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Afraid of average

Best paid. Most powerful. Top influencer. Lots of publications churn out lists and rankings of impressive women. These grown-up honor rolls sell magazines and get lots of hits in the social-media universe, whether showcasing women's power in terms of hierarchy or paychecks. It seems we love a good competition, especially one that culminates in a tidy inventory of prowess.

But while impressive to read through, the average woman feels like there's a grand canyon separating her from the leaders profiled in these rankings. The female brass of big corporations live an uncommon life of jets, billion-dollar P&Ls and boundless influence. Perhaps that's what makes these women as subjects so sensational and elusive; they are members of a club that is indeed hard to get into and quite foreign to most of us.

That's why I was hopeful when more publications started recognizing female rising stars. Surely this group would be easier to identify with-perhaps featuring a head of a burgeoning unit; a female manager taking big risks; heck, maybe even an individual contributor doing something unprecedented. But if you look at the so-called rising stars offered up today, the women look pretty identical to the "already made it" crowd. Take Fortune's handful of risings stars. Listed a short time ago was Andrea Wong, president and CEO of Lifetime Networks. What part of the words "president and CEO" leave us to believe she has higher to go? Also listed is Mellody Hobson. As much as I admire her, how is someone who manages $3.6 billion in assets and who sits on the boards of DreamWorks, Estée Lauder and Starbucks "on her way"? It sounds to me like these women have arrived.

Perhaps a woman must do something truly extraordinary to get airplay or recognition in business. But if so, are men who are touted as visionary leaders held to the same standard?

Probably not, says considerable research.

Study after study has shown that both genders, when faced with a choice, tend to assume competence in men more often than in women. For example, data show that when expertise is exactly equal between a man and woman--and whether a person is applying for a job, teaching a course or seeking entry into school--men's track records are favored over those of women.

Women may have a harder time getting noticed for excellent work, but a larger question remains: How did we arrive at a place where the picture of success for a businesswoman is so one dimensional? Rankings, in part, have shaped our thinking by offering us one definition of victory.

I had the chance to ask Deirdre Joy Smith, president and founder of POWER: Opening Doors for Women, about the dearth of high-potential women for us to read about. She urged, "It's imperative that we start spotlighting women at the manager and director level. Giving these women a platform will cultivate their talent and help more junior women to step up. A woman at the vice-president level and above also requires cultivation, but she is well on her way. Digging deeper from the bench―and early―is a necessity for parity."

Maybe we're afraid of celebrating "normal" and learning from day-to-day heroics. I experienced this when developing marketing angles for my own book, The Next Generation of Women Leaders. When pitched as a book "full of stories of common women doing uncommon things," the book got noticeably less interest than when it was positioned as the "insider's guide to leading, straight from top women executives who've been there."

Success is fascinating to us, as long as we can't relate to it.

We're right to admire women who have kicked down doors. But the default business aspiration―CEO or bust―stifles a majority of women. Surely the woman who manages to lead from the middle, without direct authority, is remarkable in her own right. The same could be said of a woman who formulates a new, high-risk directive and takes it from concept to reality.

Imagine if a big-time business publication compiled a list of working women who've found creative ways to be happy, fulfilled and successful in their lives. Now that would be something to worship.

By Selena Rezvani

 |  October 1, 2010; 10:25 AM ET
Category:  Leadership development , Organizational Culture , Women in Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Women seem to be less interested in technical fields, especially those which involve mathematics. This falls into a pattern with a lower female interest in chess and in video games. Most women disdain abstract activities which do not involve the human.
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You make a point. I don't take exception to a woman's choice of a non tech field but it seems as though many professions do not offer pay equality. Some of the professions to which women are attracted, despite high educational standards and requirements, pay less than technical fields. If males dominate the career field, the pay is usually higher, although women in that field usually do not earn what a comparative male earns. I'm a woman in my early 60s, highly educated and experienced, and will state that I've not had the opportunities I've seen males have. I'm in a male dominated field, BTW. And, yes, I've turned myself into a pretzel to create opportunity. This isn't a complaint. I'm merely stating my personal experience.

PS I find video games boring, which has nothing to do with my PC tech abilities nor my competitiveness.

Posted by: mooncusser | October 5, 2010 8:26 PM
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It is fascinating that in America, we use the word "great" when other societies tend to use the word "good".

