the new yorker
annals of communication
IN THE COMPANY OF WOMEN
APRIL 20, 1998
By KEN AULETTA
Photographs by MARY ELLEN MARK

Behaving like a woman was supposed to be bad for business, but the female executives of the entertainment and information industries are turning it to their advantage.


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The executives. Top row: Judy McGrath, Jane Friedman, Sarah Crichton; middle row: Shelly Lazarus, Debby Krenek, Kay Koplovitz, Geraldine Laybourne, Cathleen Black; front row: Lynda Obst, Kim Polese, Laura Ziskin, Esther Dyson.


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Top row: Lucy Fisher, Michele Anthony, Maggie Wilderotter, Patty Stonesifer, Stacey Snider, Anne Sweeney; middle row: Amy Pascal, Anita Addison, Mary Ann Byrnes; front row: Caryn Mandabach, Marcy Carsey, Paula Weinstein.

THIS past January, a dozen or so ABC executives went on a retreat in rural Connecticut. The group was supposed to talk about "branding," among other strategic issues, and at one point Geraldine Laybourne, the president of Disney/ABC Cable Networks, found that she was championing one side of a question while most of the men in the room were arrayed against her.

Laybourne, although one of the most powerful executives in the entertainment industry, is not a forbidding figure. A fifty-year-old former schoolteacher, she wears large, round green eyeglasses, usually dresses in softly cut pastels, and speaks deliberately, in a low voice. Laybourne founded Nick at Night, and was the first president of Nickelodeon, the children's cable channel; since joining Disney, in February, 1996, she has supervised most cable programming, including the Disney Channel, and ABC's interests in Lifetime, A&E, the History Channel, and E! Entertainment Television. This season, thanks to her programming changes, ABC is in a first-place tie with Fox in children's Saturday-morning programming. Yet each time Laybourne spoke at the retreat, she recalls, "I felt I was just not being heard." The branding discussion continued as if she weren't there, and she was angry. That evening, when everyone got together for predinner cocktails, Laybourne marched into the room where drinks were being served and said, "Am I just the biggest ass in the world?" No, no, her colleagues protested. It was great that she persisted, they declared, even if they didn't necessarily agree with her position.

If this had been a roomful of women executives, Laybourne might have been able to read them. Women tend to lean forward when they speak, and to touch, quickly sharing intimacies. But men, as she sees them, are more opaque, less demonstrative. Being a female executive is "like being a Frenchman in America," she told me once, in another context. "It's speaking a foreign language."

Talking later about her experience at the retreat, Laybourne said, "I should actually take a breath to test the temperature, and ask, 'Is there any common ground?' I should be careful I am not making assumptions." And, as if to challenge her assumptions, at the conclusion of the retreat Robert Iger, the president of ABC, whom Laybourne is close to, appointed her to lead one of two branding task forces. Had she misread the men in the room?

Not necessarily. Over the past few months, I talked with nearly three dozen female executives from the upper ranks of Hollywood studios, television networks, music companies, Silicon Valley corporations, advertising agencies, and publishing. I asked each of the women similar questions: Do women manage differently from men? Are female executives treated differently? Do women feel compelled to act more like men in order to overcome stereotypes? If women have some superior qualities, do men have some as well?

The survey was more anecdotal than scientific, but in conducting it I heard things that these executives rarely share with male peers. I heard them say that women are better managers-more nurturing, more collegial, more communicative, and more instinctual-and that these strengths mesh better with the corporate culture of teamwork and partnering which is emblematic of the information age. And as women gain authority, most of them believe, our movies, our music, our television, our software, and our other communications products will improve.

These women remain a distinct minority: only two female C.E.O.s of major communications companies come to mind-Shelly Lazarus, of the world's sixth-largest advertising agency, Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, and Marjorie Scardino, of Pearson P.L.C., a multimedia giant based in London. (Scardino declined to be interviewed.) Barely eleven per cent of the eleven thousand corporate officers of the Fortune 500 companies are women. And among the seventeen hundred and fifty corporate, government, academic, and media leaders who early this year attended the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, just over a hundred were females. "I've always been sort of fascinated when you look at the financial community and you look at who gets invited to financial conferences-you'll see almost no women," Kay Koplovitz, the outgoing chairwoman and C.E.O. of USA Networks, says.

