The feminine iStique
Katharine Herrup, friend and editor (depending on how this goes, not necessarily in that order, or either, for that matter) has challenged us with a simple question: Why aren’t there more über successful women in tech, and everywhere, for that matter?
Kat (I’ll get away with that for as long as I can) does so in a provocative and timely way by suggesting that the next Steve Jobs, the second coming of whom might be, ought to be, no reason shouldn’t be, a woman.
Long overdue. Glass ceilings are meant to be broken. Right on.
But … as I began reading her post something disturbed me straight away. It wasn’t the stirrings of latent male chauvinism, though it did occur to me that any contrarianism might be construed as such, and who’s to say what evil lurks in the hearts of men? And then there was this friend/editor thing. I questioned myself: I have a daughter, and very much wanted our only child to be a girl, and told people who asked why (even though it was none of their business), it’s because girls are better people.
It was through the renewed recollection of this pro-girl bias that I began to understand what was bothering me about Katharine’s seemingly impeccable thesis.
In making Steve Jobs a benchmark for women, she had actually aimed too low.
It’s something else:
- Women should neither want nor need male role models in business, or in anything. I can’t imagine telling my daughter that the best she could do is to be just like Steve Jobs, even though on paper that wouldn’t be too shabby.
- We telegraph fundamental half-heartedness by aspiring to be the next “anyone” instead of the first “me.”
Everyone and everything is flawed. Jobs’ genius was to see the flaws in things, and to leaven that super x-ray vision with an uncanny intuition of what people wanted, even if they could not articulate it themselves.
Jobs has been compared to Edison and Ford and Welch and other titans of industries — I was guilty of perpetuating this meme myself during a binge of media punditry following his death. But, actually, Steve Jobs was the first Steve Jobs, rendering almost irrelevant what had preceded him, in much the same way that the technology Jobs gave the world made us forget the antecedents they re-imagined. The iPod wasn’t the first MP3 player, the iPhone wasn’t the first smartphone, and the iPad wasn’t the first tablet. But they were all originals.
You can be the first “you” by seeing the flaws in Steve Jobs, in Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela and the deli-man down the block, and become the embodiment of that. Success is not simply defined by financial superiority — although heaven knows that Apple meets that test. Even though size and profitability is the most important metric in business, working on that — instead of on the things that may result in that — is an almost sure way to fail.
Jobs had no use for focus groups — he knew his customers didn’t know what they really wanted — and he didn’t drive his teams based on quarterly pressures. He didn’t hate money — far from it — but was disgusted by the thought that making money was the entire point, instead of making insanely great things.
Now, I know that Katharine isn’t really saying “Work hard, young lady, and maybe you’ll grow up to be — a successful man!” And there are times I tell myself that when I grow up I want to be Hillary Clinton.
Inspiration is intangible and teaching moments, by definition, are spontaneous. The death of an icon whose impact has yet to be fully appreciated is one of those moments, and even innocently presents an opportunity to bridge the gender gap: there was a time when encouraging a young girl to imagine she could could have the impact of Jobs was unthinkable because, well, she was a girl. At least we’re well past that.
We’ve all come a long way, baby. And maybe it’s still just a little too soon to parse this particular point. But you have to start sometime, and the history of things like this is that they don’t change on a convenient schedule or without a whole lot of ugly.
So here it is: You could do worse than be the next Steve Jobs, young lady. But you could do unimaginably better.
Photo: A woman lays flowers outside the the home of Apple Inc co-founder and former CEO Steve Jobs in Palo Alto, California, October 5, 2011. Jobs, counted among the greatest American CEOs of his generation, died on October 5, 2011 at the age of 56, after a years-long and highly public battle with cancer and other health issues. REUTERS/Beck Diefenbach