Most Powerful Women

Gen Y women excel—and learn from the pros

July 2, 2013: 11:16 AM ET

We've come a long way (baby!) in women's confidence to achieve as well as men.

Mary Minnick, Emily Lawson, Andrea Jung, Harriet Green, Pattie Sellers (l to r)

Mary Minnick of Lion Capital, Emily Lawson of McKinsey, Andrea Jung, Harriet Green, moderator Pattie Sellers (l to r)

On the heels of Sheryl Sandberg's best-selling Lean In comes a new study, "Women, Power & Money" that finds 70% of Gen Y women describe themselves as "smart," vs. just 54% of Gen Y men.

That's a stunning level of confidence that young women can take to the bank. Compared to the Baby Boomers and Gen Xers before them, Gen Y women, born between 1979 and 1994, grew up after Title IX passed in 1972 and  learned that they can do anything boys can do, maybe better.

Still, their older generations include pioneers—as we saw last week at Fortune Most Powerful Women: London. Joining a panel of  women who serve on both U.S. and European boards, Harriet Green detailed how she snagged the CEO position at Thomas Cook last year: She cold-called the travel giant's chairman and said, "You need me." Green, who had been chief of electrical component distributor Premier Farnell, had no cred in the travel business, but she knew how to do turnarounds. Indeed, since she took charge at Thomas Cook, the share price has risen more than six-fold.

Billie Jean King

Billie Jean King

Former Avon (AVP) CEO Andrea Jung, who sits on the boards of Apple (AAPL), General Electric (GE) and Daimler AG (DDAIF), was also on the boards panel and echoed Green's advice: "Be proactive. Let people know you want to be on the board," Jung said. "Put your specialty skill out there."

Billie Jean King, at MPW London on day one of Wimbledon, noted how hard-won success (and confidence) once was for women. Forty years ago--on June 20, 1973—King was the reluctant leader of 63 women who met behind locked doors in London's Gloucester Hotel and created the Women's Tennis Association. The WTA secured equal prize money for women vs. men in tournaments. "This was a long time happening," King said, recalling how she plotted the coup. She asked each of her fellow women players: Who can you influence? "I broke it up that way: 'Okay, Rosie Casals, you're going to go talk to this person and that person. And Anne Jones, you're going to…' We did a lot of lobbying and work behind the scenes."

The King-led group of reformers held meetings until 4:30 a.m. that year and slept an average four hours a night. "Oh, we had some tennis matches to play, by the way," she said.

King was 29 and so exhausted that "I thought I wouldn't even get by the first round." But the thrill of empowerment carried her. "I won three titles that year, I was so excited. Singles, doubles and mixed."

That September, she beat Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes. "The best way to handle women is to keep them pregnant and barefoot," Riggs boasted at that legendary match. King whipped Riggs and went on to win a total of 39 Grand Slam titles. "Pressure is a privilege," King says. "Champions adjust." And now, as a documentary called "Battle of the Sexes" hits screens this month, she'll inspire a few more women to be leaders.

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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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