But, if female C.E.O.s are scarce, a great many women are now represented at the highest corporate levels. Seven women are in top decision-making positions at five movie studios (Amy Pascal, of Columbia Pictures, and Sherry Lansing, of Paramount, are two examples); women like Sarah Crichton and Jane Friedman play dominant roles in book publishing; women like Patty Stonesifer, formerly of Microsoft (and now running the Gates Library Foundation), and Mary Ann Byrnes, the president and C.E.O. of Corsair Communications, are powers in Silicon Valley; women now edit more than a few large newspapers (Debby Krenek, the editor-in-chief of the New York Daily News, is one example); and Cathleen P. Black, the president of Hearst Magazines, says, "11 don't go to a meeting where half the executives are not women." In the television industry, women hold key positions in the entertainment divisions of six broadcast networks.

Most of these women believe that their gender gives them innate advantages. And most of these women believe that gender-based differences for which they were once belittled have become distinct advantages. For example, Laura Ziskin, the president of Fox 2000, which is a feature-film division of Twentieth Century Fox, remembers trying to sign an important actress to a contract: "I called the head of my business affairs at Fox. A guy I adore. And I asked if he had spoken to the actress's agent. Also a man. And he said, 'I called him and he owes me a call.' I called Lynda"-Lynda Obst, the Hollywood producer-"and I said, 'It's astonishing. As women, if you want to get something done you call the guy until you get him. Would you sit and wait three days for the guy to call you back? No, you'd get on the phone. You'd call until they talked to you. But the men say, 'I don't call him until he calls me. I called him, now he has to call me back' It is a kind of a dick thing! With men, everything is a contest, a battle. Women are mediators."

The belief that women have certain gender-based advantages has long been debated in the field of feminist anthropology, as books with titles like "The Feminization of America" have become commonplace.

"Sociobiology: The New Synthesis," published in the seventies, upset first-wave feminists, who rebelled against the implication that gender roles might be genetically determined. But in subsequent years many feminists came to embrace such ideas, which fit their own growing confidence in the biological advantages of women. In all this work, there is a good deal of the evolutionary savanna-man the hunter, woman the child-bearer, that sort of thing. Helen E. Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers, traces behavioral differences back to the origins of the human species, and cites studies demonstrating that female chimpanzees "are twenty times less likely to bicker over rank." When I visited Fisher recently, in an apartment-office she has in Manhattan, she greeted me sunnily. "Males are much more likely to take orders as well as give orders," she said. "Women look around." Fisher went on to say that "the root of this difference is partly chemical," and explained that since the average male carries seven to ten times as much testosterone as the average female, it is not surprising that men appear to care more about rank and about winning. "I don't think our corporate structure comes from childhood," Fisher added. "I believe most gender differences come out of nature."

Fisher's ethological arguments, drawn from evolutionary psychology, emphasize gender differences in attitudes toward hierarchy. The Harvard professor Carol Gilligan suggests that "relationships, and particularly issues of dependency, are experienced differently by women and men." In her widely read 1982 book, "In a Different Voice," she argued that "males tend to have difficulty with relationships, while females tend to have problems with individuation."

Today, none of these discussions are limited to the halls of academe. Rather, after nearly thirty years of debate over gender questions, modern women have begun to theorize about their own uneasy roles, almost as if they were amateur ethnographers
themselves. Put another way, it is as if women in these traditionally male redoubts have found themselves to be not only trailblazing executives but sexual naturalists.

The Internet pioneer Esther Dyson, the chairwoman of EDventure Holdings, which focusses on emerging information technology around the world, says, "The men are trying to do all this explicit, hierarchical, formal stuff. They follow job titles. Women pay more attention to human factors. As girls, they get dolls to talk." And Amy Pascal, the president of Columbia Pictures, says, "I manage from a place-how my employees are feeling-and men don't do that. We're trained in the art of compromise, and men aren't. We learn as girls. I think I am much more attuned to people's feelings. That's a good thing and a bad thing. I can read my employees' faces about how something has gone down with them. I think I can motivate them and talk to them in a more straightforward way. But I probably dwell too much in that place. I probably care too much when I should just be colder about it."

