Breaking the Code

updated 05/22/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/22/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

While women make up nearly half of the U.S. workforce, they hold fewer than 12 percent of the top jobs at America's 500 largest firms. "Just like trees on a mountain, you see fewer the higher you climb," says Gail Evans, 58, an executive vice president of CNN who oversees such shows as Crossfire and Capital Gang. The network's highest-ranking woman, Evans seeks to help bridge the gender gap with her bestseller Play Like a Man, Win Like a "Woman. "It's not a level playing field. Women can't get away with what men do—not without paying a high price."

Raised in Scarsdale, N. Y., Evans studied political science at Bennington College in Vermont and worked as a legislative aide on Capitol Hill before moving to the White House special counsel office during the Johnson Administration. Married in 1966 to CBS correspondent Bob Evans, she stayed at home to raise their three children; the Evanses divorced in March. When Ted Turner launched CNN in 1980, Evans became a producer and helped develop the network's talk shows. She spoke with correspondent Gail Wescott at home in Atlanta.

Why did you write the book?

I give a lot of speeches to women's groups. For years people have been coming up to tell me why their careers aren't working and to find out why mine apparently is. I kept hearing words like "stuck" and "overwhelmed." The same thing happened when I spoke to female students and alumnae at Harvard Business School—a group I was certain had it together. That did it. If they weren't getting it, nobody was.

Hasn't the workplace improved for women?

No. Even though we have a critical mass, we seem to face the same problems. Business is a game created by men and nobody handed women the rule book. It's like playing Monopoly without the directions. It's tough to get ahead.

And there are double standards. When Sen. Lauch Faircloth of North Carolina cried at his press conference after he wasn't reelected, the press saw it as a powerful display of emotion. When Rep. Pat Schroeder cried on TV, men smirked—just another woman unraveling. A man taps his finger on the table and it's a power move showing impatience. For a woman it's a sign of insecurity. I sometimes push my cuticles back at meetings, but I always thought I did it under the table. One time a man I respect told me to stop fidgeting. I did. Wouldn't it be ridiculous to lose power over your cuticles? And men can get away with sex in the office. They're often the bosses, and if the relationship sours, guess who goes?

Where do women go wrong?

We take everything personally. If someone gets angry, we hear it as "he yelled at me" and feel devastated. We're no good at compartmentalizing the way guys do, and this hurts us. We also have to learn to separate friendship and business. Caring about each other should not affect what we say or do at a meeting. You've got to be free to disagree and say what you think.

How did you learn the rules?

By watching others and myself—90 percent of the things I warn about in the book I've done myself. And by watching how powerful men play the game. For example, women do network but they don't share business secrets with each other. Can you imagine a group of them having lunch and discussing the perks of their last contract negotiation? I assure you the guys do. When I got one promotion, a man asked me what kind of car allowance I was selecting. I didn't know I had one.

How can women assert themselves?

Speak up and speak out. Women seem to come from some sort of no-permission zone where they have to be asked for their opinion. When they have an idea, the sentence invariably begins, "I know this is probably stupid..." This is terrible. The result is that no one listens—except maybe the guy across the table who floats your idea later in the meeting. Then we say he stole it.

It's also important to understand there's no penalty for bad ideas. Good ideas come from people who throw out half-baked ones. And I know it sounds simplistic, but we've got to learn to take a seat at the table or in the front row—to be engaged. Women go into meetings where there's a huge table and naturally head for the chairs around the periphery. Same thing with the size of your office. If you move up, take the bigger space—it says you have confidence and that you're in charge.

Do these rules work for everyone?

Absolutely. Winning means being fulfilled, feeling great about what you do. Whether you're a cocktail waitress or a CEO, you can learn how to take action when things aren't working and how to make yourself more powerful.

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