Leadership by Geoff Colvin

Behind Fortune's Most Powerful Women

March 23, 2009: 12:44 PM ET

What makes a Fortune Most Powerful Woman?

This is a question that we get constantly, since rising-star business women (or their PR people!) wrangle to get a spot on Fortune's annual Power 50 list. And many a male CEO takes it as a badge of honor to have one or more of his direct reports in the MPWomen rankings. In just 11 years, Fortune's MPWomen list, which we release in the fall, has become Fortune's second-biggest franchise. Still No. 1: the Fortune 500. (Don't tell my boss, but we who work on MPWomen are gunning to surpass the 500!)

If you want some inside scoop on the Most Powerful Women list and Fortune's annual MPWomen Summit, check out this just-released story in More magazine. Here's an excerpt from a Q&A that More did with me:

Q: What marks a most-powerful woman now, and is she different from the women you first named, in 1998?
A: Definitely. Those women tended to be hard-charging, take-no-prisoners, barracuda types; there was very little that was warm or soft. I feel like I'm falling into a stereotype trap here, but that 1980s or 1990s woman was almost a caricature of a woman in power. Even Carly Fiorina [the first female CEO of a Fortune 20 company, Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), later ousted and, last year, an adviser to the McCain campaign] was -- you could say -- ambitious to a fault.

Q: And now?
A: A new model is evolving, personified by Xerox (XRX) CEO Anne Mulcahy or Andrea Jung at Avon (AVP). I don't want to say feminine or soft, but just well-rounded. We've evolved to the point where women at the top can be very, very . . . normal.

Q: Journalists have predicted for years that top-women lists would become obsolete. But there are still only 12 women CEOs in the Fortune 500. Will events like yours become superfluous?
A: No. Because I don't think there will ever be parity at the top.

Q: Ever?
A: Ever. Ever. Ever.

Q: Is that partly because women don't want the top jobs?
A: Absolutely. Glass ceilings may or may not exist in 50 years, but there will still not be parity, because women think differently about power. They're reinventing it; they want to spread it around and be collaborative. I also think that men get off on being a Fortune 500 CEO more than women do. It's not the same thrill. Take [former eBay (EBAY) CEO] Meg Whitman. She wants to change the world, as a lot of Silicon Valley women do. Her identity was less about being a CEO. Now she's running for governor of California.

There's more in More. Enjoy!pattie-signature10

P.S. And for more on Meg Whitman's bid to be California's next governor, check out my cover story in the new issue, which hits newsstands today. The former eBay boss has heavy-duty support from Cisco (CSCO) CEO John Chambers, Yahoo CEO (YHOO) Carol Bartz, Sun Microsystems chairman (JAVA) Scott McNealy, and other Silicon Valley titans.

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About This Author
Pattie Sellers
Pattie Sellers
Senior Editor at Large, Fortune
Executive Director of MPW/Live Content, Time Inc.

Pattie Sellers has written more than 20 Fortune cover stories including "Marissa Mayer: Ready to Rumble at Yahoo," "Muhtar Kent's New Coke," "Oprah's Next Act", "The $100 Billion Woman" (Melinda Gates), and "Gone with the Wind" (Ted Turner). She co-founded Fortune Most Powerful Women and oversees the Fortune MPW Summit, the preeminent gathering of women leaders in business and beyond—and programs such as Fortune MPW Entrepreneurs and the Fortune-U.S. State Department Global Women Leaders Mentoring Partnership. Pattie also develops Live Content across Time Inc. Her blog, Postcards, is about how power players lead and navigate their careers. Pattie won Time Inc.'s prestigious MVP award for her performance in 2012.

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MPWomen go Global

The Fortune/U.S. State Department Global Women Leaders Mentoring Partnership brings rising-star women from countries around the world to the U.S. for three-week mentorships with participants of the annual Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit - among them Ursula Burns of Xerox, Laura Lang of Time Inc., Marissa Mayer of Yahoo, and Tory Burch.

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