Ann S. Moore, who is the president of Time Warner's People, probably the most profitable magazine in the world, says, "I think I probably use less of what I learned at the Harvard Business School and more of what I learned as a parent. I think the single best thing to equip you for management in the Fortune 500 is good parenting skills. Everything from 'Nobody loves a whiner' to 'Look both ways' or 'Do your homework' or 'Say thank you.'" (To be sure, this approach owes something to touchy-feely New Age
trends, too.)

Geraldine Laybourne believes that it is possible to carve out a separate and distinctive, 'team managed" culture within a larger corporate culture. She did this at Viacom, when she took over Nickelodeon, recruiting a team of female managers and educators, led by Anne Sweeney, who had just received a graduate degree in education from Harvard (and now works for Laybourne as the president of the Disney Channel). Laybourne brought her two children to the office and was unabashed about using them (and other kids) to conduct market research for her children's network. She created an environment in which the Laybourne team felt like entrepreneurs, running their own company.

Today, like a shrewd parent, Laybourne begins her weekly staff meeting with a blank easel rather than a set agenda. "Then we look at it and say, 'Which problems do we need to solve today?'" Laybourne says. "You get the issues out real quickly. What happens in a hierarchically run meeting is that the burden is completely on the C.E.O. My job is not to make decisions in a vacuum but to be a vacuum cleaner."

As I talked to these women, I kept encountering female swagger, consisting of equal parts experience, anger, pride, insecurity, and playfulness-and a belief that women enjoy a gender advantage.

Marcy Carsey and Caryn Mandabach, two of three partners in Carsey-Werner the third is a man, Tom Werner), which has been perhaps the most successful independent television-production house since 1984, when it produced "The Cosby Show," are as casual at work as if they were in their own living room. Like many people of both sexes in the television business, they like underdressing, in baggy outfits, and putting their loafers on the couches in bungalow offices they've rented on the CBS lot in Studio City. As if they were writing an episode of "Roseanne" (another of their hit shows), they like to sit around making fun of men. According to Carsey, "Men gravitate toward the power concept: 'How many people report to me? What do I reign over? How visible am I?" Men love offices, they assert, and women don't. "There's a desk that you can sit behind, kind of a power spot," Carsey says. "There's a chair that's kind of made of leather. There's a view. There's a uniform you wear, and it has a tie and a shirt and a suit-brown or black You feel that you put on your uniform, you come to your power place, and you know who you are and you're safe."

"And they find comfort in that," Mandabach says, "whereas I don't think women would. Every woman I know would be so happy if she could live in a place and work in a place where she could wear a muumuu and no bra, and where there was no desk, and she could sit on the floor with her legs crossed, and there are only couches, and tea is being poured."

Instead of an office with a large desk, Lucy Fisher, the vice-chairwoman of Sony's Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Group, often works out of what looks like a living room. "My management style is very collegial," she says. "This room is my, quote, conference room, while everyone else's, quote, conference room has a big, long table in it and a bunch of chairs sitting around the table. This is my living room. Two couches and two chairs." Inside a credenza are toys, which her three children often play with after school.

Maggie Wilderotter, the president and C.E.O. of Wink Communications, which is developing interactive television software in its Alameda, California, headquarters, carries this management style another step-to going in search of ideas. Wilderotter, who was previously a cableindustry executive and then a telephonecompany executive, likes to tell her staff, "I'm going on a lion hunt." She roams among her employees, who number thnety, seeking information and ideas. "I manage horizontally," she says. And Geraldine Laybourne was famous at Nickelodeon for having, instead of an office, just a desk in an open area-quite a remove from the nineteenth-century pyramidal company, in which clerical workers, mostly women, were found at the bottom.

Of course, women do not always play these parts or speak this language. The late Dawn Steel, who ran Columbia Pictures and was president of production at Paramount, verbally mugged more than a few underlings. Her friend the producer Paula Weinstein, who once was a script reader for Jane Fonda and became a key executive at several studios, says simply, "Insecure men, or women, will behave the same."

