We women don’t take enough risk in our careers.
Fortune writer Pattie Sellers oversees the magazine’s “Most Powerful Women in Business” package, along with the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit and related programs, including the new Next Gen conference for Millennial women. We talked to her while researching Queen Trumps King—the rise in women’s economic and political power as gender dynamics change—one of the macro trends spotlighted in our 10 Years of 10 Trends report. Sellers discussed some key shifts she’s seen since launching the Most Powerful Women list, how men and women think differently about power, and why she believes we won’t soon see a female Mark Zuckerberg or gender parity among Fortune 500 CEOs.
As Fortune launches more events centered on powerful women, do you see increased interest not only from women but collectively?
It’s a hugely growing market for us. It’s Fortune’s biggest, fastest-growing and most valuable franchise. Our market is very successful women, women leaders and aspiring women leaders. When we started the Most Powerful Women list in 1998, there was one female Fortune 500 CEO. It was Jill Barad, who was the CEO of Mattel. There was one other woman who was a co-CEO, Marion Sandler of Golden West Financial with her husband, so I don’t really count her. So there was one pure female CEO, not co-CEO, in the Fortune 500 in 1998. Today, there are 26.
Do you think there’s a general shift going on around women in power and women in management? There seems to be a lot more emphasis on not only celebrating women in top positions but also celebrating the right to be ambitious or to be bossy.
Sheryl Sandberg impacted the global dialogue in a huge way, and in a really positive way. There was an assumption that glass ceilings were the problem. Not that the talk about glass ceilings and the bias of existing management of corporate America, which is primarily male, has gone away, but Sheryl brought a new point to the forefront, which is, the fault is largely us, and we women don’t take enough risk in our careers. It made her book controversial and very provocative.
The first time she talked about women was a piece she did for us in 2009 called “Don’t Leave Before You Leave.” She was at Facebook, and she felt that this had been a problem when she was at Google too—she said, “I offer promotions and opportunities to these young women, and they tell me, ‘I want to get pregnant in three years, so I can’t do that.’”
I’ve given talks about women and power for many years, and Sheryl and I speak the same language. I’ve been talking for years about how women leaders, these women on our Most Powerful Women list, are shockingly afraid to step up to the next job, compared to men; how they get offered these jobs, and they’re like, “I’m not sure I’m ready.” The number of women, from Ginni Rometty to Ellen Kullman, who have told me, “I almost didn’t take that next job,” is amazing.
I think what’s interesting now is that this seems to be occupying center stage in the cultural discourse. That’s a big change from a few years ago.
Sheryl has a lot to do with it; she and Marissa Mayer, who has no desire to be a role model for young women. She wants to turn around Yahoo. I think Marissa would like to be a role model for people in Silicon Valley, and Sheryl calls herself—and she has Gloria Steinem’s approval for this—she wants to be the new Gloria Steinem.
Has there been a change in the types of companies or industries that are open to having female leaders? Your Most Powerful Women list now includes a lot of executives in very traditionally male categories.
Who would have imagined that two of the biggest defense contractors would have female leaders? And IBM and HP? It’s kind of amazing—America’s two biggest tech companies.
There seems to be a shifting appreciation for the approach that women take in leadership.
We live in a collaborative world, and women tend to take more levelheaded risk in terms of doing business, doing deals. Women can be criticized for not taking enough risk in their careers, but they tend to take better risks in business.
Going forward, how far away do you think equality in leadership and business is, and what needs to change to make that happen?
There will never, ever, ever be parity at the top, because women think about power differently than men do. Women think about power much more horizontally. Men think about power vertically, and this is a stereotype, but I started writing about women in a big way in 1996, and I’ve asked hundreds of women and dozens and dozens of men—and these are powerful men and women—“How do you define power?” And women almost inevitably define it in some kind of horizontal way. Often they use the word influence. Often they use the word impact. And men tend to talk about either getting people to do things they don’t want to do or achieving something in terms of success or a level of success.
Thinking about the sharing economy and the way women do business, maybe that is the new definition of power?
I think you’re right, and it’s another reason why women are suited for this current evolving global economy—because women are more collaborative, more connecting and thinking about power in a more horizontal way.
Are you seeing more female entrepreneurs?
I say in my speeches that we haven’t seen a female Mark Zuckerberg, and I don’t think we will. Again, it goes back to this idea, this reality, that women think about power differently. All sorts of surveys show that when you ask men and women why they started their company, men tend to say to make a lot of money. Women want to create the company they would like to work for, and a lot of times, it’s because they left a big company, they didn’t like working in a big company. They don’t really want to build a big company; they don’t want to build a Fortune 500 company.
What about these swaths of women who are outpacing men in terms of graduating from law school and university? Are we just going to see just more women in middle management?
Maybe. I think we might get to a hundred female Fortune 500 CEOs, and eventually we might get to, like, 150. I don’t think I’ll be alive when it gets that high, but I don’t think we’re ever going to get to 250 female Fortune 500 CEOs.