by Allison Shirreffs

October 7, 2009

In the 2006 movie The Devil Wears Prada, Meryl Streep plays Miranda Priestly, the powerful and ruthless editor of the fictitious fashion magazine, Runway. Priestly continuously barks orders at her personal assistant, Andy, played by Anne Hathaway. She has no qualms about humiliating those around her or discarding a designer’s collection with a shrug. Priestly strikes fear most everywhere she goes, cracking only when considering the impact her impending divorce may have on her twin daughters.

The real life Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour is thought to be the inspiration for Miranda Priestly (Wintour’s former assistant, Lauren Weisberger, wrote the best-selling book on which the movie is based). While Wintour has been praised for her support of young designers and her ability to spot fashion trends – she’s been editor at Vogue for 20 years – her distant and demanding persona earned her the nickname “Nuclear Wintour.”

Wintour is the focus of the 2009 movie, The September Issue, a documentary about Vogue and the fashion magazine business. R.J. Cutler, who directed the documentary, tailed Wintour for eight months. In a recent Los Angeles Times interview, Cutler explains that before making The September Issue, he was aware of Wintour’s “power and her position,” but spending time with her gave him an appreciation for the “magnitude of her influence.”

The release of the movie has amplified the attention paid to Wintour. While much of what’s been written about the movie and Wintour has been positive, there are notable exceptions. In The New York Times, Wintour was referred to as “the Sun King,” and a “dominatrix.” She appeared on 60 Minutes earlier this year. When Morley Safer asked Wintour, who had just described herself as “very driven” and “very competitive” if she is “a bitch,” Wintour answered, “I try not to be. But I like people who represent the best of what they do and if that turns you into a perfectionist, then yes, I am.”

The question Wintour could have asked Safer in return: “If I were a man in a similar position, one who dominates a $300 billion industry, would you have asked an equivalent question?”

Linda Peek Schacht, a professor at Lipscomb University and former senior fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, explains, “Women have trouble communicating power in a way that is acceptable to followers.” Schacht served in the office of media liaison in the Carter White House, held top communication jobs for the U.S. Senate Democratic Policy Committee, The Coca-Cola Co., and USA Today. “There are expectations of what a woman in power looks like and sounds like,” Schacht says. “A leader has to understand context.”

In other words, Miranda Priestly may be able to boss people around in the fashion industry, but drop her into a conservative FORTUNE 500 company, and she wouldn’t last a week.

Schacht has worked with a number of powerful people. In addition to President Jimmy Carter, Schacht worked with the legendary CEO Roberto Goizueta at The Coca-Cola Co. and with Cathleen P. “Cathie” Black at USA Today. In 2009, Black, currently president of Hearst Magazines, was named one of FORTUNE’s “50 Most Powerful Women.” Black also wrote the 2008 bestseller, Basic Black: The Essential Guide for Getting Ahead at Work (and in Life).

In chapter five, Black addresses power. “Too much talk of power makes me uncomfortable. I always hesitate a little when anyone asks me about my ‘power’ at Hearst or in the magazine business. It’s certainly not the reason I do what I do, and frankly, in many ways it’s incidental to what I do,” Black writes. “Some people seem to believe that true power is expressed by cracking the whip, often publicly. But I’d argue the opposite. True power is motivating a team and meeting your goals without having to crack the whip.”

In Schacht’s experience, people with power fall into one of two categories: those (like Black) who have the confidence to share their power with others, and those who “view power as a non-renewable resource and hold onto it.” Those in the latter category “have trouble being successful,” she says.

Joseph Nye, who served as assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs in the Clinton administration, contends that the role of power in leadership is changing because organizations are being transformed by the information age.

In his 2008 column, “The Next American Leader,” Nye states: “Hierarchies are becoming flatter, and knowledge workers respond to different incentives and political appeals. . . .Soft power – the ability to get what you want by attraction rather than by coercion or payment [what Nye calls, “hard power”] – is becoming more important.”

Every leader needs a degree of soft power, but that soft power alone is rarely sufficient, he says. “Leaders must develop the contextual intelligence that allows them to combine hard and soft power resources into a ‘smart power’ strategy.”

Schacht believes an era of smart power will be good for women. “It’s an opportunity for women to use best what they have in soft power, but to know it’s OK to be tough in the right circumstance,” she says, adding that successful leaders – both male and female – will be those who use whatever power they have to advance their organizations.