Some women-Linda Wachner, the chairwoman and C.E.O. of Warnaco, and Gabriella Forte, the president and C.O.O. of Calvin Klein-manage hierarchically. "There are as many differences in the way women manage as there are in the way men manage," Sherry Lansing, the chairwoman and C.E.O. of Paramount Pictures, says. "I know men who are incredibly nurturing and collegial and supportive, and I know men who are soft-spoken and calm. And I know women who are screamers.

Shelly Lazarus, of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, like Sherry Lansing, is dubious about the notion that gender differences exist in management techniques. Nevertheless, she believes that women who have children become better managers-the nurture thesis. "I think children ground women emotionally," she says. "They can separate what's important from what's not important. They're better managers. They're better in sorting priorities. They're better in dealing with people."

WITH all this insistence on certain advantages, were female executives prepared to argue that male executives possess skills that female executives lack? A prominent male executive at a major communications company, who insisted on anonymity, breached political correctness by saying, "Women are more emotional."

A number of women challenged this observation; those who did concede the point that women are more emotional went on to maintain that this presumed deficiency is actually an advantage. Amy Pascal, of Columbia Pictures, says, "I take it personally when things don't work out." Caryn Mandabach is more disdainful, saying, "Yes, we're more emotional. It's a good thing. How can you talk about communication and not be emotional?"

Several female executives believe that men are better at making decisions. "I'm horrible at firing people," Pascal says. "I overempathize so much. I delay saying it." She adds that women are often not as "cold" in making decisions.

"I have people accuse me of being tough," Laura Ziskin says, and goes on, "I'm a wimp. When someone comes in with a story they are passionate about and I'm going to sit in judgment, I feel awful. I hate to say no to people I like. . . I hate it. It makes me physically ill."

Agonizing over ambiguity is a good thing, declares Michele Anthony, the executive vice-president of Sony Music Entertainment. "Sometimes maybe it is better to blindly govern without emotion and sensitivity. It makes decisions easier. There are decisions I agonize over because I take other people's feelings into account. I don't think men are
more decisive. I think we're as capable of making decisions as quickly as men. But we decide differently. The grays help you make a better decision. And sometimes, because of the process that women often follow, the decisions are better ones."

Because of real or perceived weaknesses, women often believe that they have to behave more like men, or, more precisely, in the way that they think men behave. Jane Rosenthal, a producer and a co-founder, with Robert De Niro, of Tribeca Produc tions, says that she faces this dilemma. "Sometimes I feel I have to be tougher, to show authority;" she says. "I have a little girl's voice, so sometimes I will say certain things to get a point across. I feel as if I were being difficult at times. And then I find myself saying, 'But this isn't me!'" In her book "Hello, He Lied: and Other Truths from the Hollywood Trenches," Lynda Obst writes of a naïve "gender lens" that distorts what women see: "Everyday, run-of-the-mill business junk in Hollywood-like simple lying-astonishes women, leaves us speechless, and we take it personally." Of herself, Obst told me, "I like to tell everything." Yet she worries about men looking for weakness. She says she has to worry about losing her temper (she admits that she screamed too much when she was younger), because "it's terrifying in a woman and unacceptable, whereas it's expected and de rigueur for a man. It's easier for men to deal with a formidable daddy than with a scary mom."

Jane Friedman describes her unnerving introduction to becoming the boss: "When I first came here, last year"-as the president and C.E.O. of HarperCollins Publishers-"I would say 'Good morning' and leave my door open and talk to my assistants. I soon realized, They think they can get away with stuff because I don't act like a dictator. I realized after the first month that I had to make sure people understood that I meant what I said. I came in assuming I would just be who I'd been for thirty years"-at Random House. "Everyone knew my shorthand. Here I had to speak much more forcefully. It's lonely. There's no one to talk to. Everyone reports to you. No one is a friend."

Women say that they compensate for such loneliness in various ways. "For me it is knowing, most of the time, what I think and sticking to it, while appearing to be open," Amy Pascal says. On being told that this sounded as if she were being manipulative, she answers, "Women's power is a little more manipulative than men's. I don't always need things to be my idea, or to be right, as men do all the time. But women are trained to be manipulative. We appear to let someone else have won. Most men I know need you to recognize that they won. Men are more fragile."

