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Best Business Books 2002: Women Leaders

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(originally published by Booz & Company)

In 1965, a Harvard Business Review study of top-level executives pronounced that “in the case of … women the barriers are so great that there is scarcely anything to study.” Now, nearly 40 years and a feminist revolution later, we have something to study, although it’s not what anyone expected in the heady years when it seemed equality might become law: Women account for a measly 6.2 percent of executives (chairman, vice chairman, CEO, COO, SEVP, EVP), according to a study conducted in 2000 by Catalyst, a New York–based business research group. What’s more, the pipeline isn’t about to disgorge even moderate numbers of women into these positions anytime soon: A whopping 92.7 percent of jobs that lead to top offices are held by men. Whether angry, resigned, matter-of-fact, or hopeful, businesswomen tend to use the same word to describe this rate of change: glacial.

A mountain of books have been written on the subject. Some are academic forays that attempt to tease apart the seemingly intractable root causes of the problem (it’s the culture, stupid!). But most are of the 10-steps/secrets-to-success variety (e.g., Why Good Girls Don’t Get Ahead ... but Gutsy Girls Do: 9 Secrets Every Working Woman Must Know, or Secrets of Six-Figure Women: Surprising Strategies to Up Your Earnings and Change Your Life). Useful as some of these books might be, they are limiting and deceptive; life simplified to bullet points is not life at all.

More illuminating and encouraging by far are autobiographies by businesswomen that extend readers the courtesy of being allowed to come to their own emotional and intellectual conclusions, and also give an understanding of various professions. The late newspaper chief Katharine Graham’s Personal History (Alfred A. Knopf Inc., 1997) is probably the outstanding example; its bestseller reception is indicative of readers’ hunger for stories that have atmosphere and depth, not bland “atta-girl” bromides.

Now we have two new crackerjack autobiographies by businesswomen to take their place by Graham’s: Muriel Siebert’s Changing the Rules: Adventures of a Wall Street Maverick (written with Aimee Lee Ball, Simon & Schuster Inc., Free Press, 2002) and Mary Wells Lawrence’s A Big Life (in Advertising) (Alfred A. Knopf Inc., 2002). Both books are richly detailed memoirs of working lives; personal lives figure hardly at all unless they interrupt life on the job, as was necessarily the case with Lawrence’s bouts with cancer. (“Memoir” is too soft and fussy a term to apply, perhaps, to these women’s books, especially that of Siebert, who prefers Miss to Ms. but makes no bones about enjoying her toughness.) From page one the reader is immersed in the heady histories of, respectively, Wall Street and Madison Avenue. Neither book is overwhelmingly didactic, although Muriel Siebert’s publisher has distractingly decorated the text with the author’s trademark plainspoken observations — “Don’t get into a pissing contest with a skunk” … “Write down the best thing that could happen and the worst; if you are not willing to accept the worst, don’t do it” … “There is no such thing as a lousy morning. You are not owed today” — probably from the fear that an autobiography steeped in financial lore might not find an audience.

Legendary Ladies
Muriel Siebert — Mickie, as she is known — has a number of significant firsts to her name: the first woman to have a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, the first woman to own a publicly traded national brokerage company, the first woman to be appointed New York State’s superintendent of banking. She arrived in New York City in 1954 with $500 in her pocket and headed for the Street because, the year before, on vacation from college, she had visited the stock exchange floor and noted, “Now, this is exciting.” On that same trip she was given a piece of souvenir ticker tape that read, “Welcome to the NYSE, Muriel Siebert.” As she dryly remarks, looking back on her career, “I wasn’t so welcome after all.”

