The first female president on TV—Geena Davis in Commander in Chief (2005–06)—arrived before her time and flamed out quickly. Now we have a model of female power that better reflects the ambivalence of our age: In HBO’s Veep, Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays Selina Meyer, a crudely ambitious and largely incompetent second to a president who never calls her. In one scene, an aide rushes in to announce that the president has suffered a possibly fatal heart attack. The veep flashes a giant grin before assuming the appropriate mask of concern and grief, offering a rare glimpse of raw power lust in a female leader. But the crisis turns out to be a false alarm (heartburn). The joke delivers to American women the brutal truth about this cultural moment: The nation is not quite ready for your power grab.
But we’re close. By many measures, we live in a world in which women are not just catching up to men but surpassing them. More women than men graduate from college, at a time when a college degree is still a key to economic success. In 2009 women were the majority of the workforce, and they represent almost half the students at law and medical schools. A recent analysis of census data showed that in most of the U.S., young, childless women earn more than their male counterparts.
People talk about the scarcity of women at the very top, but in fact we are heading toward a tipping point, where the number of women in visible leadership positions, in politics and business, will be large enough that it will no longer seem unusual or anomalous to see them there. Already women make up 51 percent of management and professionals in the U.S., according to the Department of Labor. In the positions just below CEO—the top executives, or the highest paid—women make up about 15 percent, as well as 16 percent of the seats on Fortune 500 boards. The number of women with six-figure incomes is rising at a much faster pace than the number of equally successful men. Nationwide, about one in 18 women who work full-time earned $100,000 or more in 2009.
Women are now lead TV anchors, Ivy League college heads, bank presidents, corporate CEOs, movie directors, scatologically savvy comedians, presidential candidates—most unthinkable 30 years ago. The job of secretary of state has been virtually co-opted by women. And as we learned from Barack Obama, it takes only one person to make the picture look different.
Americans are by temperament a meritocracy, so seeing Hillary Clinton negotiate with foreign leaders or Nancy Pelosi quarterbacking House Democrats makes us believe they have earned their authority, which influences our collective subconscious. The same goes for images of Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, or Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund. War-torn countries such as Rwanda and Liberia have turned to women leaders to help them heal after years of savage warfare. In fact, the number of female heads of state, although still small, has doubled since 2005.
This is no accident. As we see more women on the public stage, our ideas about the qualities a leader should embody are evolving. The old model featured something like an army general, issuing orders to the ranks below. The new leader, called post-heroic or transformational by the historian and leadership expert James MacGregor Burns, is more like a charismatic coach who excels at motivating others to be hardworking and creative. Julie Gerberding, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and now head of Merck Vaccines, calls this style “horizontal leadership” and defines it as the ability to negotiate, collaborate and “walk in someone else’s shoes with emotional intelligence and empathy.” While both sexes have those skills, she continues, “I think that some of them are attributes that women are naturally inclined [toward] or [are] more socialized to excel in.”