In her book, Black says as much. “Not everybody will like it when you take matters into your own hands, but if what you’re doing will ultimately help the company and/or your co-workers, don’t let the skeptics intimidate you,” she writes.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women hold approximately half of all jobs in the United States, and of the jobs women do have, slightly more than half of them are managerial and professional positions. That’s good news. But there’s some not-so-good news.

In 1998, less than half a percent of FORTUNE 500 companies had female CEOs, and barely 11 percent of corporate officers were women. It is progress then, that as of July 2009, three percent of FORTUNE 500 companies had women at the helm, and women occupied nearly 16 percent of corporate officer positions.

But at the current rate, it will take 40 years for the number of female corporate officers to match the number of male officers.

Why is that? There are clear incentives to place women in leadership roles. Studies conducted by several different organizations (including McKinsey & Co. and Goldman Sachs) examined the correlation between the financial performance of corporations and the number of women in leadership roles.

The studies found convincing evidence that having more women at the top improves a company’s financial performance. Given the statistics on women in corporate leadership roles, either companies are finding it difficult to capitalize on the contributions women can make to their organizations or they’ve yet to do so.

A number of studies attempt to explain the gap between the number of talented women available for high-powered jobs and the relatively few women who occupy them.

In a 2004 speech, “Are We There Yet?” Nannerl. O. Keohane, a distinguished professor at Princeton University and the former president of Duke University, notes that while there are undeniably more women in power than there were 30 years ago, “the progress towards more high-powered jobs and public office” remains “very slow indeed” because of the obstacles women face in other areas of their lives – mainly juggling their careers and their private lives.

“The issue cuts close to home for me, based on conversations I have had with many women in high-powered corporate jobs who are very reluctant to ‘rock the boat’ by expressing any interest in domestic arrangements or demonstrating any sympathy for feminism,” Keohane says. “Some of them just don’t get it; others get it very well, but have made a decision that taking up ‘women’s issues’ is a surefire way to get branded as not serious about your work, not really ‘one of the guys’ after all.”

Part of the problem is that women have difficulty asking for what they want, notes Hannah Riley Bowles. Bowles, associate professor at the Kennedy School of Government, has conducted several studies focusing on the role gender plays in negotiating salary.

In a Q&A in the Kennedy School Bulletin, Riley Bowles explains a “key take-away” from her studies: “When we see sex differences in the propensity to negotiate, it’s not just because of some deficiency on the part of women. Women are getting different cues from society, and they’re responding to them,” she says. “Women face different social incentives than men, and that’s something they need to think about trying to work around if they do want to ultimately gain the same resources.”

While woman can be more aware of their own gender stereotypes, companies have a role to play, too. “Organizations can think about people as whole human beings who have family lives as well as work lives,” Riley Bowles says. “Being thoughtful about the implicit signals that are embedded in the structure of the organization in terms of who is in what types of positions may be a way of getting more out of the talent pool that you have.”

Many organizations are being proactive – incorporating flextime and the capability for employees to work from home – and given the wants and needs of the next generation, more companies will follow suit in an effort to attract and retain a talented work force. “The generation I’m teaching now defines success very differently. They look at ‘How do I change the world and be fulfilled at the same time,’” Schacht says.

They expect to change jobs multiple times, and for the most part, adds Schacht, they are color and gender blind. “If you can do the job and work with other people, they don’t care if you’re male or female, black, white, or Hispanic. It’s encouraging to watch them work together.”

As these students move into positions of power Schacht says she has “great hope for a more egalitarian work force in the future – one that makes it easier for women to claim and experience power because the context has changed.”

While it’s encouraging to think that the needs and wants of the next generation will affect change in the workplace, Riley Bowles wonders what’s wrong with doing something now. “You don’t have to wait for society to change. You’re part of changing society,” she says. “We don’t presume that the answer is necessarily that women need to imitate the men. This may be about developing women’s voice in a new way.”

About the Author

A writer and photographer, Allison Shirreffs has worked with various organizations and publications, including The Coca-Cola Co., FORTUNE magazine, Goizueta Business School at Emory University, and the Atlanta Braves. For the good of a piece, she’s gone paragliding, bungee jumped, raced cars, attended hedge fund, health care. and competitive advantage panel discussions, kayaked in the Allegheny River, and listened carefully to people’s stories.

She has a degree in economics from Tulane University and a graduate degree in creative writing from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She lives in Atlanta, Ga.

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