From the beginning of Siebert’s professional life — she started as a securities analyst — she faced monumental prejudice. Most Wall Street firms hired women only in the capacity of secretary, and the few that allowed women to stray beyond steno pads paid them about half of what men earned for the same work. However, the ill will she experienced in those early years was nothing compared with the almighty ruckus that arose in 1967 when Siebert decided to try for a seat on the exchange. Nine of the 10 men she asked to sponsor her “ran screaming in the other direction, at least metaphorically.” Then she was refused a loan from Morgan Guaranty to buy the seat until the exchange admitted her, and the exchange wouldn’t admit her until she had the loan; these were conditions never asked of a man. (When Siebert became superintendent of banking in 1977, she oversaw 500 banks, one of which was Morgan Guaranty. A moment to savor.) In the end, Chase gave her the required $445,000 against stock she owned, although that bank had a bet going that it would never have to make the loan. Amazingly, her victory had no immediate impact — it wasn’t until 1977 that Siebert was joined on the floor by another woman. As she puts it, “For ten years … the NYSE consisted of 1,365 men and me.” Glacial, indeed.

Like Mickie Siebert, Mary Wells Lawrence is a legend in her profession. She also came to New York City in the ’50s, getting her start as a copywriter at Bamberger’s and then Macy’s. After a stint at the advertising agency behemoth McCann Erickson, she went to the smaller, singular firm of Doyle Dane Bernbach, where breaking-the-mold creativity was the order of the day. After seven years at DDB — “heaven on earth” — she briefly rejoined McCann before founding Wells Rich Greene, which quickly gained a reputation for hip, humorous advertising. With such clients as Philip Morris, Procter & Gamble, American Motors, Braniff, TWA, and Continental, she was the only woman of her era to head an agency with big-budget accounts. When Lawrence took her company public in 1971, she became the first woman CEO to be listed on the NYSE. While the male chauvinism she encountered was not as ludicrous and pervasive as the Wall Street variety, she remembers that after she landed the hotly contested TWA account, “Madison Avenue’s old guard decided women were dangerous to the advertising community and that I was not only an arriviste but the queen of black widow spiders.” A cute blonde (her description), she is remembered as the “it” girl of her time. An it girl with a serious career.

Passionate, Positive, and Lucky 
One can’t help but ask why Siebert and Lawrence were able to succeed when so many women either gave up or didn’t try at all. On the face of it, they would seem to have little in common. To be sure, both are women of considerable intelligence and exceptional tenacity, but their personalities couldn’t be more different. In line with her profession, Mickie Siebert is steady, analytic, and sardonic. In line with hers, Mary Lawrence is vivacious, intuitive, prone to contradiction, and a favorer of breathless run-on sentences studded with words like “sizzle,” “sparkle,” and “shimmer.” One can’t imagine Mickie Siebert kicking off her shoes at the end of the day and dancing alone to Sly and the Family Stone pounding as loudly as possible on the record player, as Mary Lawrence endearingly owns up to doing to free herself of stress. (“People in the building averted their eyes in the elevator. God knows what they thought.”)

Yet Siebert and Lawrence share some traits that go a long way toward explaining why they were able to persevere and triumph. These are obvious qualities, yet they are often overlooked in accounts of successful careers, and they also are qualities of which businesswomen, and men, for that matter, might be mindful.

First, what shines through in these narratives is the passion — no other word for it — that Siebert and Lawrence have for their jobs. They found professions that perfectly matched their talents and temperaments, no small thing. “From the beginning the recondite world of figures seemed like second nature to me,” remembers Siebert. “I could look at a page of numbers and they lit up like a Broadway marquee.” Lawrence thought of the dresses and shoes she was touting at Macy’s as “transcendent offerings.” She felt the same way later about Alka-Seltzer and Midas mufflers. “The unvarnished truth,” she says of the nature of her ambition, “is that I wasn’t looking for the man of my dreams, I was looking for the job of my dreams, I was in love with advertising.” Siebert goes to the heart of the matter when she notes that “a risk–reward ratio is important, but so is an aggravation–satisfaction ratio.” Satisfaction with their jobs far outweighed the aggravation. Both of them, happy as sparrows in a birdbath.

