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How they changed the face of Corporate America

April 07, 2009 14:13 IST

Asuncion 'Sunny' Hostin, slim and stylish in a black wrap-around sweater, shows up 30 minutes late for her meeting at an upscale café on Manhattan's Upper West Side. She's unruffled, though, and slides into her seat, runs her fingers through her hair and launches into a hilariously detailed description of what had delayed her: a man dressed as a Cherokee Indian darting in and out of traffic on the West Side Highway.

Cherokees aside, Hostin, the only female managing director in the New York office of the investigative firm Kroll Inc. and a regular commentator on CNN, is great at juggling: She has two young children, a surgeon husband and a septuagenarian assistant who had landed in the hospital with internal bleeding. None of it is stopping her from powering to the top.

She's part of a dynamic new cadre of young female executives who view their careers strategically and don't suffer long in jobs that don't challenge and advance them. More shrewd, they are storming traditionally male-dominated professions.

Many women currently in their 30s and 40s, as well as the rising generation behind them, are accelerating their advancement early by pursuing so-called 'line' jobs--where they have profit-and-loss responsibility and their performance is measured objectively.

More than ever before, women have the opportunity to make these choices on their own terms. "There was a time when women were trying to get a toehold any way they could," says Tamara Erickson, an author and expert on the changing workforce. "When a woman took a job, it's because it was available. (Women) now have the luxury to be more strategic and plan careers."

Take Marissa Mayer. The 33-year-old joined Google back when it was just another start-up among start-ups. One of the first 20 employees at the company, she began by writing code--she holds a master's degree in computer science. Ten years on, the "geek" has turned something of a celebrity in the Bay Area--hosting parties, attending public events and looking gorgeous while she does it. She is like many women of her generation: unabashedly feminine yet able to compete with the guys. And she's serious too, making key day-to-day decisions at Google and meeting regularly with the company's founders and CEO.

Sheryl Sandberg is another example. The 39-year-old came to Facebook after six years spent as head of sales at Google. Prior to that, she'd worked under Lawrence Summers in the Treasury Department in the Clinton administration. Her first job after college? McKinsey. Not only has Sandberg made waves by taking the job reporting to 24-year-old Mark Zuckerberg, she's also known in the Valley for hosting all-women's networking events.

Former Oppenheimer analyst Meredith Whitney, 39, who became a star in the finance world after foreseeing the banking crisis, has leveraged her fame to start her own research firm. In 1998, the glamorous Whitney became the youngest analyst at Wachovia to lead a research group on Wall Street financial institutions.

The doors were opened by pioneers like Xerox chief executive Anne Mulcahy and Patricia Woertz, who leads agribusiness giant Archer Daniel Midland. These women proved they could launch products, oversee plants and clinch deals. Mulcahy, who has two adult children, started at Xerox in 1976 and slowly climbed the rungs, spending 20 years in various human-resources roles before stepping up to operations.

Woertz, a mother of three, was at Chevron for 29 years, where she excelled at working with macho oil men. She took over at ADM two years ago.

Women of Mulcahy's generation, such as Maggie Wilderotter, 53, the head of Frontier Communications, say they made it possible for their younger counterparts to rise more quickly.

In fact, new research is bearing out the radical changes that ambitious women are spurring in the workforce. A study released last week by the Families and Work Institute found that, for the first time, women under 29 are as likely as men to want more responsibility in their job.

Having children doesn't make women less ambitious either. In fact, more working mothers than working non-mothers say they hope to rise up the ranks in the workplace (69 to 66 per cent). In 1992, 60 per cent of working mothers showed a similar desire to rise up the ranks.

"You have to take risks and get into jobs that are unconventional," explains Wilderotter. "Many of us in our generation have opened doors that enable (younger women) to be more confident and pursue those jobs more aggressively," says Wilderotter, the only female head of an New York Stock Exchange-listed telecom company.

Charlene Begley, who heads up General Electric's $4 billion Enterprise Solutions division and oversees 17,000 employees has said that she has survived (and thrived) by being flexible: She's run four businesses since 2001, including GE's plastics division, which she sold for $11.6 billion to a Saudi company. A 20-year veteran of the male-heavy company, Begley, 41, was the youngest woman to become a corporate officer, at age 32.

Despite some progress in engineering and tech, women have hardly penetrated the male clubbiness of Wall Street. In 2008 the federal government estimated that women made up less than one-third (29 per cent) of officers and managers at the country's biggest investment banks.

And much progress remains to be made in corporate America overall: Women hold only 15.7 per cent of corporate officer positions, despite being 46.5 per cent of the workforce.

Even so, it's women like Mayer, Begley, Sandberg and Hostin who are leading the charge.

The daughter of a Puerto Rican mother and African-American father, Hostin was raised in the South Bronx until she was 8. She began her career intending to become a journalist, but her mother, who'd given birth to Hostin in her teens and encouraged her daughter to be more strategic, advised her to get a law degree as a fall-back plan.

After clerking for a pioneering black judge in Maryland, Hostin spent six years at the Justice Department working on securities fraud and anti-trust cases. She then tried a private law firm but found it unfulfilling.

Today, Hostin is the top-five rainmaker at Kroll, which gathers intelligence and conducts investigations for corporate and government clients. She is a regular on CNN and Fox Business Network.

Although she excels at designing complex investigations that send her researchers from the Cayman Islands to Afghanistan, she's already planning her next move. She's been appearing regularly as a legal expert on CNN, and she's at work on a book that addresses everyday legal concerns for the layperson. She has also taped a pilot of a show she's shopping around. The show would allow viewers to call in and ask questions about their rights under tenant law or how to hire a divorce attorney.

She describes her rise as a combination of luck and preparedness. "Any woman who is successful will admit that you have to prepare for your next move; you always have to be thinking about it."

Heidi Brown, Forbes
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