Nancy Faber
January 28, 1980 12:00 PM

Faye Dunaway played a coldly ambitious television executive in Network and won an Oscar. But was it an unfair portrayal of the successful American woman in this age of liberation? Jane Adams, a Seattle journalist, decided to find out. For six months she toured the country and interviewed 60 such women about their lives and work. Among them were Reva Korda, executive vice-president of the advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather; Jacqueline Wexler, recently retired president of Hunter College; Jeanne Wohlers, treasurer of a California computer firm, and Pamela Hill, an ABC-TV producer. The results have just been published in Women on Top (Hawthorn, $10.95). Adams herself would be a candidate for the book. Born in New London, Conn., she graduated from Smith College in only three years. After a nine-year marriage that produced two children, she was divorced and in 1978 wrote the partially autobiographical Sex and the Single Parent, which was made into a TV-movie. Now 39, Adams lives in Seattle with her son Cameron, 13, and daughter Jennifer, 12. Before embarking on her next project—a study of successful men—the author discussed some of her findings about women with Nancy Faber of PEOPLE.

Are women afraid of success?

That is Radcliffe President Matina Horner’s thesis: that women fear their womanliness will be questioned if they are successful. I found that the successful women I interviewed were not afraid of being visible, which is the key to overcoming fear of success. Those between 45 and 50 were concerned that their financial success might threaten potential mates. Those under 45 were not worried. On the contrary, as writer Gail Sheehy put it, “Success is sexy.”

Is success good for women?

It is, and that surprised me. Before I did the interviews, I believed the stereotype that women at the top were bitter, hard and unfulfilled—that they couldn’t be womanly and compassionate. I thought you had to step on people to get up the ladder.

You didn’t find any ruthless types?

Just one. She wasn’t as bad as the Faye Dunaway character, but she was very openly manipulative. She spoke a lot about corporate game playing and politics; she was a real energized, Machiavellian type. But it was clear from talking to others in her organization that she wasn’t going any higher, either. As Virginia Carter, vice-president of Norman Lear’s Tandem Productions/TAT Communications, said, “When you’ve passed a certain point, what sorts you out from the rest is being the person other people want to do business with.” The ruthless bitches just don’t get that far. Another woman put it this way: “Never discount charm.”

Do these women see themselves as ambitious and tough?

Ambitious, yes, but not ambitious for personal aggrandizement. Joan Ganz Cooney, who runs the Children’s Television Workshop, said she thinks of herself as being ambitious “for my project.” Usually the younger women—those under 40—were more comfortable with the idea of ambitiousness. But “tough” is another matter. Most women can’t stand that label.

What is the main trait these successful women share?

Every one of them had a need for autonomy at a very early age, even though they come from diverse economic backgrounds. It continued into adulthood. Independence is more important to them than money, influence, security or power.

What else do they have in common?

Perseverance. But they’re not goal-oriented. A successful man sees a spot at the top of the pyramid and he locks into that goal. These women are more flexible. Another thing which goes against the conventional wisdom that women are more cautious is that they are all risk takers.

How do they feel about femininity?

The women over 50 more often go out of their way to avoid calling attention to the fact that they’re women. It has a lot to do with the history of their employment. Take Reva Korda, executive vice-president of Ogilvy & Mather, the huge advertising agency. Years ago she lost an important assignment during her first pregnancy because her boss, David Ogilvy, said, “You’re pregnant. How can you show up at a client meeting?”

What about younger women?

They insist on being seen as whole human beings. One woman, who’s 33, admitted she would flirt or sweet-talk the guys to get something done for the company. The ones who are most confused about using their femininity are between 40 and 50—they’re on the edge between the old realities and the new style of the affirmative-action era.

Did anyone in your study “sleep her way to the top”?

Two or three women said that early in their careers they had slept with the boss. All found it a mistake—a personal mistake, because they truly cared for the men and they suffered professionally when the affair ended.

Is office sex rare, then?

Marlene Sanders, a correspondent and producer at CBS News, told me, “Affairs happen all the time. I think people can handle it.” One 34-year-old said her rule of thumb was, “Never say never, rarely say yes, and always say maybe.” No woman I talked to admitted using sex for professional advantage.

What about mentors?

Many of the women I studied had mentors, but that’s a paternalistic relationship, not sexual. When a woman takes another job, for example, the mentor feels as if a daughter married and left home. Older women chose the heads of their companies to be their mentors. Today’s women are picking them from middle management.

Are any successful women serving as mentors for younger women?

Yes. Women over 50, in particular, find it’s one way they can fulfill the strong need in their professional development to have an impact on someone else’s life. It’s a kind of motherly pride. But women under 50 are usually not secure enough in their position to be mentors—they’re afraid of being supplanted.

Do the so-called “new-girl networks” really exist?

There are lots of them. For example, there are formal professional associations like the Women’s Bar Association of D.C. and the National Association of Bank Women. Some are issue-oriented, some find jobs for women and some are just mutual aid and admiration societies. By far the most visible and powerful is the Women’s Forum of New York City, a by-invitation-only organization of 165 professional women in all fields, which has been consulted by the White House on appointments.

Aren’t great sacrifices necessary for a woman to be successful?

The women I interviewed didn’t see them as sacrifices. They said they had made choices—professional over personal, at least temporarily—and were very satisfied. Their personal life was deferred, not closed permanently.

Can women have both?

I thought their personal lives would be a shambles, but most of them put the same perseverance and style into their personal relations as they do into their work. The thing that really creates frustration is ambivalence. Once these women made the decision that they wanted a career—and not just a job—then their personal lives cleared up. This was the time that many got divorced and started fresh, or reworked their marriages to conform to their new values and power.

What about raising children?

A conscious decision is important there, too—and the earlier the better. Those who wanted kids accepted that they would have to work very hard for a few years. The others realistically assessed their own strengths and weaknesses and decided they couldn’t do justice to both. This decision whether or not to start a family is usually reached by age 29.

Are the stress-related diseases successful men suffer from beginning to afflict women?

They’re beginning to show up—hypertension and ulcers, for instance—but more in routine, low-level jobs than in top executive positions. The women I interviewed said stress in fact energizes them. One illness did show up among them—a cancer rate three times the expected average. Researchers think this may be stress-related. I’m not saying success causes cancer, but it deserves further study.

What did you enjoy most about your interview subjects?

Their humor and zest, and the variety of their interests. Paula Hughes, a mother and a top stockbroker, for example, is also a partner in a vineyard and in an art gallery, a lecturer, a commentator on PBS’ Wall Street Week and is helping launch a magazine about the theater. All these women have such enthusiasm and charm. I believe they will be growing until the day they die.

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