Forget the old boy’s club. Groups like the Brazen Hussies, Power Bitches and SLUTS -- aka Successful Ladies Under Tremendous Stress -- are where today’s hot deals are being brokered and they’re strictly girls-only.
That’s according to Pamela Ryckman, who labels the phenomenon with the title of her new book, “Stiletto Network.”
Members swap Manolos, sex-toy tips and tales of double dating with Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. They wield serious clout, too, nominating one another for directorial boards, funding lucrative startups and launching billion-dollar charity campaigns.
Strung together from interviews with the founders and beneficiaries of these power circles, “Stiletto Network” is one of the livelier contributions to the discussion of women in the workplace. It’s also one of the most frustrating.
To start with, there’s Ryckman’s tone. Before having kids and setting her sights on a career in journalism, she worked in strategy for Merrill Lynch & Co. (BAC:US) and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS:US) You wouldn’t know it. She writes like a cheerleader sweet on Candace Bushnell, calling women “gals” and cooing over their shoes and shiny hair.
Nor does she get access to some of the starrier stiletto networkers like Facebook (FB:US)’s Sheryl Sandberg, who hosts salons at her home in Atherton, California, or Barbara Walters, who lunches with a New York group called the Harpies.
While Ryckman doesn’t speak to Sonia Sotomayor, who used to belong to the Belizean Grove -- a female riposte to the secretive Bohemian Grove -- she does track down the group’s co-founder, former broadcast executive Susan Stautberg.
We also hear from “Grovers” who use words like “magical” and “enriching” to describe their annual retreat in Central America, where rituals include the donning of wigs and bustiers.
Part sorority, part think tank, part job-creation vehicle, the Belizian Grove has led directly to books being written, companies formed and money invested.
Other interviewees include Kitty Pilgrim, the CNN anchor turned thriller writer whose club is Ladies Who Lunch, and Heidi Roizen, a technology entrepreneur and venture capitalist who convenes a Silicon Valley cabal.
From “girlpreneurs” to female captains of industry, these women add compelling voices. They don’t just lean in, they leap. They drive Maseratis because they can and wear laced leather pants because why shouldn’t they? There’s even a cat named Eleanor Roosevelt.
The cat belongs to Carole Hyatt, whose Leadership Forum brings younger women together for career development workshops. Hyatt herself is old enough to remember the “Mad Men” era when a woman couldn’t get a loan, office space or even a credit card. Yet stiletto networks, Ryckman insists, are the result of evolution not revolution.
“It’s the quilting bee transferred to the boardroom,” she says. Give me a break.
Horizontal and cross-sector, these networks are flourishing for several reasons, Ryckman says. Ambitious women once looked to male mentors to further their careers. With more room at the top, women can now afford to help one another, while those who’ve already made it appreciate the power that comes with cultivating the next generation.
Women are also creating their own opportunities. While 97 percent of Fortune 500 CEO positions and 85 percent of corporate board seats are still held by men, she writes, “the number of women-owned businesses in the U.S. is growing twice as fast as the number of total businesses.”
One of the book’s more troubling refrains is a proud disdain for what Ryckman dubs “that dowdy, dated ‘f-word.’” Again and again, Type-A C-suiters rush to insist that they’re absolutely not feminists, who apparently do not wear Louboutin.
Which brings us back to the shoes and hair. It’s true that in insisting on their right to compete as they are, rather than wasting energy trying to be one of the guys, these women are demanding a more complete equality.
Yet having compiled inspiring examples of women’s brains, creativity and moxie, it’s a shame Ryckman defines femininity almost exclusively through high heels and flippy hairstyles.
“Stiletto Network: Inside the Women’s Power Circles That Are Changing the Face of Business” is published by Amacom ($22.95, 258 pages). To buy this book in North America, click here.
Muse highlights include John Mariani on wine and Lili Rosboch on art.
To contact the writer on the story: Hephzibah Anderson in London at Hephzibah_anderson@hotmail.com.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at email@example.com.