Happy 2013: Why Women Must Change Our Narrative to Break Through to Leadership

The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves define us and how we engage with our world. It’s time for women to write ourselves a new narrative. So when asked to write  for the fabulous new “Kardashian free” women-owned and focused website Vitamin W  (you may recall the “She’s Doing It” column on Amy-Willard Cross who created the site), I decided to put this idea out to you. (Thanks to Debra Condren for the “Fork in the Road” photo that illustrates this perfectly.)

fork-in-the-road-condrenJudging from the unusually large number of tweets and retweets, it hit a chord.  Here’s the original post on Vitamin W.

I want to start a conversation that will lead to specific initiatives of all kinds—social, political, workplace, personal relationships. Let me know what you think, and what you’d like to see.  I’d very much appreciate your comments, shares, and tweets.

With a virtual thud, the Catalyst 2012 Census of Fortune 500 companies hit my e-mailbox:

NEW YORK (December 11, 2012)—Despite high-profile news about gender gaps, equal pay, and women on boards, once again the needle barely budged for women aspiring to top business leadership in corporate America, according to the 2012 Catalyst Census: Fortune 500 Women Board Directors and 2012 Catalyst Census: Fortune 500 Executive Officers and Top Earners.

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Ouch. For 50 years of the venerable organization’s existence, which began at that pregnant moment when second wave feminism would about nine months later birth Betty Friedan’s 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, Catalyst and its sister organizations—now numbering in the thousands devoted to research on and advocacy for women–have shaped the public conversation about women by using the most dismal data to highlight seemingly intractable problems.

Information has its own power. Quantifying discrimination can motivate companies to change hiring policies or politicians to change laws. Just as important, documenting the absence of females in powerful positions performed a crucial consciousness raising function women needed in those Madmen days. For just as fish can’t see the water they swim in, many women—perhaps most at the time—accepted the way things were as the way they had to be.

I counted myself among them. I wasn’t one of the first feminists, though I was an early adopter, despite living in wild and wooly West Texas where men were men and women were screwed if they wanted to be anything other than housewives and mothers of large broods.

But this is 2013, people. The old narrative no longer works. It’s time to change that negative focus on today’s problems to a vibrant positive story about solutions for tomorrow.

We have to face the fact that women have been stuck at under 20 percent of top leadership positions across all sectors for almost two decades, according to the White House Project Benchmark study, but not let ourselves be defined by it. Shifting the narrative would foster a new wave of breakthroughs that I believe can catapult women to leadership parity by 2025.

After all, women have the purchasing clout of 85 percent of consumer goods sold, constitute half the workplace and 54 percent of the voters, and earn 57 percent of college degrees. So why does the narrative remain numbingly the same, creating so little progress that at the rate women are ascending to Congress it will take 70 years to reach parity and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg predicts that it could take 500 years for women to reach parity at the top of the corporate ladders?

Why? Because power unused is power useless. The problems have been researched and documented ad infinitum. We can continue to rail against them and get the same results. Or we can create a new, positive and solution-focused story about how women can achieve parity, and barrel right on through to make breakthrough progress in the 21st century just as the second wavers did in the 20th.

Power and energy come from going into new spaces, not from standing still or remaining mired in half-century-old tropes.  It’s difficult to make the shift for three reasons we must understand if we are to change them.

