As Women Redefine Success, Corporate America Rethinks


Virginia O'Brien wants to get even.

Not with men, but with the pessimistic coverage of women in corporate America.

Ms. O'Brien's latest book, "Success on Our Own Terms" (John Wiley & Sons Inc., $22.95), takes a look at women in all levels of business.

She claims that despite reports to the contrary, many women do feel successful. In fact, 78 percent of the women O'Brien surveyed say they are happy with progress in their careers.

"I felt that measuring how many Fortune 500 CEOs are women really didn't represent women's value systems or women's definition of success," O'Brien says "The fact that women have progressed to the level that they have - given [society's] cultural issues - is what we should be looking at and praising ourselves for. The whole story hasn't been told."

O'Brien's book focuses on 45 successful businesswomen and examines a number of companies that heed the values women bring to their work.

Many of the women in her book overcame significant obstacles to reach a level of success some would deem extraordinary.

Drop out moves up

Take, Ann Delvin.

She dropped out of high school at age 17. Eleven years later, with a young child at home, Ms. Delvin began an educational path that led to an engineering degree at the University of Washington and a master's from Cornell University in Ithica, N.Y.

When the book was published, she had a promising future holding a mid-level job at General Electric Plastics.

"I didn't search out these 'extraordinary' women but often times ran into them - this made me think there are probably a lot more stories out there like that," O'Brien says.

Personal trials

The author herself faced a tough challenge in her mid-30s. She found herself divorced, with a young daughter and no college degree.

Seven years later, however, she had earned a master's and found work in the communications field.

"When I got divorced, I realized that I had to take responsibility for moving myself forward ... you simply have to have the courage to make difficult moves."

O'Brien hopes her book will teach both women and men how to deal with gender issues in the workplace.

"I think as women have entered the work force in larger and larger numbers, women's feminine energy has permeated the system," notes O'Brien.

"Women's presence has created a space for men to begin speaking about balance and work/life issues. More attention is being paid to holistic thinking, to balance issues and to 'feminine' skills," she says.

'Feminine' skills a plus

The book cites companies such as Deloitte & Touche, IBM, and Hewlett-Packard as giving greater recognition to these "soft issues."

O'Brien says Deloitte & Touche, the big accounting and consulting firm, realized in 1992 that its turnover of women employees was about 25 percent. The company was losing talent and dollars spent on training.

In response, it took steps to retain female workers. Flexible work programs now allow them to take time off or work part time when needed without sacrificing their careers.

The "feminine" skills O'Brien mentions, which are not exclusive to women, include the ability to build relationships, listen actively, develop consensus, and motivate people through empathy and understanding.

A different view of success

O'Brien says women bring different definitions of success to the workplace. Traditional mileposts - climbing the corporate ladder and building wealth - are less important than achieving goals, balancing work and family, and contributing value to society.

"I think we are entering a new phase [of women entering the work force]. My hope is that corporate definitions of success will begin to resemble women's definitions of success - then success for companies will not only be in terms of the bottom line, but also in how well they maintain environments that allow employees to balance their lives and contribute something of social value."

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