Women at top look at power much differently

October 26, 2003|By Susan Reimer

FORTUNE MAGAZINE published its annual list of "the 50 most powerful women in American business" this month, but there was a problem with that headline.

The women who have power aren't sure that's what they'd call it.

And the women who don't have it aren't sure they'd want it.

In interviews with these women, and in informal conversations at its annual convening of powerful women, assistant managing editor Beth Fenner found that women executives define "power" differently than their male counterparts.

And she found a real ambivalence about paying the price power requires.

"There is a feeling that finally we are at a point where women are not being kept out of the top jobs," said Fenner in a telephone interview from New York.

"Women are now getting the top jobs. But it sounds like we don't know if it is worth it.

"Some women are now choosing not to go after those jobs

-- or to keep them when they get them."

Part of the disagreement can be traced to the word itself. Women, Fenner said, seem to recoil from the aggressive, in-your-face connotation of "power." They prefer "leadership."

"I'm finding that power in and of itself isn't very attractive these days," says Sen. Hillary Clinton, in an interview accompanying the list.

There is no doubt that men and women define it differently. For men, Fenner said, power is top down. It is about being at the highest point in a hierarchy. It is about running the show.

"Women look at power in broader terms," she said. "They say, 'I am powerful if I can control more than my work life. I want to be able to manage all the aspects of my life: family, community.' "

In the profiles that accompanied the list of the 50 most powerful women, women talked about what power means to them.

Ann Fudge was a rising star at Kraft Foods when she shocked the business world by walking away from her job for a two-year sabbatical.

She's back at work as chairman and CEO of Young and Rubicam -- and back on the Fortune list at No. 46. But she says, "We need to redefine power."

Adds Clinton: "Are women willing to pay the price for corporate life? They have to play by the same rules as men do. And right now there are really brutal rules for women who want to have families."

Jamie Gorelick, former vice chairman of Fannie Mae, was asked to consider taking the job of chief operating officer, but she declined and eventually left for a job in a law firm. She has a 15-year-old son and a 10-year-old daughter.

"The dirty little secret," she told Fortune, "is that women demand a lot more satisfaction in their lives than men do."

For women, "power" does not mean controlling other people's lives as much as it may mean controlling their own.

Karen Hughes, the counselor closest to President Bush, left that job last July to return home to Texas, where she continues to advise the president, but also volunteers at the concession stand at her son's baseball games.

She told Fortune, "I have much more control over my time -- which is the ultimate form of power."

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