JK-Rowling-you-have-everything-insideFirst, like those proverbial fish, it’s hard to see beyond the constructs and constrictions of one’s own culture. And let’s face it, it’s in the best interest of the existing power structure to diminish the women’s movement, declare it dead, and dismiss its gains. In reality, feminism has become the predominant social value for both younger women and men today whether they claim the name or not. Women in their 20s, 30s and even 40s don’t just see a world different from their mothers’ experience, they live in a different world. Still, it’s a world where they are repeatedly told what’s wrong with them, that the workplace is rigged against them, and the double burden of managing family and work will fall to them, so they should curb their ambitions. That becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Second, when you fight an adversary for a long time, you can become its mirror, locked into a Kabuki drama. US women have had a very good year politically, thanks in no small part to well-timed misogynist revelations by the likes of Todd Aiken and Foster Freiss who seem to have failed sex education. We reelected a pro-choice president and defeated the guy who saw us only in binders for heaven’s sake. We elected a record twenty women in the Senate (still at that 20 percent level, but up from 18). Yet, I am bombarded with pleas for money from women’s organizations asking me to fight back against the latest attack, rather than fight forward for an agenda of their choice, pun intended.

Even newer, edgier women’s groups such as Hollaback and Ultraviolet (both of which I admire greatly) operate primarily from a position of reacting to gender based discrimination. Slutwalks, heralded as the new women’s movement are anything but — protesting but not creating systemic change.

And third, at some level, we’ve been co-opted into the culture of oppression, become drunk on the nectar of fundraising and support building made easy by sounding the alarm rather than leading to aspirations. I once had a fundraising director who became distraught when we won a political battle. “How will I raise money,” she fussed, “when I have no devil to fight?”

Instead let us ask, “Why do we need the devil to fight when we could be calling upon everyone’s higher angels to accomplish the next big steps for women?”

Almost all Americans now think women should have equal rights. The world is ready for equal rights—are we?

According to negotiation expert Victoria Pynchon, women work 20% longer and 10% faster to get the same reward as men. Women must stop focusing on those studies that decry the 23 percent wage gap and attend to the solutions: ask, expect, demand, intend, insist upon equal pay. And in every sector’s parity gap, the same scenario exists. Nobody will step aside for us once the doors are open. Women have to walk ourselves through. And the story we tell ourselves about ourselves will either propel or limit us.

It’s up to women to change the conversation. We must shift to a new vision of what is possible for the continuing advancement of women to full equality, and how it can be done.
To start from a position of believing we deserve it, and create a new narrative based on the possibilities for solutions with which we can shape a future where all women and men can thrive.
To embrace wholeheartedly this truth: we’re powerful as hell and we’re going to take our rightful place in politics, work, and personal relationships now and forevermore.




  1. Heleen Brinkman on January 8, 2013 at 7:57 am

    Hello Gloria,

    Yes, yes, yes! It is high time women start believing in their own true powers and talents. All the qualities are already there. High time to start using them wisely. Only then can we close the parity gap. Respectful Confrontation helps to tap into your unique wisdom and to speak your truth, for both men and women. In the Netherlands I use Respectful Confrontation for leading women working in male dominated work spheres. Thus a new generation of powerful female leaders will arise. It takes time, at least I’m working on it 🙂

    Thanks for the article. Keeps the spirit going!

    Kind regards,


    • Gloria Feldt on January 17, 2013 at 8:23 am

      Heleen, thank you belatedly for your wonderful comment. I like your term “respectful confrontation.” I teach women how to embrace controversy because it gives us a platform for meaningful discussion of issues.

      • Heleen Brinkman on January 22, 2013 at 3:52 am

        Gloria, the term Respectful Confrontation and the method was created by Joe Weston. Last weekend he gave a workshop on this topic in the White House, in celebration of Inauguration weekend. Might be worth checking out his website.. There is world to gain for women in controversy: it won’t turn us into bitches if we are prepared to truly listen and stand our ground at the same time. That’s the hard work. If we manage this, creativity and collaboration find fertile ground.

  2. Tamara Fagin on January 8, 2013 at 8:47 am

    Gloria… this is simply excellent. Bravo to you. I hope people get it.