Anita Addison, a vice-president for drama development at CBS Entertainment, points out that the women there are in charge of such areas as miniseries, business affairs, and broadcast standards. "I am not alone. I don't feel that I'm on this island by myself," she says. On the other hand, she says, "I am black, and it is assumed that most black people, and most black women, are angry; And therefore we're treated with a certain aloofness, a certain fear factor. Which I find amusing, but it can ultimately kind of work to one's advantage."

Helen Fisher, like Carol Gilligan, simply believes that women are hardwired with "a tremendous drive to seek consensus." And, for every impulse to regard such assertions with skepticism, there is a story of the sort Shelly Lazarus told me, after she had been on a family safari in Sabi Sabi, South Africa, in January. There, she says, she got to thinking about male testosterone when a guide boasted of the elephants that knock down trees. She -asked why. "Because they can," he responded. "If I could knock down a tree, I would knock it down, too. It's a male thing." A month later, Lazarus was still thinking about that male guide. A woman, she says, "in a million years would never knock down a tree just because she could."

As women move into traditional male roles-wage earner, soldier, senior executive, family head, sexual aggressor-the change, not surprisingly, makes some men uneasy. Lionel Tiger, the Charles Darwin Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers, says, "I think men are totally baffled by this, and don't know how to respond." He predicts a spiral of "downward mobility" for men, adding, "Women are going to be fine. It's males that have a real problem."

Men fight back in their own way, according to Stacey Snider, a co-president of production at Universal Pictures. She says, "There's a reason there's been a resurgence of golf and cigar smoking: we don't do it." In the early nineties, when she was the president of production at TriStar Pictures, she recalls that she was the only woman to attend executive retreats. "I knew intuitively that the guys couldn't wait for me to go to bed. It wasn't personal, but stuff happened after I went to bed." Like what? "Talking about sports, talking about women, drinking, smoking cigars-you know, the tribal stuff. So that's what I worry about: that I won't get that experience and I won't be in those rooms." Snider has been talking with other ranking female executives throughout Hollywood about organizing "family friendly" retreats for women, their spouses, and their children. Not at a spa, she warns, because that "sounds... like we'll sit around and do manicures."

Geraldine Laybourne uses a sports analogy to portray men's behavior: "Men who conduct meetings usually act like a pitcher, throwing lots of questions at various batters. It's a way of maintaining the dominant position. It's a game that's played: 'Look how smart I am!' If the guys around the table are able to lob the ball back-and these are not deep questions; these are detailed questions, like Trivial Pursuit-if you can lob it back he sits up in his chair. I have a really hard time with that game. It doesn't advance thinking. It isn't about solving problems. It isn't about building an organization of trust."

It may also be that men fight back by condescending to women. At a meeting in London last year, a man is reported to have asked Marjorie Scardino, of Pearson P.L.C., "Would you please rise?" When Scardino politely did so, the man reportedly said, "I just wanted to see what you were wearing."

Laybourne believes that women can navigate around such obstacles, although friends say she hasn't always felt the same freedom at Disney that she did at Nickelodeon. She might make a presentation to Disney's chairman, Michael Eisner-to develop a new channel for children, sayand, while Eisner will react with enthusiasm and creativity, the bean counters subsequently dampen her plans. Nevertheless, Laybourne believes that she has fashioned a distinctive culture within a culture. "We have met no resistance," she says. "They judge us by our performance. Most companies
care only about your performance."

This sort of cultural and generational change may become more common as younger people rise. One female network executive in her early thirties says, "I have no difficulty communicating with males under thirty-five. But those guys"-men over thirty-five-"I rarely can easily communicate with. They don't hear me."

