told me. Offered such an impoverished range of roles, it’s not surprising that women choose the company of other women, creating our own jobs and job descriptions inside organizations that allow us a wider degree of personal expression.


3. You can’t have it all.

If men and women were truly equal at work, then both genders would hold roughly equal expectations of what is possible — and what isn’t. But the truth is, they don’t. When it comes to MBAs, fewer women than men get married. And fewer women MBAs have families. On Wall Street, 66% of men with MBAs have families, while 55% of women with MBAs do. The message here is simple: Men and women have very different views of what is manageable — because they have very different management roles.

Women who do have families ultimately find that they have to make other trade-offs, such as giving up private time, friends, hobbies — or ambition. I found that as I gave myself over to my job, I inevitably put my health at risk. It was a choice I had to make: either take time to exercise or give that time to my children.


Women have to give up something, because in dual-income families, women still do most of the child care and the housework. All too often, women collude in their own oppression. They let their mates off easy, holding steadfastly to the sense of power and self-esteem that comes from doing it all — and doing it well. “I like choosing what to cook for everyone,” one British woman executive told me. “I like making the lunches and organizing the birthday parties. Does doing it all de-skill my husband? Well, yes. I guess it does.”

The most stubbornly optimistic of us still maintain that we can have it all — just not all of it at once. As every woman in the world will tell you, “We all need a wife.” But even more than a wife, what every woman I’ve spoken with yearns for is a life — a whole life, one in which women can be the same people at work that they are at home, with different tasks but with consistent values and styles.

4. Women’s new mission: Change the game.


Women’s goals used to be to get into management, to get onto the boards of Fortune 500 companies, to become CEO. There’s a new goal. The aim now is more radical and more ambitious: It is to change the game entirely. Young women pursue a different model, play by different rules. “I love my career, but there are other things in life,” one up-and-coming businesswoman told me. “I don’t want to be CEO,” another said. “I want a whole and healthy life — and even a recession isn’t going to scare me into accepting something that isn’t me.”

When I think back to my career as a CEO, I have to ask: Why did I stay at a place where I was underpaid and subjected to absurd, sexist stereotypes? And when I had a baby, why was I only willing to give myself 10 days of maternity leave? Why would I choose to live like that? The answer I keep coming back to is this: I did those things because I had enough autonomy to create a different kind of culture for all of the people who worked for me. Much more than men, women are painfully aware of the antihuman — and certainly antiwoman — realities that define the contemporary workplace. We feel the harsh conditions, suffer the belittling indignities, battle the sexist innuendos. And we genuinely long for the opportunity to create different structures and different cultures where people can thrive, places where men and women alike can stop faking it and instead unleash their hearts and minds on businesses that respect their capabilities, their commonalities, and their differences.

The truth is, I’ve heard from plenty of men who talk about having to deal with the idiotic legacy of old-fashioned male stereotypes. Men may not suffer financially and politically the way women do. But the cultural artifacts of a workplace that still operates like a 1950s old-boy network is as frustrating for men as it is for women.

Changing the game starts with honesty. One of my employees at CMGI came to me after a planning meeting at which the refrain was, “Don’t tell Margaret.” When she had the temerity to ask why I should be kept in the dark, she was told that I was “too honest.” The men in the meeting who were advising her were afraid of what might happen if employees really knew what was going on. And they assumed that once I knew, I would share the information with others. What I learned from the story was this: Those men knew, at least intuitively, just how powerful the truth can be. Which is what I told my employee. I said, “There’s no more powerful weapon for change than honesty.” What she told me in response was, “Now I realize why I love working here. I’ve always been trusted with the truth, I always knew that I’d get straight answers. This is the first time that I’ve ever felt really respected at work.”

