Tuesday, October 10, 2006

MAUREEN DOWD: How Carly Lost Her Gender Groove

Carly Fiorina prided herself on being adept at succeeding in a man’s world without whining about sexism.

In her new memoir, “Tough Choices,” the expelled C.E.O. of Hewlett-Packard — the first female head of a Fortune 20 company — describes how she insisted on going along to a business meeting at a Washington strip club when she started out as an ambitious young woman at AT&T.

“I was scared to death,” she writes, adding that she wore her most conservative dress-for-success business suit and little bow tie, carried her briefcase like “a shield of honor,” and repeated the mantra, “I am a professional woman,” even when her cabdriver asked her if she was the new act for the club, where babes in see-through negligees danced on tables.

“In a show of empathy that brings tears to my eyes still,” she recounts, “each woman who approached the table would look the situation over and say: ‘Sorry, gentlemen. Not till the lady leaves.’ ”

On her first day at HP, she proclaimed, “The glass ceiling doesn’t exist.” But she now concedes that the glass trapdoor might.

“I think somehow men understand other men’s need for respect differently than they understand it for a woman,” Ms. Fiorina told Lesley Stahl on “60 Minutes.”

The male-dominated board’s handling of her exit was “heartless in some ways and disrespectful in other ways,” she said. “Maybe they took great pleasure in seeing me beat up publicly for weeks and weeks.”

Other controlling blondes, like Hillary Clinton, Martha Stewart and Tina Brown, were slapped back after great success (in a trend that The Times’s Alessandra Stanley dubbed blondenfreude), and Ms. Fiorina now thinks she was victimized by gender.

“In the chat rooms around Silicon Valley, from the time I arrived until long after I left HP, I was routinely referred to as either a ‘bimbo’ or a ‘bitch,’ she writes. “Too soft or too hard, and presumptuous, besides.” She adds: “I watched with interest as male C.E.O.’s fired people and were hailed as ‘decisive.’ I was labeled ‘vindictive.”

She reels off things that offended her: The editor of Business Week asked her if she was wearing an Armani suit. She felt adjectives such as “flashy,” “glamorous,” and “diamond studded” were meant to make her seem superficial. (Who doesn’t like being called glamorous?) Stories referred to her by her first name. There was “painful commentary” that she’d chosen not to have children because she was “too ambitious.”

“When I finally reached the top, after striving my entire career to be judged by results and accomplishments,” she concludes, “the coverage of my gender, my appearance and the perceptions of my personality would vastly outweigh anything else.”

One of her foes was Tom Perkins, the 74-year-old rich venture capitalist on the HP board who also tangled with Patricia Dunn, the former board chairwoman. Being married to the romance novelist Danielle Steel and writing his own steamy novel, “Sex and the Single Zillionaire,” did not improve Mr. Perkins’s skills in dealing with women, it seems.

With several of the few high-profile women at the top tanking, it’s interesting to note that Columbia Business School has introduced a new program that teaches the importance of a more empathetic and sensitive leadership style in globalized business, as opposed to the command-and-control style that has dominated the White House and Pentagon for, lo, these many messed up years.

Students learn how to read facial expressions, body language and posture, and get coaching on their brain’s “mirror neurons” — how what they’re thinking and feeling can affect others.

“This less autocratic leadership style draws on capabilities in which women are as good as men,” says Michael Morris, a professor of psychology and management who is running the business school’s new program.

Daniel Goleman, whose new book “Social Intelligence” is being taught in the program, points out that “while women are, in general, better at reading emotions, men tend to be better at managing them during a crisis. Women tend to be more sophisticated in reading social interactions but also tend to ruminate more when things go wrong.”

And that can lead to score-settling memoirs — Ms. Fiorina fillets both her male tormentors on the “dysfunctional” board and Ms. Dunn — and to the sort of awful judgment and sneaky behavior that Ms. Dunn exhibited.

Neenu Sharma, an M.B.A. student in the new Columbia program, says the moral of the story is that leadership works best with both sexes involved. “You need the woman there to know what’s actually going on, but you need the man there to deal with the critical emotions at the time.”

The Babbling Academy

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