How the power players do it - by Fortune senior editor at large Patricia Sellers

Are girls afraid of money?

April 18, 2011: 11:39 AM ET

While visiting a friend's daughter at Georgetown University earlier this month, I got lured into meeting with a group of 15 undergrads. The session was great fun and illuminating. These were bright young women whose ambitions ranged, they told me, from cleaning up the global environmental to achieving world peace to building Fortune 500 companies.

Not one shrinking violets here.

The weekly convener of these students is Susan Wilson, CEO of The Judgment Group and one of Fortune's 2009 Most Powerful Women Entrepreneurs. In her spare moments, Wilson does lots of stuff to help other women entrepreneurs. As part of her effort, she recently conducted an experiment that is profoundly unscientific and will make you wonder, profoundly: Are girls afraid of money? And if so, what does it mean for the future of the most promising next gen? -- Patricia Sellers

Guest Post by Susan Wilson, CEO of The Judgment Group and FundHer

Credit: Chris Crisman

I'm mentoring a group of 15 female undergrads at Georgetown, my alma mater. Given that my sons are now 14 and 13, I brought them with me a few weeks ago so they could experience the inimitable beauty of a room full of smart, empowered young women.

Before the session began, I placed five $20 bills on random desks throughout the classroom--based on where people typically sit when a room is half-filled. I could see my boys eyeballing the money. Sensing an imminent attack, I scooped up my boys and escorted them to their NEW seats in the back of the room.

Far from thrilled, my 13-year-old son asked, "What's to stop one of the girls from just taking the money, Mom?"

I laughed, "Absolutely nothing," I told him. " Can you JUST sit here and watch?"

It was as if they were going against nature, but they complied.

Over the next ten minutes, the girls trickled in. My sons and I watched. Did one girl scoop up the entire $100, as my son feared? Nope.

Did the girls fight over the twenties? Not exactly.

What happened was even worse--and my sons are still dumbfounded.

Without saying a word, the girls somehow agreed that they should ignore the money. Not only did they NOT take the $20 bills. They sat anywhere but NEAR the money!

It took some convincing, but I did manage to get a few of the girls to pick up the bills--finally. But they immediately declared they were donating the money. Why? Because no one wanted "to be greedy," they told me.

I wasn't shocked, but I decided to revisit the issue when I met with the girls a week later. I held up a $20 bill and asked who wanted it. No one moved. A good 30 seconds later, one of the girls raised her hand and said, "We should make a rule about who gets it."

Another girl raised her hand and declared, "It should go to the girl that got here first."

Everyone looked around, and they all nodded in agreement.

We spent the next hour discussing how girls think about money and make decisions. Even when rules weren't necessary, the girls refused to act and instead focused their energy on creating rules about who got the money.

Clearly, if men had been in the room, the women wouldn't have stood a chance.

I asked, "Why?" The group preferred rules because rules establish a system of norms. "Then," one astute girl laughed, "we can play within established parameters and still manipulate the rules to get our way."

Instinctively, I responded, "And still be considered good girls?"

Without missing a beat, the group nodded in agreement.

Does any of this surprise you? I've thought about it from every angle and I'm embarrassed that a part of me feels slightly relieved that it's not just me who feels this way about money. Even these bright young women--without the grown-up baggage of experience, responsibility, compromise and failure--have a dysfunctional relationship with money.

Which makes me feel guilty in a whole other way…argh! But this begs the question: How are women ever going to excel in business? And what can I do to help these girls--and myself?

For more views and heated debate," see "Are girls afraid of money? The answer is..." and "A tech entrepreneur's take on women and money."

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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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