When I talk with women, I’m always struck by their honesty, their directness, and their lack of posturing. Honesty has a way of releasing energy, the kind of energy that business desperately needs to embrace. Time after time, I’ve witnessed the paralysis that sets in when people are afraid to tell each other the truth. I’ve come to believe that it’s part of the way that men relate to each other in the workplace. For all of their macho posing, most men are simply conflict averse. They don’t really want to have an honest disagreement. And so they dodge one another, play turf games, engage in endless rounds of infighting and shadowboxing. They do anything they can to avoid sitting down with one another and telling the truth.

I’ve encountered CEOs who are unwilling to ask questions, because they’re afraid of the answers. I’ve come into contact with CEOs who are unwilling to tell their direct reports that they are being replaced, because those CEOs are immobilized by the fear of bare emotions, terrified of unscripted conflict. I’ve seen deals hang in midair, because no one had the honesty to say out loud what everyone was thinking privately: This is really stupid and It will never work. And so millions of dollars and countless hours of work hover somewhere between intent and execution, with people in the know hoping that the whole mess will simply go away — but remaining unwilling to address the problem head-on.

Everyone I’ve spoken with on this matter — male and female alike — knows exactly what I’m talking about when I describe the awkward silence that sets in at corporate meetings when it becomes clear that the emperor has no clothes. Isn’t that the most plausible explanation for what went on at Enron? The problem isn’t that we don’t know the truth. The problem is that we’re afraid to speak the truth. Well, the truth is, women are much more likely than men to be truth tellers.

5. Women work differently from men.

This is the great unspoken truth, the new orthodoxy that every woman I have encountered acknowledges — although usually only in private or with a group of other women. Their caution betrays a fear that is commensurate with the truth: the fear that an acknowledgment of difference will come to mean an acceptance of inequality. A fear that “different from” will morph into “less than.”

I don’t believe that this is true. I don’t believe that we can make meaningful progress as long as we willingly live a lie. More important, the new generation of women won’t accept business on its old, dishonest terms.

The Legally Blond generation is not interested in compromise or assimilation. It wears its femininity with pride and seeks success on its own terms. If that success can’t be found within traditional businesses or business schools, then these young women simply won’t go there. “If I don’t fit into GE or Ford or IBM,” one bright young woman told me, “that’s not my problem. That’s their problem.” Rather than fight the system, this next generation of women simply dismisses the system. Instead, these women seek places to work that value individuals — whether as customers or as employees. They seek places that are transparent and collaborative, that respect relationships as the bedrock of all good businesses. What women want are companies that look a lot more like a network than a pyramid, companies where fairness is a given, companies that value what’s ethical above what’s expedient.

At the same time, this next generation of women is too practical, pragmatic, and tough-minded to be dismissed as ideologues. If they can’t find these kinds of companies, then they’ll simply build them. What I love about the voices of these women is how they sound: They’re not angry, strident, or arrogant — they’re profoundly hopeful. These young women may not have seen many female CEOs, but that’s just fine. In fact, it’s wonderfully liberating. Unintimidated by precedent and unconstrained by convention, these women feel free to create their own style.

Not long ago, I attended yet another conference on business, competition, and where we are in the ongoing evolution of organizations. Needless to say, the speakers were almost all men. But one of them, a senior executive at a major multimedia company, caught my attention. He stood up in public in front of his peers and said, “Our way of doing business is broken.”

Oddly enough, I found that admission enormously heartening. That executive said what most of us women already know: that the old command-and-control structures, inspired by or inherited from the military, simply aren’t effective. And they are definitely not fun or inspiring. As I watch my female colleagues leave traditional business structures, as I see them flourish, as I notice how well networks protect women through a recession and how brutally men suffer from the harsh cutbacks and relentless downsizings that rumble through corporate hierarchies, it strikes me that women are building a parallel business universe. It’s one in which companies work differently, one in which lives are lived honestly — a world of work where lives are integrated, not delegated.

If our way of doing business is indeed broken — and if the collapse of Enron, Andersen, Global Crossing, Kmart, and others are just the symptoms — then we had all better hope that this parallel universe is almost complete. We may need it sooner than we thought we would. And it sure looks like a lot more fun.

Margaret Heffernan ( is writing a book on the naked truths about women in business.