One tool elevating women to the top rungs of leadership right now are same-sex support groups, which journalist Pamela Ryckman calls stiletto networks. In her debut book, Stiletto Network: Inside the Women’s Power Circles That Are Changing the Face of Business, she investigates the recent rise of these informal but powerful coteries, which have tens of thousands of members across the country. Her findings paint a new picture of the way women do business. Though most stiletto networks are small (usually 10 people or less), their influence is undeniable: Stiletto members have been responsible for creating the most downloaded app in history of Warner Bros. (for the film Happy Feet Two), for overseeing the largest high-yield bond offering of 2010 and for launching the most successful fundraising pilot in the history of the Red Cross, to name a few.
Ryckman talked to More about the impact of these networks, why participation has exploded in recent years and what they mean for the future of business.
More: How did you discover these stiletto networks?
Pamela Ryckman: In November 2010 I went to a women’s conference and it was a room of 50 very successful women. What struck me immediately was that they defied the age-old stereotypes of high-powered ladies. They weren’t in the blue-and-gray pinstriped suits and trying to dress and sound and act like guys, which women have historically done to get ahead. One woman I met was a semi-conductor CEO and she mentioned that in the late ‘90s she had belonged to a dinner group. When I asked who was in it, she said, “It was me and Meg Whitman, when she was running eBay, and Joyce Covey when she was CFO of Amazon, and Dana Evan when she was CFO of VeriSign, and another woman named Kim Polese.” And I said, “That’s really interesting, because you all have technology at the basement level of your businesses, but you’re all in different industries. How did you find each other?” And she laughed and said, “You know, when you’re the only skirt in the room and another one walks in, you kind of notice.”
Then I went to another event in New York and I interviewed another woman who mentioned her dinner group. And then a woman in Atlanta mentioned her lunch group. When I met a woman from Anchorage at another conference who mentioned her lunch group, I knew I was on to something.
More: Unlike traditional old-boy networks, many of these stiletto networks comprise women from disparate fields. Why?
P.M.: The groups that started developing 20 or 30 years ago came together because, in those days, there was only room for one woman at the top in a given field. And when that’s the case, there’s a lot of backstabbing and competition [rather than networking]. So those top women had to find top women in fields different from their own. What I think is different now is that there is more room for women to breathe at work and more room for women to succeed. There are enough women in positions of power, even in the same industry, to really make a difference in each other’s careers.
More: How else are the groups different from all-male ones?
P.M.: Many of the women say that stiletto networks don’t feel like work; they’re fun. They are based in trust, loyalty and friendship. They were started for women to meet people who they would enjoy as friends. So there wasn’t for the most part an express networking-with-a-capital-N purpose. But what I found is, when you put 10 dynamic, motivated women in a room, the conversations go all over. They talk about their passions, their work, their families, their clothes, their shoes, their hair. And they don’t worry about their femininity undermining them.
More: You say these groups have exploded in the past several years. Why so?
P.M.: In the book I describe it as the result of both evolution and revolution. The evolution is that there are enough women in positions of power or influence, earning their own wealth, to really make a difference for other women in their careers. When you couple that with the revolution that’s happening in technology, this becomes an explosion. You have a lot of highly engaged women who are redefining the system.
More: Women used to be protective of their contacts, and often downright unwilling to share them. Why has that changed?
P.M.: Two reasons: I think they figured out something that men have long known, which is that it raises your stock to be the connector. If you are the person who is constantly linking people up, you benefit as well. I don’t think these women did it with Machiavellian intent. But the networking has in fact made them more valuable in their jobs and at what they do. Also, women have finally realized that we’re so much stronger together than we are alone. There’s real power in that collective voice.
More: What has been the impact of these groups?
P.M.: I have charted billions of dollars in transactions and corporate board fees attained and promotions landed and companies founded and funded as a result as these stiletto networks. But I tell everybody that it’s a love story disguised as a business story. This is a powerful nationwide movement but at its heart it’s about female friendship. There is a massive money trail, but the friendships are not by nature transactional. They bleed into every area of life. These women are close friends.
More: So the impact of stiletto networks isn’t confined to the business world.
P.M.: Right. These women have looped each other into each other’s causes. It’s not just what I can do for me or even what I can do for my friend. It’s what we can do together for the world. A lot of these women are thinking about legacy. I’ve charted unprecedented amounts of women’s wealth channeled toward charities that benefit women and girls and political candidates who represent women’s interests. So this isn’t just changing the face of business. We are looking at a national social overhaul.
When you suddenly have women sitting on influential nonprofit boards and controlling lots of money, that makes them more powerful in business, too. All these different arenas are coming together.
More: Why do you think so many members of stiletto networks describe the groups as magical or life changing?
P.M.: In the book I talk a lot about wealthy or accomplished or high-powered women, but they weren’t wealthy or accomplished when they started these groups. They credit their stiletto networks with giving them courage and facilitating their success. That’s life changing.
More: What are some tips for women looking to create their own stiletto networks?
P.M.: First, you don’t have to be wealthy or famous or fabulous to create a network, and you need not begin with any connections. Being young is no deterrent; the earlier in life women start groups, I found, the tighter and stronger the groups become, because they go through life events together. Second, think about diversity. These shouldn’t be groups of best buddies or employees all from the same companies. The most effective groups tend to draw women with diverse skills from a variety of industries because they are introducing women who might not otherwise meet. As a result, they keep members fresh, expand their horizons and increase their spheres of influence.
More: Many of the groups have tongue-in-cheek names, like SLUTS (Successful Ladies Under Stress), Brazen Hussies and Power Bitches. Do you think names like that undercut the significance of the networks?
P.M.: This all stems from a sense of fun. Obviously, all those terms are outdated and somewhat sexist. But by reappropriating them the women are acknowledging how they might be perceived from the outside, but turning that on its head.
More: In the groups you write about, the age range of members is from the 20s through the 70s, and the younger women often look to the older ones for mentoring. Did you find any examples of younger women helping older women?
P.M.: Yes, absolutely. A number of senior executives who started stiletto networks told me that they anticipated it being a mentoring relationship but they have been blown away by how much they got back in return, because the younger women bring to the table a deep knowledge of technology and different skills and mindsets. In one instance, a senior executive at a large media conglomerate was planning to do a rollout of a particular technology platform and a younger woman in her network, who worked at a tech startup, told her she thought she was choosing the wrong platform. She also helped her find the right alternative.
More: The book carries a message for professional women that it is OK to help one another and to relax with being a woman instead of trying to be one of the guys. Were you surprised when that theme emerged?
P.M.: You know, I was surprised by so many things in this story. I really didn’t have a thesis going in—this was all a discovery for me. But what I found, which is so refreshing, is that women and men were finally meeting in the middle and respecting each other. One of the tips that I give at the end of the book is, Networking is good, but you should also play with the boys. Women shouldn’t be hiding in a cul-de-sac of feminine support. Integration, not isolation, is the goal.