"I had a great time". "She has a great boyfriend", etc. etc.

Thus it happens that everyone thinks that everyone wants to be a "leader" and those who are not "leaders" are deemed to be oppressed.

And meanwhile, as a country, we are losing the actual leadership of the world to China where most people are content to do their job and not be quite as obsessed with being "leaders" or with being "great".

Posted by: rjpal | October 3, 2010 10:36 AM
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When the time comes when young girls are brought up to understand how the world really works and how to SURVIVE in it and be true to THEMSELVES instead of running after some guy who will ruin them before they are 21 -- THEN and only then will they realize that they ALREADY ARE leaders.
Posted by: bronxace
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Is it our ideal to be a society where we have 310 million leaders, and zero followers? :)

Posted by: rjpal | October 3, 2010 10:31 AM
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One of America's biggest problems is the belief in the wrong sort of equality.

But equality means two quite different things which we tend to confuse. One is the requirement that everyone be treated equally under the law. This is the good and right form of equality.

The other is the insistence that all groups are equally good at all activities.

This seems not to be true.
For instance, as far as I know, no world boxing champion has been from India. In fact India's performance at the Olympics cannot compare to that of Rumania or Asutria even though India is far larger.
And yet, half the motels in America are owned by Indian-Americans. Clearly there are signs of a difference.

In fact the success of American women in universities is itself an argument against the thesis of the second form of equality. In a system which (presumably) discriminates against women, IF men and women are the same, then it is impossible to explain why more women than men are in universities. We would expect the pattern we see in the Congress, that women are a minority.

Indeed, even in Iran, women are a majority of university students.

One plausible explanation is that women are the somewhat calmer, more steady gender and fulfill the course requirements more often. So they do better at school. But this fact itself points to the EXISTENCE OF A DIFFERENCE, does it not?

When you come across teenage males, they seem so dominated by their hormones, it is a miracle that they achieve anything!

We do not complain when women do better at something, commit fewer crimes or enroll more often in college. But when men do better at something, we immediately assume that discrimination is the reason.

Why this double standard? I am in a technical field and I find that at most lectures, the audience is overwhelmingly male, EVEN WHEN THE SPEAKER IS A WOMAN.

Women seem to be less interested in technical fields, especially those which involve mathematics. This falls into a pattern with a lower female interest in chess and in video games. Most women disdain abstract activities which do not involve the human.

And that is OK. America needs to learn to live with difference, and realize that not every observed difference is "proof of oppression."

There are more Italian and Chinese restaurants in New York city compared to say German restaurants. And that is OK, it is not proof that Germans are oppressed.

Through our obsession with equal results we create problems where there are no problems. It is FINE that there are more Chinese restaurants than German ones.

I speak as someone who has advised many women in their doctoral dissertations. When a woman has a technical interest, appreciate that. When she is interested in say, psychology or dance, appreciate that also!! Why this obsession with equal representation across the board?

Posted by: rjpal | October 3, 2010 10:02 AM
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Isn't it the case that we have come to put power and money above human relationships? This is why we regard a woman CEO as a success and a mother as a failure.

Societies did not always think this way.

Ultimately, what is human is more important than what is professional and a society which forgets that will achieve success neither at the human nor at the professional.

While American women have been rising, America itself has been falling internationally. Children in Vietnam know more mathematics than American children, even though far more money is spent on the latter.

Is this the fault of feminism? Probably not. But it is true that American women have abandoned a primary function of theirs and American children are suffering.

One would expect that when a large number of women enter the universities and the workplace, America's output would double with BOTH genders contributing. But in fact we are losing to China.

Why is that? I do not have any simple answers, just a question.

Posted by: rjpal | October 3, 2010 9:23 AM
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Speaking of role models, look around you: how many children eventually did something similar to their mother (female child) or father (male child). Remarkable, isn't it. A child's role models are his/her parents. If you are/were a good parent (in all that implies), your female and/or male child can (and will) do and achieve anything he/she wants to do in this life, Period.

Posted by: dozas | October 2, 2010 3:27 PM
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This is an important essay, and for me this is the most significant observation:

"Study after study has shown that both genders, when faced with a choice, tend to assume competence in men more often than in women. For example, data show that when expertise is exactly equal between a man and woman--and whether a person is applying for a job, teaching a course or seeking entry into school--men's track records are favored over those of women."