Judy McGrath, the forty-four-year old president of MTV, thinks that a great shift has taken place among young people, and that this is being felt at the corporate level. "I always look to music to tell me what's really going on," she says, adding, "The economy's great. There's pop music. There's happiness in the land. The fringes of music are very fringed, and kind of quiet. They haven't moved into the mainstream yet." MTV recently conducted a survey of cutting-edge kids-perhaps a look at the next wave of executives. What MTV learned was that parents now ranked first among those the kids admired most, whereas five years ago parents were not mentioned at all. On being asked where they wanted to travel, the kids most often chose India and spiritual places. They preferred to listen to music alone and at home, rather than in clubs or with friends. McGrath sums up: "There is not an 'us versus them' mentality. It is a gentler, more optimistic group than we've seen in a while." Nor were there notable gender differences among those surveyed: "Girls, I think, are much more optimistic about their opportunities. They feel they can sidestep any obstacle. They feel they want to sidestep this whole glass-ceiling discussion."

It has been an article of faith among feminists that women in power would not produce as many testosterone-driven products as men do. "I'd like to say that it will change the variety of movies that we make," says Lynda Obst, who is in New York producing a
movie directed by Ed Zwick. "I certainly think it will raise the quality of movies that we make. Women recognize character. I think you'll see less hollow characters. Women can't identify with a bimbo. So I think women's parts will be better. But I fear for the variety of movies that we make, because that's a market-driven question, not a president-of-production-driven question."

The writer-director Nora Ephron, whose movie "Sleepless in Seattle" grossed more than a hundred million dollars, observes, "Partly as a result of being disenfranchised, women executives have traditionally had to fight hard for things they believed in-as Amy Pascal did for 'Little Women' at Columbia. They read more and care more about stories, so they tend to concentrate more on good scripts, rather than follow the standard operating procedure these days, which is to rely on bankable male movie stars. The true philosophy in Hollywood is that nobody cares about what the above-the-line costs are, because the more they spend the safer they feel."

Sherry Lansing, of Paramount, has no doubt that women are already having a considerable impact on the communications business. "And, because we can green-light the movies now,  she told me, "we can make 'The First Wives Club' and we can make 'Clueless.' There's a huge audience out there." Amy Pascal says, "I developed movies for women-relationship movies. I've never been afraid of being a feminist, of pursuing women's talent. Now it's fantastic, because there's an entirely new audience of young women."

Yet one of Marjorie Scardino's early major acts as C.E.O. of Pearson was to spend about five hundred million dollars to acquire All American Communications, the owner of "Baywatch," a show in which women tend to wear skimpy bathing suits. Moreover, since about half a movie studio's revenues come from outside the United States, a female studio head confronts the same commercial pressures that men do.

Nora Ephron, for one, is skeptical about the degree of feminization women can bring to the marketplace. "They can become just as obsessed with casting big movie stars and making mindless product for overseas as the men are," she says. "Look Half the studios in Hollywood are now run by women. But movies are no better. In fact, they're getting worse."

IN other areas of the communications industry, women executives see several factors playing a more important role than gender. Shelly Lazarus, for example, believes, "Advertising will change, because the values of society have changed. If you look at a reel of commercials, I don't think you could tell if they were done by men or by women."

Kim Polese, who is the president and C.E.O. of Marimba, a Silicon Valley software company, also shrugs off the importance of gender. "In the software business, the product is driven by market need and by customer demand, and, when combined with proper execution in marketing and delivering a product, that is what creates a success," she says. "And that has nothing to do with being a woman. A movie has more subtlety to it. Software is zeros and ones."

"In music, I don't think the product will change," Sony's Michele Anthony says. "If you looked at my taste in music and if you didn't know who I was and you said, 'What is the gender of this person?' and if you heard the bands that I am often most closely associated with- Pearl Jam, Aerosmith, Rage Against the Machine, Alice in Chains, which are rock bands-you'd probably associate with a male. And, if anything, I think my influence on this company has probably been to generate more artists of that genre."

In the end, in the company of women, I was struck by the parallels between the management styles that women executives described as specific to their sex-nonhierarchical, team-oriented, willing to listen-and the newly minted wisdom of so many modern business gurus. These days, after all, savvy C.E.O.s talk softly about flexible networks, teams, and closeness to customers. And women undoubtedly recognize that the values of our time and place are affecting the American office. "To me, this is about how women are allowed to manage in their natural style and join forces with men," Geraldine Laybourne says. For a new generation of female executives, effective management isn't just doing what comes naturally; it may also be doing what they often do best.

END