At 18 years of age, Diane Bryant was homeless. Her father was an ex-convict who beat her mother and frequently threatened to kill them. Bryant’s mother tried several times to leave with her children, but lacked the financial resources to make it on her own. When Bryant turned 18, her father followed through on his promise to stop supporting her, and she came home from high school on her birthday to find all of her belongings on the front lawn. She was forced to drift between friends’ houses while she finished school. 

As a result of her experience, Bryant swore she would never allow herself to be financially dependent on another person. She managed to make it through college, began a career as an engineer at Intel in 1985, and went on to become group president of Intel’s Data Center Group — and the highest-ranking woman at the tech giant — until beginning a leave of absence last month. 

Joann Lublin (photo courtesy Erin Covey Creative)
Bryant’s dramatic tale is just one of the stories that Joann Lublin tells in her 2016 book “Earning It: Hard-Won Lessons from Trailblazing Women at the Top of the Business World,” which is based on her interviews with 52 top female executives, including General Motors CEO Mary Barra, former Hewlett-Packard CEO and presidential candidate Carly Fiorina and KeyCorp CEO Beth Mooney. These women shared their stories with Lublin of achievements and challenges along the road to leadership. 

Lublin is a trailblazer in her own right: she was one of the first female reporters at The Wall Street Journal and was the first woman accepted into the paper’s prestigious internship program in 1969. Beyond spoke with Lublin about the lessons she learned from the stories shared by these 50 accomplished women.

Q: A lot of women could look at the stories in this book say that these executives have been able to accomplish what they have because they weren’t married, for instance, or didn’t have kids, or perhaps had a full-time nanny or a stay-at-home spouse. When you hear those kinds of objections from other women — “they made it work but it doesn’t work for me” — what is your response? 

A: There’s no such thing as balance. There’s just a question of when you have decided to put greater priority on one area of your life because that’s important, and when it is important for you to put greater priority on the other side of your life. Whether you’re married or not or whether you have a significant other or not, there are always going to be demands on you that are pulling you in different directions. The important thing is to be focused on the here-and-now, putting all your energies and talents and intelligence and experience to whatever it is that you need to be doing at the moment.

Q: What kind of change is most needed in order to get more women into positions of leadership? How much of the problem is the need for systemic change, and how much is individual women becoming better leaders?

A: It is a combination of the need for individual and systemic change. There are different approaches that companies can take in hiring, promoting and deciding how to price positions that would go far to close the gender pay gap, but it also has to reflect individual actions. If we don’t stand up for ourselves, if we don’t do our homework, if we don’t come into negotiations about a job offer or promotion armed for bear, then we don’t have anybody to blame but ourselves. If you don’t ask, you don’t get. 

Q: Lots of companies talk about their women’s initiatives and boast such workplace features as lactation rooms as evidence of their support of gender equality. How often do you feel companies do things like that without putting a mindset change behind it? Does it let them off the hook?

A: To a certain degree, they are getting off the hook by just putting in a lactation room, but it’s better to have the lactation room than to not have a lactation room. The point is that they have to be more than symbolic gestures or token changes. It has to be leadership from the top, and it has to be an issue that people’s pay depends on. What gets measured gets done, and what gets paid for gets done. There have to be lots of different ways by which people get rewarded for doing things that advance and encourage women’s success, and that role model, direction and policies have to come from the CEO.

Q: You say that nearly all of the women you interviewed shared two characteristics in common — resilience and persistence. Explain.  

Earning It: Hard-Won Lessons from Trailblazing Women at the Top of the Business World

A: They’re mirror images of each other. If you are resilient, you’re going to run into what seem to be insurmountable obstacles to your progress, either personally or professionally, and you’re going to get knocked down. You’re not only going to get up but you’re going to say “now what could I have done differently?” Persistence is the other side of that coin — in the face of insurmountable resistance or opposition, they keep going back and hitting their head against the wall to achieve a goal way beyond when I would have long since given up. 

Q: If you had been able to learn from the women you write about early in your life, what would you have done differently in your own career? 

A: I think I would have been more savvy about the idea of thinking first and speaking next. I even gave a nickname to my tendency — foot-in-mouth disease. In my late 20s, I was a hot shot reporter in the Chicago bureau [of The Wall Street Journal], and several of my colleagues were men. The bureau chief came to us individually and asked if we want to be a bureau chief in a small city. At that point my husband and I did not have kids but were thinking we wanted to someday. There were no role models. There had never been a female bureau chief at that point at The Wall Street Journal. Right on the spot I said to the bureau chief, “Sure, someday maybe, but not now.” I didn’t say I wanted to think about it, or talk to other people, or talk to my husband about it. The advice I give in the book is to say, ‘can I get back to you tomorrow?’ and don’t just decide on the spot. I never became a bureau chief.

Q: If we look at the path that starts with a girl starting to think about her future career and continues through becoming a CEO like the women you interviewed, where are the biggest clogs in that pipeline? 

A: It’s been widely reported by many researchers that where the trajectory gets choked off is between middle and senior management. That’s where a lot of women seem to lose hope. They’re equally ambitious but they lose the feeling that they can do it or get there. Often, at least up until now, it was because there was a lack of role models, mentors and sponsors to show the way and act as advocates. That’s changing because in major U.S. corporations, close to one in five executives in senior management are women. That’s not good enough, obviously, but it’s a heck of a lot better than it was ten or fifteen years ago.