As researchers finally study how women do business, they may learn that the way woman-run companies have always operated looks a lot like what 'reengineered' companies are still striving for

In 1991, as I was writing the last chapter of Our Wildest Dreams: Women Making Money, Doing Good, Having Fun, I was frustrated and impatient. Woman-owned businesses had been around for a long time: there had been woman-owned boarding houses, newspapers, brothels, and laundries in the 1800s in the West, for example, and by 1919 Madam C.J. Walker had become the country's most successful female entrepreneur with the manufacturing company she had started. But still, women who owned businesses were invisible. That had been painfully clear as I researched the book. Myth and mystery had overshadowed the realities of business ownership among women. Let's get a handle, I thought, on who these women are, what they're like, what they do, and how they do business.

Reliable data on women, their businesses, and the ways they do business are essential. Bankers want to know if women are a better credit risk than men are. Investors want to know if they will make money betting on a company owned by a woman. Insurers want to know if there are differences in risk tolerance and behavior between men and women. Women want a reality check. Is what they believe to be true really true?

In the 1960s, at the urging of women's rights activists, a new body of knowledge called women's studies emerged. By the early 1970s academic researchers began to question the conventions of psychology according to Freud. Unfettered by the diverting if entertaining pursuit of "penis envy," the new research centered on women's own experiences. In the 1980s women awoke to the fact that almost all medical research, on heart disease, cancer, blood pressure, and so forth, was conducted with male subjects. Research on specifically female physical symptoms (menopause and breast cancer, for example) was minimal. Thus new research begun at the insistence of women's groups nationwide may yield useful information for future generations.

As women's studies evolved to cover more and more facets of women's lives, women were starting businesses in record numbers. From 1972 to 1995 the number of woman-owned businesses increased from 5% of all businesses to 35%. Now those businesses contribute more than $1.6 trillion to the economy and employ more people than the Fortune 500 do. It's no surprise, then, that a critical mass of businesswomen would agitate for a body of research about themselves that was credible, valid, and based on their experience.

Some progress is finally being made. In fact, the National Foundation of Women Business Owners has put research on women's businesses on the map, by doing more research than anyone else and by getting it publicized. Leading a new effort, the National Women's Business Council, the Small Business Administration's Office of Women, Northwestern University's Kellogg Graduate School of Management, and the Interagency Committee on Women's Enterprise invited more than 100 researchers, writers, and business leaders to meet for two days at Kellogg last November. Their task was to create the National Research Agenda on Women Business Owners.

Two major themes for study emerged at that meeting. The first was a call for new studies that would take a look at women's businesses as compared with men's.

The second theme of study, and perhaps the more important one, is the one involving the studies that ask, What are the best practices in woman-owned companies? What are the effective strategies and structures women employ in their businesses that may hold lessons for all businesses?

And those questions are at the heart of what makes this particular research initiative so important. The organizers of the conference have taken a stand. No longer content to be judged only on male terms and by male standards, women who own businesses are demanding that research based on female measures and on theories of female behavior also be undertaken.

While writing Our Wildest Dreams, I realized that the stories I documented had a definite pattern: many women shared a set of common values and behaved in ways, relative to their companies, that were different from the conventions of business I had grown up with. The very basic notions of what women defined as success seemed to make their businesses different. The more I heard (and experienced) about women's businesses, the more I felt that what female business owners called "normal" was now being tagged the "new paradigm" by business gurus worldwide. And the national effort to "reengineer" everything was an attempt to get to where women already were.

The new psychology on women revealed that relationships are a source of power that women are comfortable nurturing. Success among women is less a matter of conquest than of collaboration, and priorities may be determined as much by family and community imperatives as by a desire to amass wealth or things. Those findings, as described by Carol Gilligan, Jean Baker Miller, and other researchers on women help illuminate the nature of how women run companies.

As the '80s came to a close we could see that women relied less on authority and traditional power relationships with their employees than men did. It wasn't documented, but many women knew it to be true. At the same time, business writers began to note how the new workforce wasn't responding to the rule-oriented culture of the last 100 years and how respect and relationship building were important. Women knew all that. For them it was as natural as breathing, and they didn't have to reengineer their businesses to make it happen. What the new gurus were advocating as a radical change for America's companies was standard operating procedure for many women. The very qualities that had been devalued because they were female were now claimed by many male writers as integral to a new and radical approach to the business of management.

Women's contributions to business have been invisible, dismissed, or ignored. Taking charge of our research, making an organized effort to bring to the study of women and business the same insight and credibility that has come to be associated with women's psychology and women's health (and recently, women's sports), is one way to make women's contributions to business finally apparent.

Do women do business differently? Are their businesses a good investment risk? Do they define success differently from men, and does that matter? Does the female experience introduce a new set of possibilities to the business experience? Do women hold some mysterious secret for doing business in the 21st century? What effective strategies and structures do they employ in their businesses that may hold lessons for all businesses?

Getting at the answers to those questions is crucial, because society and the economy are in the midst of a change no less important than an earthquake in Los Angeles. Women may be leading us through that change, and they may have the answers we need.

Joline Godfrey is the president of An Income of Her Own and is the author of two books on women, girls, and business.