Broad Influence & The True Impact of Women in Power

This past week I was in DC speaking at PSCU's Annual Susan Adams Women's Leadership Network Lunch. On my way to the east coast I was catching up on research and reading materials in preparation for not only this speech but also for my upcoming graduate elective on Women's Leadership & Gender Intelligence for the Hult International Business School in San Francisco. There has been no shortage of new studies out detailing how women in power are making an impact. One of the most compelling is a working paper, Is Gender Diversity Profitable? Evidence from a Global Survey, released earlier this month by the Peterson Institute for International Economics. Some of the key findings include:

Is Gender Diversity Profitable? Evidence from a Global Survey
Peterson Institute for International Economics - February 2016

• Women do not participate in the global economy to the same extent as men do. The McKinsey Global Institute (2015) estimates that a scenario in which women achieved complete gender parity with men could increase global output by more than one-quarter relative to a business-as-usual scenario.
• The role of women is particularly salient for countries with rapidly aging populations.
• Results suggest that the presence of women in corporate leadership positions may improve firm performance and that the magnitudes of the correlations are not small. The largest gains are for the proportion of female executives, followed by the proportion of female board members; the presence of female CEOs has no noticeable effect on firm performance.
• Underscores the importance of creating a pipeline of female managers and not simply getting lone women to the top. In this case it might be better to pursue policies that help women in the middle of their careers before directly addressing board membership.

Smurfette, Charlotte Beers' Leather Skirt and The Remaking of The Way Washington Works


In addition to this research, I was also struck by the takeaways detailed in Jay Newton-Small's new book, Broad Influence: How Women are Changing the Way America Works. Newton-Small, a correspondent for TIME, details the impact women in power, particularly when women reach critical mass (20% or greater). The concept for the book initially came from Newton-Small's groundbreaking work covering women in the Senate and weaves personal insights gathered from interviews of women in power throughout the federal government to include the West Wing. Reading this book is like sitting down for coffee with the women who are actually in the thick of it - many of whom you would have never heard of otherwise because they are the ones wielding quietly power behind the scenes. And they prefer it that way. They get more done. One of the more poignant stories is of Obama's co-Deputy Chiefs of Staff from 2011-2013, Nancy-Ann DeParle and Alyssa Mastromonaco, who called themselves The Smurfettes. 'They started a private joke that they were the administration's Smurfettes, the lone female character on the animated Smurfs show, created by mistake, in a village of male Smurfs. Both had blue Smurfettes prominently positioned on their desks.' "I kept waiting for one of the guys to say something and no one ever asked," DeParle said." Most telling of their under the radar approach was how well they worked together, dividing up the world and sticking to the issues they were responsible for rather than jumping into the crisis of the moment or sharing face-time with The President.

Humility, collaboration and behind the scenes hard work is a hallmark of many women in power in DC. I experienced this dynamic firsthand when I worked for Charlotte Beers during her tenure as Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy at the State Department post 9/11. Appointed by then Secretary of State Colin Powell to 'Win the Hearts and Minds of the Arab World' Charlotte, an advertising legend from Madison Avenue, worked daily with Condolezza Rice, then National Security Advisor, Karen Hughes, who served as Counsellor to the President and Mary Matalin, Counsellor to the Vice President. Each of these women are truly remarkable, accomplished, forces of nature in their own right and yet they came together to get the work done where they could. It was a sisyphean task on most days. Given the intensity of the post 9/11 environment and the serious implications of nearly every issue that they collectively dealt with, it always amazed me how often the male senior staff would focus and comment on what one of them was wearing on any given day or how their hair looked. As many who have worked there know, Washington, DC is a place where fashion goes to die and conformity is key.


Charlotte, who was in her 60s at the time became known for her unique style that was decidedly Madison Avenue - edgy, feminine, fitted and full of bright colors. She rocked everything she wore and she always said she wore what she felt comfortable and confident in. I remember vividly being regularly asked by male colleagues at the White House what Charlotte was going to wear one day for various press events. "She absolutely cannot wear her black leather skirt. Please make sure she doesn't wear anything too out there." To this day I still don't know what 'too out there' meant and as far as the mini skirt which actually was a couture knee length pencil skirt, I remember responding, "Well if I had Charlotte's legs I'd be wearing the same thing and if you are this concerned with what she is wearing you should tell the Under Secretary directly." My tone was unmistakable. We have work to do. Back the f**l off so we can get on with it. Thankfully, I never heard about that skirt or her wardrobe again. And in true Charlotte fashion she proudly wore a similar leather skirt on the cover of her book, I'd Rather Be in Charge.


Women Work Differently & The Three Words You Rarely Hear Women Use at Work

There is a growing body of research that isolates the different tendencies of men and women at work. At the highest levels, Washington is still sadly a good old boys club with little diversity in terms of gender or ethnicity. The women that are in power must work twice as hard to keep their positions and never have the luxury of not showing up. As the Washington Post reported in January when a blizzard shutdown DC only the women of the Senate and the female staffers managed to show up for work. Senator Murkowski (R-AK) theorized that the lack of men in the ranks of members and staffers might not have been a simple fluke. "Perhaps it speaks to the hardiness of women," she added, "that put on your boots and put your hat on and get out and slog through the mess that's out there."

Everything came full circle this week when in line for coffee a guy behind me was screaming into his phone, "Not my problem. Not my problem!" I was so disturbed by this that I nearly turned and smacked him but my southern roots and good manners prevented a public display. I then texted My Girls which is a group of about 50 women ages 17-85 - all strong, independent, outspoken women from all over the world - and asked them if they EVER used this phrase at work. Only one of them-- the lone attorney who I suspected kept this phrase in her arsenal at the ready - ever uses this term. You rarely if ever hear a woman of any age, at any level say something is not their problem. As one of my girls shared, "At work we just get what needs to be done, done. And find a way to get something done even if it clearly isn't something that we are directly responsible for. It's just what we do." It was surprising that even the Millennials I asked about this - who speak up all the time about seemingly every injustice and have an open disdain for authority -- said the same thing. Whether this is how we are conditioned to behave from birth or partly how we're wired, women don't have the luxury of shouting 'Not my problem' and if they did the world quite possibly could come to a screeching, grinding halt.

We need more women in all levels of power - public and private -- here in America, not just because it is a nice thing to do, but because women at every level are essential to our long-term success and competitive edge. The broad influence that women in power are already leveraging will have ramifications for generations to come. Here's hoping that we can find a way in the near future to force multiply their numbers so we can build a future that our daughters can succeed in and we can be proud of.