On power: Women in politics and men in big families

November 2, 2010, 7:31 PM UTC

by Patricia Sellers

I’m back from “vacation.” Since the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit (view sessions here) wrapped in early October, the “chronic networker” that I am (one of my Time Inc. bosses accused me of being this) has been racing around the U.S. — LA, San Francisco, Palo Alto, Boston, Atlanta, Allentown PA, my hometown. I’m back on New York terra firma at last.

While I was out, I worked on a couple of projects, gave talks on Women and Power, attended a class at Stanford University, reported on formerly famous bosses for Fortune‘s “Where are They Now?” feature, dined with and blogged about Google’s Marissa Mayer and schmoozed all around. I now need a vacation (a real one), but I return with some relevant things to say on Postcards. I’ll share more later — but on Election Day, a few ramblings from the road:

Speaking about Women and Power in Atlanta and Boston and New York City, I encountered lots of curiosity about Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina — both onetime No. 1’s on Fortune‘s Most Powerful Women list and now running for governor and the U.S. Senate, respectively, in California. It’s no big surprise to me that the former CEOs of eBay and Hewlett-Packard have branched into politics. Women tend to define “power” more broadly and horizontally than men do. Female leaders are often even more eager than the guys to step off the career “ladder” and test themselves in other fields.

Though for both Meg and Carly, their political careers may already be over. Whitman, until the past couple of weeks, appeared to have a decent chance against Jerry Brown, who has already been California’s governor. And Fiorina seemed like she might upset incumbent Sen. Barbara Boxer. But the ex-CEOs, both on the GOP ticket, are now way behind in the polls. Corporate America’s terrible image doesn’t help either of them. (“Voters are ready to throw the bums out, and CEOs have joined the ranks of the bums,” as Time‘s current cover story observes.) Moreover, Whitman and Fiorina’s can-do authority plays poorly with the public.

Powerful women, in fact, still get scrutinized more harshly than powerful men — and especially, we’re seeing now, by female voters. As Fiorina told me when she was running HP and struggling with her image problems there: “My strength is my strength, but it can also be a weakness.” Whitman, meanwhile, has tried to soften her focus in these final days of her campaign. (And I wonder, how does Meg  feel now about spending $142 million of her own money on this race — more than any non-Presidential candidate in history?!)

It doesn’t help to be a billionaire, as Whitman is. And it’s more critical than ever to be a man — or a woman — of the people. That notion struck me last month when I met two of the men who head financial services giants. Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan swung by our MPWomen Summit in Washington, D.C. to see CMO Anne Finucane and wealth management boss Sallie Krawcheck, both attendees. Moynihan grew up in an Irish-Catholic family with nine kids. I mentioned this fact about Moynihan to Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman when I met him last week. His parents, in Australia, had 12 children. Two died, and Gorman now is No. 6, in birth order, among his nine Aussie brothers and sisters.

Is it just coincidence that these top bosses have slews of siblings? Who knows? But it’s worth noting today that America’s Speaker of the House-in-waiting, Rep. John Boehner, is one of 12 kids from a working-class Ohio family. Boehner likes to tell people that his upbringing — where he learned to share and serve lots of constituents — helped him relate to the masses. That could just be campaign talk. Or maybe there’s something to it.