  3. Barbara Minas on January 17, 2013 at 6:12 pm

    This was written after my 3rd reading of Gift from the Sea:

    Women have led lives of multiplicity ever since Eve suffered through the birth of Cain. Since that day not much has changed for women if (and I emphasize if) they are in relationships with men and children. Anne, and forgive me but I refuse to add the heavy baggage of her maiden and married names, articulates universal and transcultural difficulties of womanhood. Anne points out that women’s lives are fragmented. Today that fragmentation is called multi-tasking and considered a skill. It is as if being able to struggle and cope with dozens of problems, chores and activities of home, family and work all at the same time is a virtue. Our Anne is correct in whining like the closet feminist she was. House, food, health, clothes, education and social duties provided by the woman for her family chops her life into tiny pieces. What are the dangers of this chopped up life of multiplicity? We lose ourselves, that’s what. We women focus on everything but ourselves and our careers. We are caretakers, preforming often menial, sometimes important, interesting and necessary jobs for others. We are last on our own long lists of priorities. So here is the question. How could my own mother, in the mid 1950’s, possibly relate to the writings of this extremely wealthy, superbly educated, famous woman who had the luxury of leaving behind her husband, her brood of children, her cooks, maids, nurse maids, gardeners, drivers and who knows who else to indulge herself on Captiva Island, one of the most elite, private retreats for the very rich and famous, not for a weekend retreat, mind you, but for weeks! It must have been an especially hectic life she left behind because between the Morrows and Lindberghs there were over 30 servants. No wonder Anne needed peace and quiet.
    And yet my mother loved Gift from the Sea insisting I read it in 1955. My mother, who did not approve of working women. Anne thought modern conveniences complicated life. Perhaps she never realized how much work women did and continue to do. My mother loved dryers, dishwashers, mix masters, meat grinders, and vacuums. Plus mother had a cleaning lady! Good grief. Going back hundreds or thousands of years women wove baskets, wove clothing, grew food, learned to then prepare and preserve it, took care of children, nursing sick ones. No need to list the endless chores that might sound simple, like washing clothes on rocks in an icy stream. Well, I must admit that by my mid thirties I was a proud and staunch feminist and the book still resonated with me. My life was busy, exciting, demanding and hellish. I had the husband, children, house, career, the fulll catastrophe. I repeat; not much has changed. Today, unless the female is the primary breadwinner, the male is still single-minded and focused on his career. Ask a man who he is and he tells you: a doctor, lawyer, fireman, chief Ask a woman who she is and, unless she is single and childless, she will say, a doctor, lawyer, fireman, chief and a wife and mom. Those last two stations in life mean that she is still leading that dangerous life of mutiplicites. Why is this? Will it ever change? In my opinion, if we have Adam and Cain, we are still directly connected to Eve. But we do have a choice. We can choose not to marry, not to have children. I have many single and childless friends, professionals focused on careers they love. They seem happy and fulfilled. I do not think life for a woman with a family can be simple and minimal. And why do I still love Gift from the Sea? Because Anne makes us BELIEVE that our own private time is important, whether it is for meditating, reading, writing, making art, etc. And Anne makes us BELIEVE it is possible to create a peaceful, blissful, meditative life, even if one cannot afford a vacation on Captive Island.
    Barbara Minas

  4. Paula (Giangreco) Cullison on January 19, 2013 at 11:01 am

    Barbara, WRITE ON!!! Gloria, I love to read your blog. You have done / continue to do so much for women. Keep it up!

  5. […] of “problem-solving” women (or the issue of women) and start highlighting and working with strengths/solutions  Where are women making headway in the school? In which ways are women students doing well? Why not […]

  6. […] and step into their own leadership in new and different ways, and that together, women and men must change the narrative of women. We’re talking about a total paradigm shift. But here’s the thing… this is just what we […]

  7. […] of “problem-solving” women (or the issue of women) and start highlighting and working with strengths/solutions. Where are women making headway in the school? In which ways are women students doing well? Why not […]

  8. […] step into their own leadership in new and different ways, and that together, women and men must change the narrative of women. We’re talking about a total paradigm shift. But here’s the thing… this is just what we […]

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