As I gain more experience as an entrepreneur, and a richer perspective on women in leadership, I’m more and more drawn to the stories of the women who came before me. Whether they’re great dames of history – Cleopatra, Elizabeth I, Sojourner Truth, Nellie McClung, and Grace Hopper come instantly to mind – or more contemporary pioneers, I’m finding myself more interested in biographies and memoirs and the lessons they hold for me in my entrepreneurial (and personal) journey.
So I was excited to receive a review copy of Women Count: A Guide to Changing the World, written by Susan Bulkeley Butler, a wildly accomplished woman who was both the first woman hired in a professional (i.e. non-clerical) role at Arthur Andersen & Co. (now Accenture), their first female partner, and now a philanthropist, mentor and CEO of the Susan Bulkeley Butler Institute for the Development of Women Leaders. Butler’s story is inspiring on all kinds of levels, and I’ve been looking forward to hearing her views on how to move women into leadership roles – and in the process of doing so, change the world for the better.
In the first couple of chapters, Butler paints a clear picture of herself and the context in which she established her career: She joined Arthur Andersen & Co. in 1965, and before she was hired, the company told her they’d need to check with their clients to see if they’d accept working with a “man in a skirt.” (Several companies refused to even interview her for a job, so this was progressive behaviour by comparison.) Her family was always encouraging and supportive, telling her she could do anything she set her mind to. Clearly, she had her mind set on a particular definition of career success – and she beat all the odds, climbing to the very top of her male-dominated profession. It’s an admirable achievement and she’s a likable narrator, describing her successes without fanfare – but also without false humility. She’s respectful of other women’s different definitions of success, while sticking true to her argument that women have a long way still to go, firing off depressing, rapid-fire statistics about gender ratios in business, political leadership and income levels.
Her conclusion: We need more women in leadership roles, and the time is now. By the time I hit page 17, I was fired up & dying to hear Butler’s proposal for how to move forward. Unfortunately, that’s where the book lost its sizzle for me, because I didn’t find a clearly-articulated strategy for moving women into the spotlight. I did discover some gems, though. (More on those in a moment.)
A good chunk of Women Count (which is a slim tome at just 124 pages, making it eminently readable) is devoted to a crash course in women leaders from history. Butler believes that a solid grounding in our history is necessary to expand our visions of what’s possible: “If women think their contributions to history are only a fraction of men’s, it’s going to continue to be hard for any woman to contribute more than just a fraction of her true and total potential” (Women Count, p. 10). It’s interesting and valuable stuff, to be sure, but the women she cites as heroines are sketched so quickly that we’re left with a hundred questions about each one, and I can’t help thinking she could have narrowed down the list, gone a little deeper into each one, and then referred us to some other books for further reading.
The bigger problem with the book, though, is that although its subtitle suggests that it contains a plan for change – and the preface boldly invites readers to “join the new movement” – it’s actually quite vague about what the reader ought to actually do to change things. I would have liked to have seen Butler set down more of a manifesto. I want to join her movement… but it’s unclear how I might do that.
One is also left wanting more from Butler in the areas where she’s clearly been very successful. Her chapter on mentorship, for example, is very engaging, and I would love to see a whole book from her on what great mentorship looks like – how to approach it from both the mentor and mentee perspective, examples of what works and what doesn’t, and her perspective on why mentorship is so important.
Similarly, a few short paragraphs about the power of focused philanthropy hint at great depths of insight Butler must have about how women of means could invest their money to shape how women’s leadership looks in the future. She calls out women for donating small amounts to too many organizations rather than investing more in a few select causes and looking at how to generate a solid return on investment, in the form of making progress towards positive change. Again, I felt like there could be a whole book lurking in her on that subject – I, for one, would love to hear her thoughts.
And the part of me that just loves a good story was dying to hear more about her time at Accenture and the nuts and bolts of how she climbed so high in that organization. Here and there throughout Women Count, she’ll throw in a line like, “We need to claim our rightful seats at the world’s decision-making tables and begin to make new accomplishments as teams of both women and men. Only then, as equal members, can we make the changes the world needs so badly.” Well, yes. But what does claiming our rightful seats look like? How did she claim her seat in Accenture’s boardrooms? What does it take to get in the room in the first place? Her insights as a woman who’s been highly successful would be incredibly valuable, but we don’t see much in the way of career advice from Butler in this book.
There is a notable exception, though: in Chapter 9, titled “Change our Organizations,” Butler includes a bulleted list for taking charge of your career that is almost worth the price of admission. It includes gems like, “Do you have an advocate who pushes you beyond your comfort zone so others can see your potential?” and “Have you asked for or applied for the position that you want – even before you believe you are well prepared for it?” She includes tips for both women aspiring to leadership positions and women who are in a position to mentor others. It’s short, sweet and incisive.
This book ultimately left me with more questions than answers, which isn’t surprising given the scope of the subject matter. It’s worth a read – it’s brief and contains enough in the way of intelligent insights and good stories to make it engaging – but the world-changing plan needs refining. And I’m convinced Butler’s best work is still to come.