For a woman who has spent the past 30 years leaving shards of glass ceiling in her wake, Harriet Rubin still finds plenty wrong with American business culture. "I think things are worse now than ever," Rubin said recently, regarding gender parity in business. And though the numbers seem to indicate she's right -- women still earn less than men and remain conspicuously absent in executive positions and on corporate boards -- her career is an example of what is possible.
After founding and running Currency, Doubleday's business imprint, Rubin decided to throw her own hat into the ring 10 years ago, publishing The Princessa: Machiavelli for Women, which would go on to become an international bestseller. In Princessa, Rubin implored young women to eschew traditional business rules and instead employ a decidedly "feminine" strategy for getting ahead. With her at times cringe-worthy instructions ("where white to any battle") she managed to raise the ire of old-school suits and feminists alike. Yet, regardless of what you might think of Rubin's approach, she has been integral to forcing a conversation about the state of women in business, and in so doing, has created her own brand of how-to.
Now, a decade later, Rubin has penned a kind of sequel to Princessa. Pulling from history -- and continuing the Italian Renaissance theme -- The Mona Lisa Stratagem: The Art of Women, Age, and Power contests the idea that women lose power and vitality with age. Although the title suggests strategy, Mona Lisa is less of a guide than a series of examples from antiquity through today, of women (and some men) who came into their own in age. Inc. recently caught up with Rubin.
Your book isn't being marketed explicitly as a business book, but it's certainly an exposition on leadership. Can you tell me how the advice in Stratagem might be useful to business owners?
It seems to me that a lot of older women who have moved up the career ladder and reached a pinnacle are interested in leaving the corporate world and creating something on their own, be it a business or pursuing an artistic passion. The stratagem is targeted at these mature women who want to create a structure that is different than those they grew up in. In the book, I write about all kinds of women who were over 50 by the time they found their entrepreneurial voice.
Something you discuss in the book is "embracing loss" with age. I think this is particularly apt for business owners who deal with loss in all sorts of ways as far as failed start-ups, succession planning, acquisitions.
Yes. The great thing about entrepreneurs and Inc. readers is that they sort of love loss and flirt with it on a daily basis. They know if they lose something it's going to be OK because they'll do something else. When I was running Currency and it was a success, I wanted to lose it. It was getting too big, it was predictable, the surprise element was gone. I think entrepreneurs are the one class in the U.S. that is the least fearful of loss.
As far as succession goes, everyone makes this decision in their own way. You eventually just have to learn to let go -- otherwise you'll never stop.
Let's talk about women's business books in general. In this day and age do women still need their own specialized category?
[laughs] Gosh…Well, it's because you open up The Wall Street Journal, or BusinessWeek, or any financial page and it's men, men, men, men, men. There is nothing about women. It's really like being in a whole other world to be a woman in business, and that's the case now more than ever. But it's not just business. Open up The New Yorker --it's one female byline a week, tops.
During Book Expo America I was talking with Jack Covert of 800 CEO Read, one of the biggest business-book distributors and he's writing a book of the one hundred best business books and there is not one woman author on that list. Not one! And I asked him about it and he said, "Gee, I never thought of that." Anything we can do to achieve a presence, a notoriety, is necessary. It's disgusting. It's 2007. We have to re-brand women in business. Five years ago, 11 percent of all board seats were held by women, today it's down to 8 or 9 percent.
Why do you think that is?
I think a lot of women have given up. I do wonder why there isn't a critical mass. If, on a cold day in January 2008, we wake up and there's a woman in the White House -- I don't care who -- things will be different symbolically. Then our daughters will finally be able to see that women are equals of men in jobs and they will finally have an equal world to grow up in.
But to go back to that last question -- I think business books for women have to be written because women don't have a role in the mainstream business books.
Who are some women who exemplify the qualities you discuss in Stratagem?
Vera Wang is certainly one. She learned from years climbing the ladder at Vogue and then staked out on her own. She's single-handedly recreated the entire institution of weddings. She's done it smartly and slowly and built an amazing business kind of under the radar, which has placed her at the center of the multibillion-dollar wedding industry.
Diane Sawyer is another one. She stands head-and-shoulders above all of her contemporaries in journalism. She has a voice as trusted as Cronkite's and she hasn't tried to remain this young cute thing. Martha Stewart as well.
In spite of her legal troubles?
Because of it! It's been humbling for her.
Nancy Pelosi in particular embodies the ideas of the stratagem because she is very maternal. She's got this cold-love thing going where she's very nurturing and yet doesn't get too close. It's kind of professional mommy-ism.
You've conspicuously left out Hillary Clinton.
[laughs] I'm trying not to be partisan but I'm a big Hillary fan.
What are you working on next?
Getting women to become leaders in their communities and their companies. Where are all the women? I'm trying to rebrand leadership. I think leadership is in a terrible crisis right now. I'm trying to get people to see that there are ways to be powerful that we've stopped thinking about and a lot of these embody women.
I talk in the book about a more humble leadership, an anti-leadership. Jimmy Carter, even though he's a man, is a great example of this. Someone who is playing a huge world-class role and making a lot of money from it, but who's not in it for the money. Instead he's in it for the soul and the craft of making the world better. Warren Buffet and Bill Gates are doing it too. And they're using a lot of feminine qualities to do this.
What do you mean by 'feminine'?
Well, the idea that the world is full of a lot of poor people who need help. They see the world as something that can be fixed and that things can end happily. They're not willing to see people as enemies, which is a typical male view.
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