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

More women fall off the tracks

June 8, 2009: 12:31 PM ET

The ouster of Bank of America's (BAC) chief risk officer, Amy Brinkley, was inevitable, as I wrote in "Behind the shakeup at BofA" on Friday.

And as I mentioned in that piece, two years ago, Fortune featured Brinkley and five other execs in "One Step Away," about rising-star Most Powerful Women on track to be CEOs of Fortune 500 companies someday. So what's happened to the other five?

One woman made it to the top: Ellen Kullman became CEO of DuPont in January.

Avon (AVP) President Liz Smith is on track to succeed Andrea Jung as CEO there.

Schering-Plough pharma boss Carrie Cox will soon be working for Merck (MRK), pending its  $41 billion acquisition likely to close in the fourth quarter.

And the other two women in "One Step Away"? They're off the career ladder, like Brinkley. Morgan Stanley (MS) co-president Zoe Cruz has been on the sidelines since John Mack booted her in late 2007. As at BofA, her dismissal was a case of a CEO taking out a top deputy over serious risk-management problems.

Meanwhile, Susan Arnold's opt out was voluntary. When the Procter & Gamble (PG) President quit her post last March, one day after her 55th birthday, she did it to take back her life. As for returning to a big corporate job, who knows? She's not deciding yet, she told me. Meanwhile, she's staying in the game by serving on the boards of Walt Disney and McDonald's.

Here's the reality: In this stressful environment, more and more top business women are questioning the worth of their careers. Last month came a retirement announcement from one of Wal-Mart's (WMT) most senior women, Linda Dillman, at the top of her game. Dillman, EVP of Benefits and Risk Management at Wal-Mart, never lusted for big titles. I bet she'll return to her roots: information technology.

Another veteran of Fortune's Power 50 list, Sue Hellmann, recently quit her job as president of product develepment at Genentech to become Chancellor of the University of California, San Francisco.

More and more women are making big life choices. Because real power is being able to choose. That's a point that Claire Shipman and Katty Kay write about extensively in their new book, Womenomics.

By the way, I hear that Amy Brinkley is doing okay. She certainly isn't proud of failing to keep BofA well-capitalized and sturdy. But she's part of a sweeping reorg there, and more change will come as CEO Ken Lewis fights to keep control. It may be small comfort, but there's less shame in losing your job now than there has been in our lifetimes.PATTIE signature

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