Replacing the Old Boys’ Club with the Stiletto Network

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Dec 20, 2021

By AMA Staff

Pamela Ryckman has written for the New York Times, Financial Times, International Herald Tribune, New York Observer, and other publications, as well as Prior to becoming a journalist, she performed strategy work for Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs. She’s the author of a book, Stiletto Network: Inside the Women’s Power Circles That Are Changing the Face of Business, published by AMACOM, a division of American Management Association.

Ryckman talked about her book on podcastEdgewiseAMA's . The following has been adapted from that interview.

AMA: What prompted you to undertake the investigation that led to your book, Stiletto Network?
Pamela Ryckman: In November 2010, I attended a conference for an article that I was writing for the New York Times. It was 50 women—25 of the most high-powered women on the East Coast, and 25 of the most high-powered women on the West Coast. The purpose of the conference was to bring these women together to bridge the coastal divide and to get these women networking and talking about their various businesses.

While I was there I met one woman who introduced me to another, who introduced me to another, and in the course of talking and doing interviews, one of them said, “Well, in my dinner group...” I said, “Who’s in your dinner group?” And she said, “Well, I had one in the late ’90s, and it was me and Meg Whitman when she was running eBay, and Joy Covey when she was CFO of Amazon, and Dana Evan when she was CFO of VeriSign.” It was a bunch of very high-powered women across different companies, but also across different industries. What was interesting is that they all had technology on the basement level of their business, but they really weren’t in the same fields. So I said to this woman, “How did you all find each other?” And she sort of jokingly laughed and said, “Well, when you’re the only skirt in the room and another one walks in, you kind of notice.”

Then about two months later, I was continuing interviews for—I really didn’t know what it was going to be, but I felt like I was on to something—and another woman mentioned her dinner group. She was in a totally different geography; this was a woman from LA. And then another woman from New York said the same thing, and another woman from Philadelphia.

AMA: So a pattern was emerging.
PR: Exactly. I started to discover dinner groups, salons, networking circles, and coworking groups in every major city in the U.S. Most of them have no more than 10 women, but in the aggregate, they number in the tens of thousands of women nationwide. A lot of them have funny names, like The Babes in Boyland, or The Chicks in Charge, or SLUTS—Successful Ladies Under Tremendous Stress. There are the Power Bitches and the Brazen Hussies, too. All these women reappropriated names that historically were sexist, but use them for fun.

AMA: What differentiates today’s women’s groups from the traditional ladies-only coffee klatch?
PR: In the book I describe it as the confluence of evolution and revolution. Finally, after 40 years of women in the workplace, there are enough women to do really powerful things for each other. Also, technology is intervening. Women are more active users of social media than men. They’re a natural extension of what women do offline, which is, they network. They collaborate. If you look at what women have historically done in every arena, be it the carpool, the PTA, or the Girl Scouts, women reach out more broadly than men.

What makes this different is that now these women have either become captains of industry or are aspiring entrepreneurs. I found the same activity among CEO-level women in their 60s, millennials, and also moms launching businesses in their basements. They’re not only talking about their kids, they’re also talking about their businesses. These women are allowing each other to make certain leaps; really propelling each other forward. They’re giving each other courage, they’re facilitating new job opportunities, information, introductions, and in some cases, really landmark deals. They’re helping each other get ahead, and in many cases, giving each other the courage to take leaps that they might not have made if they didn’t have this incredibly supportive network behind them.

AMA: You talked earlier about the inherent networking abilities of women. Can you talk a bit about the differences in the way men and women network?
PR: What I found began as a negative, because women could not find like-minded counterparts—people who talked, acted, smelled, and dressed like them within their own companies, if not within their own industries. They couldn’t find the alliances within companies because it was so competitive. Often the notion was that there’s only room for one woman, so it’s going to be you or me. So the women within the companies couldn’t really be friends. They had to look outside to form friendships.

So women developed very broad horizontal networks. We’re going back 20 or 30 years here. But as these women continued to rise within their respective companies, the top women in finance got to know the top women in media, who know the top women in tech, who know the top women in retail. They’ve thrown the net wider, and from this new perspective, there are many more women with whom to affiliate.

The way women developed these horizontal cross-industry networks was quite different from men. Men weren’t historically obliged to look outside of their industry. If 20 guys knew they were all going to make partner together, they could afford to be collegial. They had their network right there.

What’s happened over time is that the negative has become a positive for women. This is the era where industries are converging. What we’re now seeing is game-changing innovation taking place at the junction of these industries. Women have these existing relationships and they’re exchanging intel all the time. They’re coming together to invest in companies and create their own companies, because that’s where the ideas are, and that’s now where the money is.

AMA: Many of the networks you discuss in the book involve women who are either at a very high level in a company, or aspire to a high level. Do you have any advice for younger women or for those who are new managers or middle managers who want to achieve stellar success?
PR: As I was writing the book, I was building the case for a powerful nationwide trend, and so I was following the money. There is a massive money trail. Yes, a lot of the women I highlight are quite successful now. But many of them attribute that success to their Stiletto networks. They weren’t so successful when they started these groups.

So what I would say to younger women, or even middle managers, is that this isn’t a story for just successful women. This isn’t something that begins in the C-suite; this is something that gets you to the C-suite—if that is in fact what you want.

It’s interesting: I found that these women really validate each other’s choices. There is no one definition of success. It’s what you want, not what somebody tells you is the definition of success. So if you don’t want to be a CEO, that’s perfectly fine. If you’re a mom launching a business in your basement, the idea is, get together with a friend, and say, “These are the skills that I’d love to learn.” Or, “This is what my dream is.” And that could be starting a school, or bettering a community, or overhauling a nonprofit.

These relationships among women, which are based in values and true ethics, go all over. What they really do is help women become the biggest, boldest, bravest version of themselves. This isn’t just about achieving in business; this is about achieving your dreams.

Learn more about Stiletto Network: Inside the Women’s Power Circles That Are Changing the Face of Business, published by AMACOM, a division of American Management Association.

You can gain further insights into women in business with this free AMA webcast.

About the Author(s)

AMA Staff American Management Association is a world leader in professional development, advancing the skills of individuals to drive business success. AMA’s approach to improving performance combines experiential learning—“learning through doing”—with opportunities for ongoing professional growth at every step of one’s career journey. AMA supports the goals of individuals and organizations through a complete range of products and services, including seminars, Webcasts and podcasts, conferences, corporate and government solutions, business books and research.