Next, Siebert and Lawrence readily acknowledge the role luck played in their careers. They were lucky to land in the right career, but lucky also to be in their industries at a time of upheaval. Mickie Siebert was able to take advantage of Wall Street’s May Day — May 1, 1975, when brokerages were ordered to stop fixing the commissions on trades and instead offer competitive rates. She saw a future in discount brokerage — not as obvious then as it is now — and ran with it. For her part, Mary Lawrence came to Madison Avenue just as television advertising was coming into its own. In that medium, she was able to fully utilize a special talent for giving theatrical shape to people’s dreams.

As shrewd and quick as they were intelligent, Siebert and Lawrence turned luck into opportunity. They were able to see the earth was shifting. Historically, it’s in periods of change that women make gains; men are too distracted, or not able to discern the direction that the change is taking. For example, at the beginning of her career, Siebert was given aviation to cover because the senior analyst thought there was no future in it; he was a railway man. This was serendipity, but, again, she ran with it, making it her specialty and later becoming the first woman to belong to the prestigious Wings Club. The aviation industry, entering a golden age and ripe with opportunity, was also pivotal in Mary Lawrence’s career. Some of the largest airlines were her clients at one time or another, and she married Harding Lawrence, the charismatic head of Braniff International.

Last, both women are blessed with sunny temperaments. Mickie Siebert describes herself, with winning simplicity, as “smart, happy, and lucky.” We tend to think of driven people as moody, dark, but Siebert and Lawrence, while intensely focused, don’t make heavy weather of an obstacle. They puzzle it through, tough it out, keep on going. No climb to the top is a cakewalk; the secret, if the careers of Siebert and Lawrence can teach us anything, is not to be corroded by bitterness, consumed by festering rage, even when the odds are stacked against you, as the 6.2 percent statistic suggests is the case for women.

This is not to imply that women don’t get fighting mad — and it is not to minimize the obstacles. “For almost fifty years, I’ve been fighting, dodging and trying to derail the deeply ingrained misogyny of the financial community,” writes Siebert. She believes this will change if women who get to the top mentor and in other ways assist their female colleagues, although she points to a catch-22 similar to the one she faced with Morgan Guaranty and the stock exchange: Women first have to get to the top.

In finance, Siebert argues, there is the unique problem of “the golden muzzle”: high compensation that makes being a token woman attractive. “The real issue,” she writes, hitting the nail on the head, “is being able to have meaningful, decision-making roles.” Women, she says — and members of all underrepresented groups, for that matter — shouldn’t become isolated or turn their backs on each other. Lacking access to the informal networks that men use for bonding and for communicating inside-track information, they need to establish their own. That way lies strength. That way lies the future.

Mary Lawrence is more ambivalent. She would see that 6.2 percent statistic as the result of women either thinking small and limiting their ambitions or being repulsed by the “infernal loneliness” of life at the top. The former gets her particularly steamed: “I read with disappointment that polls report 60 percent or more of … women in America prefer not to work outside the home…. So now I’m worrying that women are born with bound feet in their brains. Was it Freud who said biology is destiny? I think young women who choose a smaller life are making a mistake. I believe that whether you are a woman or a man you are supposed to stretch everything that you are, you are supposed to love with all your might, you are supposed to have a big life.” Amen. And good luck.

Reading Lawrence, one almost believes it’s as simple as wanting to stretch and then going out and doing it. Lawrence always did have, as Bill Bernbach, her boss at Doyle Dane Bernbach, said, “a marvelous ability to talk anyone into anything.”  

Reprint No. 02407

Kate Jennings,, is the author of Moral Hazard: A Novel (Fourth Estate, HarperCollins, 2002), which is based on her experiences as a speech writer on Wall Street in the 1990s. She is also the author of the critically acclaimed novel Snake (Back Bay Books, 1999). She has written for The New York Times and other leading publications.
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