As Swampians know, I tend to not be very keen on writing about business and power through the lens of gender. This is in part because early on in my career, I was the executive editor of a woman’s business magazine (the now defunct Working Woman, which came out of the second wave feminist movement of the 1970s). After commissioning two years worth of stories designed to try and appeal specifically to female readers, I came to the same conclusion as the readership (which regularly migrated to Forbes and Fortune as their salaries rose) and advertisers. Women business executives want pretty much the same thing as male ones do, which is the smartest news and commentary about business. The magazine had served more of a purpose when women lived in a separate work universe, but by the 1990s, as entry level salaries for well educated single women entering the workforce in major global cities mirrored those of their male peers, its value proposition was harder to define. 

That said, I have recently found myself contemplating a gender-related issue, which is the new and different way that powerful women in business and politics are presenting themselves visually. A high-powered female friend of mine (who had run strategy for a global consumer brand before starting her own business) once lamented to me that she felt it was hard to present as fully herself on the job, since female business leaders seemed to fall into two categories visually — old school CEOs that dressed and acted more or less like small men, or snazzy coastal types with perfect blow dries and Pilates buffed bodies dressed in couture, who seem to be born holding a PowerPoint clicker in their hands (yes, Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg, I’m talking about you). Being a real person — a mom, for example, who might be running between city meetings in sneakers or combating frizzy hair or wearing a wrap dress with baby drool on the shoulder rather than a St John’s suit — seemed harder. 

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But that’s changing, of course. I recently noticed two high-profile examples of female leaders looking both very much themselves, and very powerful. At a big deal economic panel in Davos, I was totally charmed watching Canadian foreign minister (and former FT US editor) Chrystia Freeland talk circles around the other heavies (most of whom were predictably dark suited men) whilst also pulling her hair in and out of a scrunchie and writing notes on her hand. This put me in mind of how she winningly showed up to the airport in her running clothes to welcome Saudi refugee Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, who feared violence from her family because of her refusal to wear a veil, to Canada. I couldn’t imagine another foreign minister who would do a photo-op like that in workout togs, but it was perfect. 

The other obvious example of someone who’s cutting an entirely new figure on the global stage is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (who I’m seeing this week for an upcoming Lunch with the FT). She’s about as photo-ready as they get, but she doesn’t do political posturing in the usual way. I was quite inspired by how she refused to get up and clap at the inane rhetoric of the president’s State of the Union speech last week, as most politicians on both sides of the aisle do as a matter of course. I was also struck how, in her pre-SOTU interview on CNN, she used her formidable presence to push the camera’s lens towards her guest — Ana Maria Archila, the New York activist who confronted Congressman Jeff Flake in an elevator during the Supreme Court confirmation hearing for Brett Kavanaugh. Whenever the interviewer would try to speak only to AOC, the congresswoman would use her eyes and body language to bring the attention back to Archila. What a masterful use of media — she gives the president himself a run for his money on that score. Talk about soft power. Ed, your thoughts?

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Recommended reading

  • OK, I know at some point I’m going to get slammed for recommending someone as obvious as David Brooks every other week, but I can’t help it, I love this man. He zigs where others zag. This week’s unexpected satire made me laugh out loud (I read it to my husband over the breakfast table and he was tickled, too): Btw, I’ve heard some in our business criticise Brooks for turning away from politics, and accuse him of being unable to grapple with the fall of Conservatism. Maybe. But hey, can’t we all use a break from politics now and then? 
  • The lead of this David Leonhardt column in the NYT also made me laugh, albeit grimly. So true.
  • My buddy Meghan Daum has identified an important new phrase: “over-feeling” something. Btw, Medium in general is on fire as a source of smart, contrarian features and opinion.
  • Loved this piece on the push for gender equality in surfing. Having tried to stand up on a board for years (I can do about 15 seconds before falling in), I feel that anyone who can ride a big wave deserves big bucks. Another great read for anyone interested in surf culture: Barbarian Days, which is New Yorker writer William Finnegan’s terrific memoir of his years chasing the big one.
  • And in the FT, I thought my colleagues Gillian Tett and Gideon Rachman had great takes on two different ways that the current breakdown in status quo globalisation may play out.

Edward Luce responds

Rana, I’m glad you asked me about AOC’s soft power. I was wracking my mind to come up with a suitable rejoinder to your remarks about “Pilates buffed” female power dressers and the like. Whatever I might have rejoined would almost certainly have boomeranged. Yes AOC has extraordinary social media power. She’s the first US national political figure to seem uncontrived in her use of live social media — and somehow still not come off as too much of an exhibitionist. The contrast with the woodenness of Elizabeth Warren’s recent live streamed appearance from home (“Thank you for coming”, she said to her husband, who looked a bit startled since he was in his own kitchen) was acute. My advice to non-AOC types is don’t try to compete. She will ultimately succeed or fail as a politician if she can bend her social media power to practical ends, such as getting good legislation passed. It‘d take felicity and wisdom not to let such stardom go to her head, even if she were 49, rather than 29. I very much hope she doesn’t over-reach. There’s an army of ill-wishers out there rooting for her to trip up. 



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