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Female CEOs Describe Tough Road To The Top In 'Earning It'


We want to dig into one aspect of the American dream - for some climbing to the top rungs of the corporate ladder. And we're talking about women now. For some, Hillary Clinton's failed bid for the presidency was just the latest and most visible setback for a woman seeking a top job, but it could be seen as business as usual for women fighting to get to the top in the corporate world with a path to the executive office has rarely been a smooth upward arc.

But what is that path even if it twists and turns? That's what veteran business writer Joann Lublin tried to find out. In her book "Earning It: Hard-Won Lessons From Trailblazing Women At The Top Of The Business World," Joann Lublin interviewed 52 female corporate leaders, many at publicly traded companies. And we need to let you know that some of the things we're going to be talking about might surprise you such as fending off sexual assault.

Joann Lublin is a trailblazer herself as one of the first women to break into management at the Wall Street Journal. She spent much of her career writing about workplace issues. She's management news editor now. I started our conversation by asking her why this book and why now?

JOANN LUBLIN: The book grew out of a first-person essay that I wrote for a Wall Street Journal blog back in 2008. And the essay was entitled Remember the Barriers. And I wrote this essay in order to essentially educate my then 20-something daughter who was entering the workforce about what it had been like to be a journalist in the early 1970s and what were some of the experiences I had related to my gender.

I got so much reaction in terms of email to that essay, it just got me thinking that I bet there are high-ranking executive women who'd gotten much further in their careers than I had who had also overcome obstacles of one kind or another in their careers and had become better leaders for it. So that was the genesis for the book.

MARTIN: Were there some common threads that stood out for you?

LUBLIN: For one thing, it seemed that a number of these women had very similar leadership traits. And at the same time, they were very persistent about trying to get to a goal especially early in their careers where, for many of these women, doors got slammed in their faces. They had high-level college degrees, college educations and weren't able to get high-paying or meaningful jobs.

But very rarely did they give up and, obviously, this is a pretty select group of the women who agreed to talk to me. I got turned down by some women, as well. Some cases - current chief executives were too busy - very understandable. In other cases, high-level executive women don't want to be pigeonholed. They want to be treated as an executive full stop. Forget the gender thing.

MARTIN: So they don't want to be in a book that talks about the experiences particularly of women? That's interesting.

LUBLIN: Exactly.

MARTIN: You talk about all kinds of issues in the book and I want to be clear on that. But there are a number of examples where women experience some pretty gross sexual misconduct. In one high-profile example, you describe how Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, had her reputation trashed early in her career by a colleague who...

LUBLIN: Basically tried to get him - her to go to bed with him.


LUBLIN: She refused and when she arrived at the office the next day where he worked, he had spread the rumor - the false rumor - that she had slept with him the night before.

MARTIN: What did she do when this happened?

LUBLIN: Well, she clearly was at a disadvantage. This man who had propositioned her, whom she had rejected was higher up in the food chain than she was. When she got to that office the next day and heard that he had spread the story that they had had sex together the night before, she went to another male colleague in that office who, again, was higher up in the corporate hierarchy than her and basically told him the truth and explained why this was a lie.

But she didn't stop there. OK? She at that time was bidding on a major federal agency contract in which the man who had propositioned her would have ordinarily been part of the team. She just made it her business to exclude him from the project.

MARTIN: But along the lines of issues that are specific to people because of their gender, you talk about the case of the advertising executive Charlotte Beers who talks about being physically assaulted by a client that she had just nabbed for her advertising agency. And in that story, he gets her into a darkened room and literally kind of jumps on her. She's able to fight him off. In addressing this, what she does is she works out a deal to get the assaulter off the project, and she keeps the deal for her company through her tough bargaining.

LUBLIN: By assigning the client to a guy.

MARTIN: By assigning the client to a guy. I talked about this with a number of women in my office and many of them felt is that really the right solution in this day and age? I mean, shouldn't she have pressed charges or why should she have assigned that deal to a guy? I mean, that sort of thing. I guess what the question is does this advice still hold up?

LUBLIN: I think this advice holds up very loud and clear in 2016. In her case, this was a relatively small ad agency. This company represented one of their biggest clients. There is a much more recent example in the book in which one of the female CEOs a couple of years ago is approached by one of her young female staffers who says that basically she's being stalked - you know, not physically, but by email and text and whatnot - by one of their major clients who's demanding that she go out with him. And she doesn't want to go out with him.

But yet, she doesn't want to jeopardize this client because this is a startup. They need every major corporate client that they can get. And what her counsel was to this 20-something staffer was aren't you already involved romantically with someone else? And she said yes. She said just go back to this client and say I'm sorry but I'm already involved with someone else, and if that doesn't work, I will personally get involved. Well, it did work.

MARTIN: OK. But the point here I think for other people would be that, first of all, what if this person who physically assaulted Charlotte Beers goes on to assault someone else? And why is it that this woman's desire not to be involved with this client is contingent upon her being involved with someone else?

There was a very recent case of this, I will say, at Fox News where if the allegations are to be believed then, evidently, there was enough credibility to warrant a very large monetary settlement to one complaint and in particular this was standard operating practice for some of the young professionals there. And a lot of people would say why should their relationships be relevant to whether they are pressed into unwanted relationships or not?

LUBLIN: And I think the larger question from that situation is why did so many women at Fox tolerate this horrible behavior if true for so many years without saying anything, without speaking up, without pressing charges, without filing a lawsuit? It's for the same reason that, you know, many women do not do so. They fear being branded a complainer, a whistleblower, and they worry about the employment consequences. And the larger question is, you know, when does this become the responsibility of men and women alike and the onus isn't entirely on women?

MARTIN: And so what - I think what you're saying is that for now maybe it's not fair, but that's common sense. And this is what you have to do.

LUBLIN: I say that because we're not yet at that ideal world. I think we're going to get there in your and my lifetimes, at least in this country. I'm not sure women in certain other countries and certain other cultures will see that era come when the onus is not entirely on women.

MARTIN: That's Joann Lublin. She's the author of "Earning It: Hard-Won Lessons From Trailblazing Women At The Top Of The Business World." She was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York. Joann, thanks so much for joining us.

LUBLIN: And thank you for having me, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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