What It Takes to Be a Woman

By Laura Sessions Stepp
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Here's a question my female friends and I sometimes ask ourselves: Why do our younger colleagues freely call themselves girls?

Unreconstructed '60s feminists we may be, but we insisted on being called women when we were their age -- and were ready to pounce on any guy who didn't go along with us so we could reveal him to be the male chauvinist that he was.

But today, it's "me and the girls," or "I know this girl who," among women as young as 18 and as old as 35.

I wonder if that reflects a greater comfort with youth and femininity, or if they aren't sure what being a woman means. If the latter, I can hardly blame them, because the social culture they're swimming in doesn't know, either. Forty-year-old women get their faces stitched and tummies tucked in an effort to look 18 again. Fashion houses tout the thin-boy look over the curvy female. Last week, NBC rolled out a remade "Bionic Woman," super-intelligent and super-athletic but, let's face it, also a super-cold robot. Yet less than a year ago, the media could not get enough of the "train wreck girls," Britney, Lindsay and Nicole, seemingly so fragile and way too human.

To top it all, the woman who is under the greatest public scrutiny these days, Hillary Rodham Clinton, has been disparaged in her career both for being too masculine and for flaunting her femininity. When she first entered national politics, her mannish suits got everyone going until New York designers fell over themselves to soften her up. Then this summer, she showed a tiny bit of cleavage on the Senate floor, prompting comment from The Post's fashion columnist -- and a small firestorm of debate both about the appropriateness of the comment and of the cleavage itself. For some, the first viable female candidate for president is not feminine enough; for others, she's too feminine.

Such conflicting images challenge young women like Liz Funk, a college junior who is writing a book about women in their late 20s. Funk says she and the young women she calls her "girlfriends" have no problem on weekends dazzling guys and each other with their short skirts, four-inch heels and blouses that show way more than Clinton's Senate attire. But as they tiptoe into their professional lives, they adjust their wardrobes -- as well as other outward signals such as their tone of voice -- in order to convey a professional image in a working world still dominated by men.

"When my friends go on internship interviews wearing suits, they make sure they have brightly colored beads on as well," she says. "We are all looking for ways to command the office and still have a feminine side in play. But it's not easy."

Thank goodness they don't feel that they have to wear neckties instead of necklaces, as many women who started working in the 1970s did. Often having outperformed the guys in college, they enjoy more confidence than many of us did at their age -- although they only have to look around the office to be reminded of the hurdles they still face.

"There's equality in school," says Michelle Tandler, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania who worked this summer in New York at the financial services firm Morgan Stanley. But at Morgan Stanley, "almost all the managing directors are men and virtually every secretary is female."

So back to the question: Do they need to shy away from the feminine in order to replace some of those directors?

Absolutely not, says Michelle Peluso, president and chief executive of the online travel services firm Travelocity.

The 35-year-old Peluso adores pretty dresses and lists a passion for salsa dancing on her r¿sum¿. Her company photo makes her look like a high school sweetheart on the old sitcom "Happy Days." And none of that has stopped her from producing returns that any male chief executive would fight for. Since she became chief in 2003, revenue has jumped every year: 31 percent from 2005 to 2006 alone, to $1.1 billion, according to Travelocity's parent company, Sabre Holdings. Travelocity is now the fifth-largest travel agency in the United States.

"This is a great time to be a woman," she says.

What does she mean?

"The skills required in business increasingly favor what women are good at."

Such as?

A collaborative leadership style rather than an attitude of "command and control," she says, especially since businesses are increasingly global and complex. Supervisors must draw on their EQ, or emotional quotient, as well as their IQ, she says, to connect with and inspire colleagues.

This means using their intuition to pick up silent cues when things aren't going right. It also means making accommodations for employees who need time off for children or other personal concerns, thereby winning their dedication. Travelocity has done so -- a chief operating officer has had two children while there -- and although Peluso hasn't yet taken time off to have a baby, if she did, "we'd figure it out and make it work," she says.

In many ways, this debate is a luxury of the privileged. If you're a young woman in Sudan searching for clean water for your family, or in Cambodia looking through dumps for small items you can trade, teasing out the difference between "girl" and "woman" isn't exactly on your mind.

Jenny Ouellet, a 24-year-old who has seen her share of hard times, recognizes that. She wrote to me a month ago from her home in northern Massachusetts, fed up with a lack of confidence she was seeing in some of the young women she knew.

It's not that she didn't know how they felt. When she graduated from high school, she traveled with rock bands, lost the man of her dreams and ended up with 32 tattoos and a baby. She went to work in a music store, started paying off debts, learned how to cook and is raising her little boy, now 3, by herself, with some financial support from the boy's father.

Making a life for herself and her son, virtually alone, forced her to realize who she was and what she was capable of as a female.

"It's not what I wear or how I do my hair," she wrote me. "I'm convinced it's that I carry myself with confidence. I don't feel like I'm the all-around perfect catch, but I've been through enough to know I'm a great mother, a loving daughter, an honest friend, a great lover and someday, I'll make a great wife. You grow into the title of woman."

Almost-women, such as Joanna Meyer-Glitzenstein and her friend Sarah Giffin, juniors at Wilson High School in the District, would envy such self-assurance. At the moment, they feel bewildered by all the things that seem to set them apart: their sensitivity, for example, and their tendency to worry.

"I think about everything so much," says Joanna, "my friends, their friends, my problems, their problems. It drives me crazy."

Sarah nods. "Guys just take things as they are. We can't let anything go until we figure it out."

Being a woman seems a long way off to the two students, just as it does to the slightly older Funk and Tandler. When Joanna thinks of a real woman, she thinks of her mother -- "bold, strong and really caring." Tandler also looks up to her mom, who was, she says, "co-CEO of our company with my dad. She dresses with class and makes anyone in a room feel comfortable." Sarah's role model is her grandmother, and for Funk, it's New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd.

Funk says her forthcoming book on high-achieving young women will be called "Supergirls."

Why not "Superwomen"?

"We're afraid of becoming women," she says.

So here's one final thought: Perhaps this generation avoids the word "woman" not because they're uncertain what it means but because they are certain -- and not sure they measure up yet.

We, their elders, sang "I Am Woman" to make ourselves heard. They have the tougher job of living our dream. ¿

© 2007 The Washington Post Company