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.