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Woman Power
Washington has more women in high places than ever. Here’s how the 100 most powerful got to the top, how they balance career and family, and their advice for young women on the way up. By Leslie Milk
Susan Aldrige, Ellie Merrill, Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, and Cathy Merrill Williams at the Most Powerful Women luncheon. Click below to see the full slideshow from the event.
Comments () | Published October 9, 2009

When we first picked Washington’s 100 most powerful women 27 years ago, it was hard to come up with 100. This time, we could name 100 powerful women on Capitol Hill and another 100 in top posts in the Obama administration.

In almost every part of the public, private, and nonprofit sectors, there’s a deep bench of smart, savvy women who could each be considered one of the top 100. This year, we’ve chosen to recognize those who make things happen in hometown Washington as well as in the nation’s capital.

When we wrote about the 100 most powerful women in 2006, there was a different cast of characters and a very different character to the discussion about women in high places. The focus was on how women had overcome career obstacles to get to the top.

This time we wanted to know the rest of the story. We asked those we selected to fill out a survey about their home lives as well as their work lives. More than 60 responded. The results were heartening. Women at the top have real lives, balance their time between jobs and families—and secretly splurge on shoes.

We asked how powerful women had prepared for their careers. More than a third majored in government or political science in college, and three out of four earned advanced degrees. Nearly 25 percent have law degrees.

Growing up, most had jobs after school or in the summer—they scooped ice cream, picked strawberries, waited tables, sold popcorn in movie theaters, and babysat.

When a director of one of the National Institutes of Health was in middle school, she was on the teen advisory board of the fashion department at Dayton’s in Minneapolis. Studio Theatre artistic director Joy Zinoman was a child actress. Fairfax Board of Supervisors chairman Sharon Bulova worked behind the counter at a pharmacy in Pikesville, Maryland, where she made “coddies”—codfish patties between saltine crackers slathered in mustard, a Baltimore specialty.

Many of the women took somewhat expected routes to their chosen fields, but others arrived circuitously. It’s not surprising that DC Schools chancellor Michelle Rhee’s first professional job was teaching. But Consumer Product Safety Commission chairman Inez Moore Tenenbaum, Rand Construction CEO Linda Rabbitt, Meyer Foundation president Julie Rogers, philanthropist Sheila Johnson, and University of Maryland director of athletics Deborah Yow were teachers, too.

Public-radio host Diane Rehm and Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg started out as office clerks. Marilynn Bland, chairperson of the Prince George’s County Council, was a neonatal intensive-care nurse. National Public Radio CEO Vivian Schiller began her career as a tour guide and interpreter in the former Soviet Union. Debbie Dingell, a member of the Democratic National Committee and wife of Democratic congressman John Dingell, started out on the Hill working for a Republican senator.

Flexibility is a plus, said Eleanor Holmes Norton, DC’s delegate to Congress: “Don’t set limits or map out your entire career. Life is full of surprises.” Added philanthropist Catherine Reynolds: “Don’t let anyone or any job description define you.”

More than 80 percent of Washington’s powerful women are married. Nearly 40 percent of those earn more than their husbands; about 20 percent make less.

Nearly three out of four have children, and several have grandchildren. Spending time with kids takes planning. “Compartmentalize!” one woman said. Children take priority over work, according to several. “Any commitment to my kids ranks above my most important business commitment,” said a museum official.

Some have interesting stratagems for spending time with their children.

“I take them on business trips for one-on-one time,” said a university leader.

“Say no to nine out of ten weeknight invitations, pick them up from school at least once a week, watch old movies and big political speeches from bed together, make time for laughs, and stay home and provide ice cream when they’re sick,” one mother advised. “Snuggle and read at least four picture books each day with the little ones,” said another.

“Seize the small moments,” advised an association president. “When my daughter was getting up at 4:15 every day to go to swim practice, I would get up to make her toast. Those 15 minutes meant a lot.”

Spending time with adult children is also a major concern of powerful women—though it often requires more planning and incentives. Family vacations and dinners are high on the list.

“Build a house on the water and they will come,” said an entrepreneur who did just that.

“My son is married and under the supervision of another woman, so I try to stay on good terms with her,” said an association executive.

Where do these women get the energy to lead such busy lives? More than half said they get seven to eight hours of sleep a night. Twenty-six percent average six hours.

Most are committed to physical fitness. More than 70 percent have regular fitness routines—20 percent have personal trainers, 37 percent work out on their own, and 14 percent belong to health clubs.

Almost three in five said exercise is their favorite form of relaxation. They bike, do Pilates, practice yoga, walk, run, kayak, and ski. An association president and mother of five is a competitive swimmer in a masters swim group. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano plays tennis.

Reading is the most popular leisure activity—nearly half of the respondents listed it first. Gardening was a distant second; spending time with friends, family, and dogs came in third.

One thing many powerful women don’t do is lunch. The most popular midday-meal spot was “my desk.” A few skip lunch altogether. There’s no power restaurant frequented by this group. Those who do lunch listed 29 places as their favorites.

At home, 30 percent of Washington’s most powerful women said they actually enjoy cooking or cleaning. “Washing dishes is very cathartic,” said a broadcaster. Ironing, cleaning closets, washing windows, and decorating or remodeling are also on the list.

More than 30 percent hate to do at least one household chore. “Anything involving a sponge,” said Meet the Press producer Betsy Fischer.

Powerful women are dependent on BlackBerrys, iPhones, and computers. What other gadgets do they consider essential? GPS systems and Kindle readers each got votes as “can’t live without” items. Nearly 20 percent of the women named a kitchen gadget—from a hand-held milk frother to a good potato peeler. The strangest item deemed essential: a hand-cranked emergency TV.

Powerful women share a passion for shoes—20 percent said they were their secret splurge. Handbags, clothes, spa visits, jewelry, and art were also mentioned.

“I splurge on my mom and my dogs,” said DC police chief Cathy Lanier. “Whatever they need, they get.”

Finally, we asked about the best career advice they’ve received and what they’d say to young women starting out.

“Find a good mentor who believes in you; dump friends—including boyfriends—who don’t,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. “Remember that trying and failing isn’t nearly as harmful as never trying at all.”

Another common piece of advice—pay attention to the bottom line. “You must know how money works,” said Trinity Washington University president Patricia McGuire.

Philanthropist Sheila Johnson had even simpler advice: “Pay cash for everything!”

>>Next: See our list of Washington's 100 Most Powerful Women


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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 10/09/2009 RSS | Print | Permalink | Articles