Career Rx: Raise the roof and reinvent

March 7, 2011, 5:34 PM UTC

by Patricia Sellers

Delivering a talk on Women and Power in Princeton on Thursday night, I tossed out a term that the crowd really liked: Raise the roof!

As I told the 400 people gathered at the YWCA “Tribute to Women” dinner, the “glass ceiling” concept is out of date–and let’s rethink how far corporate women have come.

Not that bias against female managers has gone away–far from it, as I’ve written right here.

But despite the standstill of female-led Fortune 500 companies–a dozen today–women have gained more power than you might think.

Looking at Fortune‘s Most Powerful Women in Business issue from 1998, the year we began the rankings, I discovered a telling fact: While Carly Fiorina, then at Lucent , was No. 1 on that first MPWomen list, the top-ranked CEO, at No. 6, was Mattel’s Jill Barad. Mattel had annual revenues of $4.8 billion back then.

Consider that vs. the CEOs on today’s Fortune MPWomen list:  No. 1, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi, oversees $57.8 billion in revenue. No. 2, Irene Rosenfeld of Kraft Foods , runs a $48 billion company. And ADM’s  Pat Woertz, who is No. 3 on the 2010 list, sits atop more revenue than either of them.

My message to the Princeton audience was that women have gained a decade–and for the few Fortune 500’s female CEOs, the entities they lead are much bigger than before.

Nonetheless, I bet we will never see parity at the top.

The reasons are many (and I’ll leave that for a later Postcard), but basically, women and men view power differently. The “power” that women seek (and it’s taken a decade for women at the top to embrace this word) is more horizontal–about extending influence in various directions. More often for guys, climbing the ladder is satisfying enough.

Granted, ladders aren’t as straight or as sturdy as they used to be. Which is why, in this treacherous economy, stepping off the ladder may be the smartest strategy of all.

By that, I mean changing careers. Check out this story in the March issue of O: The Oprah Magazine about two enterprising women who were among Fortune‘s 2009 Most Powerful Women Entrepreneurs: Michelle Marciniak and Susan Walvius left their careers as basketball coaches to start a “high-performance” bedding company (yes, you read that right) called SHEEX. Reinvention at work.

More from