What is most confusing about all this re academia, is that the college graduation rates of young women currently exceed those of men by well over twenty per cent. Moreover, on average, among graduates the gpa's of women are significantly better than those of men. In most graduate and professional schools, women also do better than men.

These findings merit close consideration for any number of reasons, not only as testimony to the remarkable abilities of women given that it was not until the early eighties that significant progress in female civil rights had been made. Up until the seventies, it was not uncommon for universities to require higher SAT scores and higher high school averages of female applicants. This was the case, dramatically, at the taxpayer funded (!) City University of New York, for instance.

So long as Man remains the default gender and woman some kind of alteration, the distorted thinking the essayist points to will continue. Highlighting those who have made it, along with rising stars in business and other fields should continue.
However, we should also be asking why they need highlighting at all, in 2010, given the academic achievements of women, the fact that they are the majority in the US. Why do women not constitute the majority at the top? Why are they still facing discrimination, to state the case for what it is.

What is missing in the discourse is highlighting the default status of Woman, long, long overdue, in fact.

Posted by: FarnazMansouri2 | October 1, 2010 5:43 PM
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I have a middle management position with the federal gov't; I have time for my family, my friends, and my passions; I have decision authority and influence on agency policies... why would I want to be a CEO of a major corporation? I supervise dedicated employees, manage 200,000 acres of beautiful public lands, and live in what many would describe as paradise. Young girls AND boys need to know that their dreams are more important than being on the covers of business magazines. Real success is being happy!!!

Posted by: casey7 | October 1, 2010 4:02 PM
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Not all women define success as climbing the corporate ladder. Perhaps you should cast an even wider net and look beyond the manager-to-director-to-executive chain. How about the entrepreneurs, the activists, the artists? Plenty of influence and leadership there as well (and sometimes even money). If I suddenly woke up and found myself at a desk in some corporate executive suite, I would wonder where I went wrong.

Posted by: n_mcguire | October 1, 2010 4:02 PM
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KATYJINK, most real women are either mothers or strive to be mothers. The whole concept of the "working woman", and putting success and career ambition is a horrible choice and should be a secondary consideration for women, or you should at least wait until the children leave the house. Every society that has endured has always put an emphasis on motherhood, taking care of the young, and the old. Too many people, men and women put their hopes, dreams, and ambition in success in the corporate world, instead of their family, community, etc. I see plenty of middle aged bitter WOMYN, stuck in some middle aged job, here in D.C. They had their shot and marriage and family and they let it slip away.

Posted by: rankcon | October 1, 2010 3:48 PM
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When the time comes when young girls are brought up to understand how the world really works and how to SURVIVE in it and be true to THEMSELVES instead of running after some guy who will ruin them before they are 21 -- THEN and only then will they realize that they ALREADY ARE leaders.

Posted by: bronxace | October 1, 2010 3:25 PM
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will you ever stop whining?
Waaaaaaaaaaaah,

waaaaaaaaaaaaah,


waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah.

I AM WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAMAN

Posted by: pgibson1 | October 1, 2010 2:50 PM
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Regarding rankcon's comment, perhaps the columnist should have included the word "working" in the "average woman" reference. Also, although you can't tell from media generalizations, not every woman has a child, therefore parenthood is not the main priority for those of us without kids by choice or chance. At any rate, I don't think she was encouraging us to focus solely on the corner office.

Posted by: katyjink | October 1, 2010 2:34 PM
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Grand Canyon? Interesting choice of words.

Posted by: shewholives | October 1, 2010 2:18 PM
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How can this person claim to think what the average woman thinks? Many, if not most women are more concerned about their family issues, motherhood, etc., then climbing the corporate ladder.

Posted by: rankcon | October 1, 2010 1:40 PM
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The most important perspective is of young girls forming their view of the world. Few female role models penetrate the media that is accessible to young audiences.

The role models that young girls have media access to (Lady Gaga, et.al.) are more limited than the male role models available to young males. Though there are the male equivalent pop stars, there are also sports heroes and high profile politicians, that penetrate the media of even the youngest audiences.

Posted by: MHawke | October 1, 2010 1:38 PM
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On the way up the flagpole, one should remember the old adage, "Success and failure are the same impostor." No matter what one's abilities or capacities, one should strive for contentment and happiness.

Posted by: dozas | October 1, 2010 1:37 PM
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