When Women Lead

This should be a season of celebration. America has its first female in the Oval Office. Everywhere you look, there are women surgeons, police officials, hard-charging executives and even amazingly resourceful undercover operatives. So why aren't women across the country cheering? Well, perhaps because those role models--important as they are--are all fictional. They're stars of popular TV shows like "Commander in Chief," "Grey's Anatomy" and "Alias." When will the real world catch up?

Without question, there has been a huge transformation in the past few decades. Women's earning power continues to rise along with their educational accomplishments. They are now more than half of all college students and about half of all medical and law students. It is no longer a big deal to see a woman at the helm of the nation's most prestigious universities, even at a technological powerhouse like MIT. Women are an important presence in a number of industries, like film. "The women who wanted those jobs had no reason to believe they couldn't have them," says Sony Pictures executive Amy Pascal of her peers. "We didn't look sideways or backwards." And even in the august chambers of the Supreme Court, it is a measure of how far we have come since Sandra Day O'Connor's groundbreaking nomination that in the continuing debate over Harriet Miers, no one has suggested she shouldn't be confirmed because of her gender.

But there are other, more troubling developments as well. Earlier this year the president of Harvard got in trouble for suggesting that women didn't have the right stuff for science (he has since apologized). Recent stories about women at elite colleges who want to ditch it all to stay home with their kids have prompted a furious debate among professional women. There is a fear that all those glass ceilings have been broken for naught and younger women who grew up with working mothers struggling to have it all have decided that the struggle just isn't worth it. Whether younger women stick with that choice is, of course, still unclear. Their future undoubtedly holds many surprises, at work and at home, just as it did for the groundbreaking generation that preceded them. "There is no real balance of work and family in America," says Marie Wilson of the White House Project, which supports female political candidates. "You integrate work and family and do the best you can."

It has been about 30 years since women first started entering the workplace in large numbers. There is now a critical mass of women in leadership positions. It's a good time to see how they've changed the workplace as they've climbed the ladder. Do women lead differently than men? The conventional wisdom is that they are more intuitive, more collaborative. If so, have they changed management culture when they make it to the top? What lessons would they pass on to the women who aspire to follow their path? In this report we talk to dozens of women who have led the way in one of the most significant social revolutions of the past century.