THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

As Women's Leadership Evolves, So Do We

I was 17 years old and a guppy reporter for The Bradenton Herald when my editor sent me on my first assignment in the field.

“You’re going to interview Gloria Steinem,” she told me.

It was 1978 and the normally gruff woman boss I worked for was as strong and courageous as any that would follow. The Steinem assignment? Looking back on it, I think Grace Allen gave it to me in order to introduce a young woman into the world of women’s leadership. She could have sent a real reporter, but she sent the kid.

I spent most of my reporting years exposing things that crooked politicians wanted hidden, writing about difficult social issues and covering politics. I once spent a year digging into the death of a baby that the coroner’s office had written off as the result of an ear infection -- rather than the result of a beating from the child’s mother’s boyfriend. In the end, that man was sent to prison for life without parole, and the spin off investigative stories led to the demise of five senior people in local government.

I never felt the slightest bit discriminated against as a woman. If a story was a great story, it made the front page -- whether it was written by a woman or a man.

At least, not until the day I was assigned to do a series on domestic violence. Accompanying the story was a front page photo of a woman with two black eyes. Our top editor went ballistic when he came back from vacation and saw that on his front page. He demanded that the series be killed, but I fought back by finding so many newsworthy stories that he couldn’t bail on the project. When the Colorado Secretary of State and a member of city council both admitted to having been battered, it was news. But, I was suddenly persona non grata at work for having written it.

It was the first time I had ever experienced anything that told me the rules were different for women than they were for men.  But, they were. It was a hard lesson I had to learn before I could understand the triumph of the women’s leadership movement in the corporate world.

I look at my audiences now and see young women who can’t even conceive of a time when women couldn’t get charge cards in their own names, or could be fired if they got pregnant or wouldn’t get hired because they might get pregnant. The notion that there would be two sets of classified ads -- one for men and one for women -- seems preposterous. That some bosses would demand sexual favors in exchange for promotions? Implausible.

And yet, ask a woman in her 50's, 60's or 70's and she’ll respond with a knowing nod. “Yep, hard to believe -- but true. That’s the way it was.”

They had to fight so hard just to get in the game. Now, so many of us are making the rules. It’s amazing.

I do get discouraged by the lack of women working as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies (just 15) or the scarcity of women on boards of those companies (less than 15 percent). But every time I do a speech at a women’s leadership event, I come out invigorated. The notion of a woman vice president, senior vice president or executive vice president is not one that raises too many hackles at most companies these days. They are there. Many -- if not most -- are working hard to mentor others so there will be more success to spread around. 

Kind of like Grace did for me, way back when Steinem came to town.