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Secrets of Powerful Women

Advice for young women: Make friends. Share praise. Wear red.

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For Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D) of Illinois, a career in politics began organically. At 25, she was part of a group of six suburban housewives that called themselves National Consumers United. Their mission: to know how old the grocery food was that they were buying. They inspected stores and found food was on the shelves long after the date manufacturers said it was fresh. After becoming small shareholders of the Jewel supermarket chain and the National Tea Company, the women wrote press releases about their work. “We won!” Schakowsky writes. “Jewel began to advertise ‘freshness dates.’ ” Schakowsky says that early taste of making a difference led her to take other advocacy jobs, and eventually to run for Congress.

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So far, the contributors are part of a small group of women leaders, and the statistics they reiterate through the book provide good context for their stories. Women make up 17 percent of congressional seats, 7 governorships, and 24 percent of state legislatures. They run 3 percent of the Fortune 500 companies, and occupy 3 percent of top positions in the media industry.

The women are skilled at explaining why the low numbers matter. Different perspectives are needed to create good policies, says Shelley Moore Capito (R) of West Virginia. Women also bring in new voices, work well in teams, and seek out long-term solutions, writes Rep. Kay Granger (R) of Texas.

Such realistic views carry over to thoughts about women’s personal styles. In the recurring section Power Dressing, it’s refreshing to find successful women getting real about the significance of their clothing choices. Betsy Myers, a senior adviser to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, recalls watching bright, attractive women being sidelined because of “inappropriate clothes.” The late Ann Richards, former governor of Texas, once told Granger to ditch her navy blue suit and wear bright colors to stand out in a crowd. Granger’s power attire now: a red suit.

For all the focus on women, the contributors neither demean men nor debate which gender leads better. Rather, Schakowsky says “investing in women” helps “create a more peaceful, more healthful, more productive society.” The takeaway message to women is confident: Everyone benefits when more women lead and this is why they must.

Ari Pinkus is a graduate student in management at New York University.