Art & Commerce: People Power

Last week, yet another publication felt the need to single out female executives and salute their achievements.
It’s been done before, and unfortunately, it will be done again.
We’ll continue to see stories identifying the next generation of “Women to Watch” or naming the
latest list of “The Most Influential Women in Business.”
This sort of thing really gets on my nerves.
Hey, I’m all for Girl Power. And I’m sure this is a well-meaning pursuit intended to highlight the accomplishments of successful women. Still, I strongly believe it has the opposite effect; it does a disservice to women.
By making a separate case for women executives, it ghettoizes us. And it reinforces the perception that women are the underclass, particularly in business.
Think of the flip side. Would any newspaper or magazine ever consider running a similar feature on men? Of course not, for obvious reasons.
By segregating women, it’s as if we’re slotted into a special category rather than considered part of society. Are these publications suggesting that we wouldn’t have a shot at getting recognition or more to the point, enjoying that level of praise, if men were also considered?
We might as well be back in the schoolyard with our male classmates yelling, “Hey, you’re pretty good for a girl.”
This notion reminds me of a story that ran in a national newspaper several years ago. It proclaimed that women had broken through the glass ceiling in advertising. The story went on to name only three senior-ranking women running ad agencies.
If you can only count three, then isn’t it logical to assume that most have not burst through the roof?
Similarly, when I was named editor of this magazine nearly two years ago, someone asked me if I wanted the press release to mention that I was the youngest person and the first female to hold this position.
I didn’t mind the youngest reference–which probably opens up a can of worms and is equally disturbing to some folks–but I promptly killed the female bit.
I wondered if the agency executives featured in Fortune magazines’ “50 Most Powerful Women in American Business” last October would do the same. So I sought the opinions of two: Shelly Lazarus and Nina DiSesa.
Lazarus, who runs Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, was crowned No. 4 and appears on the cover of that issue of Fortune along with Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and Citigroup CFO Heidi Miller, among others.
She told me she is “irritated” by such a classification, likening it to a version of affirmative action. Lazarus believes it perpetuates the distinction between the sexes. She says she cannot, however, dismiss the opportunity. Such recognition may be inspiring to other women who may not believe such accomplishments are possible.
Nina DiSesa, chairman and chief creative officer of former boys’ club McCann-Erickson, was ranked No. 43.
DiSesa says she has a visceral reaction to such an honor and believes it’s a dubious one under
certain circumstances.
“If you are segmenting women to watch or something like that, it makes me feel like I am perpetuating the differences between men and women … but if you are [honoring] women who have made it in a man’s world, in a publication that focuses on men, that’s different.”
Both executives agree they’d find it more meaningful to be named one of the 100 Smartest People in Business rather than one of the 50 smartest women. Accolades aside, both long for the day when gender is not an issue.