My father, Max Feldt, stood 6’ 3” with a personality so big (and the towns we lived in so small) that the postal service once delivered a letter to me addressed only: “To the eldest daughter of Big Max, Stamford, Texas.”
Family lore says he roared, “Who said I wanted a boy?” when reminded that prior to my birth he’d boasted HE was having a son. (No ultrasound back then, folks.)
Daddy was the dominant influence on my life—eventually. It wasn’t till I delivered his eulogy, when I was 50 years old, that I realized he had given me an entire philosophy of life and leadership.
He had many aphorisms I refer to as his Maxisms, including this all-purpose one he repeated to me on hundreds of occasions:
You can do anything your pretty little head desires.
Are you wearing Spanx? Me too. And yes, there is a connection.
In the 1970s, feminist leader Betty Friedan urged women to throw away their girdles and we cheered. Today, Sarah Blakely has become one of the few female billionaires by getting us trussed up once again—in Spanx.
I was in my office when I got the call. I heard the ambulance shrieking into the parking lot as I ran downstairs with my heart in my throat. Vicky, a devoted employee in her late 40’s had had a heart attack at her desk. All the right things had been done. But to no avail. Vicky died instantly, no previous signs of heart disease.
I mean, I could barely stand to look at their bleeding, skinned-up hands or wrap my head around the thought of 19 days without a shower. I definitely didn’t want to know their often-reported bathroom details—though that had to be yet one more example of how much easier it is to be a man than a woman in this world.
(Incidentally, the first woman to scale El Capitan via a different route called The Nose was Beverly Johnson in the 1970s—you knew I had to look that up. She was also the first person to cross the Straits of Magellan solo in a kayak.)
My newfound fascination could be because sports professions have been on my mind since meeting U.S. Bouldering Team member and professional rock climber (who knew there could be such a career?) Sierra Blair-Coyle at the Play Hockey Like a Girl event cosponsored by the Arizona Coyotes hockey team and Take The Lead.
Would workplaces become more balanced and society more equitable if women exhibited more confidence? Katty Kay and Claire Shipman created a stir with their book The Confidence Code and their article, “The Confidence Gap” in The Atlantic. To continue this important conversation, we were honored to have Shipman speak to the Take The Lead community in July about how personal confidence relates to women advancing in the workplace and in society. Yes, women face very real barriers, no matter how confident we are, but leading with confidence expands our possibilities in ways that change our lives and the lives of other women. (Like this quote? Tweet it!) Did you attend this event with Shipman? What did you learn? This confidence question will surely be an ongoing conversation, so we’d love to hear your thoughts!
One way we achieve leadership parity at Take The Lead is by working with women across all backgrounds, generations, and professional fields. And we’re proud to collaborate with a larger resurgent women’s movement. One way we create connections among women is through our online Take The Lead Community. If you haven’t signed up yet, please do so to network and get honest, actionable advice from other accomplished women having valuable conversations. Soon we’ll be adding a mentoring component you won’t want to miss.
Remember! Please take a moment in the comments section to tell us what’s bugging you, highlight learning topics you want to see in our webcasts, courses, or blog, and suggest experts you admire. You can also tweet us at @takeleadwomen using the hashtag #takeleadwomen2015.
Was she conflicted in her relationship with power? Just the opposite as the quote above indicates. How did she get that way and what can we learn from her on Election Day 2014?
My systematic research into many women’s ambivalent relationship with power began during the 2008 election season, when I wrote an article for Elle magazine about why women do—or as I came to find out, more often don’t—run for office.
At the rate women are advancing in Congress, it will be 60 years before gender leadership parity is reached. But more astounding is what I found in 2008 that stopped me short: it’s no longer external, structural barriers, though some do still exist, but internal ones that hold women back from fully embracing their political power. And there are far more similarities than differences in how this dynamic plays itself out in the seemingly divergent realms of work, politics, and personal relationships.
The personal is, was, and always will be, political.
I wanted to learn more: to understand what internalized values, implicit biases, assumptions, and beliefs about ourselves we as women haul around, like worthless cargo, hindering the full attainment of our potential as leaders and doers—what intricate personal and cultural constructs of power, the silent sinews that bind not only our political intentions, but our work lives and even our love lives.
Paradoxically, I’ve spent most of my adult life working for justice and power for others—African Americans, poor kids, other women. Not, as Jerry Seinfeld would say, that there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, I feel blessed to have been able to make my life’s passion for social justice into my life’s work. And my path is not so different from gendered behavior regarded (and rewarded) as laudable—being nice, putting the needs of others first.
Which is the point. Fighting for others seemed worthy. Fighting for myself, or something I wanted, did not. And many younger women today tell me they experience similar reticence, even as they seek role models and mentors to teach them differently.
Yet all effective leadership is rooted in the language of power and the willingness to embrace the power one has. If women are ever to complete our staccato journey to equality, we must join the discourse and become deliberately fluent in power’s meanings and nuances.
While the men around us operate as though they own the world—because, for the most part, they do—women have to work consciously to assume that place of intentional power and agency. Women’s inner struggles parallel the pushme-pullyou history of our social and political advances.
It’s this relationship with power—almost a spiritual factor, rarely acknowledged by the metrics or even the philosophers, which I’ve witnessed in myself and countless other women—that fascinated me and propelled me to undertake writing my book, No Excuses, ultimately leading me to cofound Take The Lead. For until we redefine our relationship with power, we will stay stuck in our half-finished revolution.
And that matters for two reasons.
First, we will remain able to excuse and justify our lack of progress by pointing outward rather than owning our part of the responsibility to take the harder road of pushing forward courageously as Chisholm did.
Second, until we can stand confidently in our own power, we won’t be able to lead ourselves or others with intention. If we allow that to happen, both women and men will remain constrained within lives of limited gender stereotyped possibilities, lives that keep us all from achieving our full human potential.
The Right Honorable Kim Campbell, former prime minister of Canada (and the first head of that nation’s government), put it this way: “Look, power exists. Somebody is going to have it. If you would exercise it ethically, why not you? I love power. I’m power-hungry because when I have power I can make things happen, can serve my community, can influence decisions, I can accomplish things.”
Why not you, indeed? Why not any one of us?
And if a courageous woman like Shirley Chisholm could blast through seemingly impermeable barriers to run for president half a century ago, surely each and every one of us can at a minimum honor her memory by voting today and every Election Day.
A big barrier to women’s leadership parity was overlooked in the recent brouhaha about Facebook and Apple covering employees’ insurance for egg freezing.
These companies are not, as headlines screamed “paying women to freeze eggs.” And I see nothing wrong with covering fertility treatments that though still far from fully effective, can give women childbearing options men naturally have, and often exercise with trophy wives.
But next to quality child care, flex time–much more than high tech fertility–is the most effective benefit companies could give women, and increasingly, men as well, to enhance opportunities to advance their careers while garnering better retention rates and job satisfaction without compromising productivity.
October 21, has been declared National Flex Day by workingmother.com for good reason.
As negotiation expert Victoria Pynchon put it in her Linked In Pulse post, “You deserve a family-friendly workplace, not an egg-farm.”
Much has changed for the better
When I entered the paid employment world after my three children entered elementary school, neither egg freezing technology nor flex time were options.
One day during my first full year of work teaching Head Start kindergarten, my seven-year-old son, home from first grade with the flu, called to say he’d caught the toaster on fire and I’d better come home right away.
I raced home wild with fear that I would find him injured, that the house would burn down before I arrived, that most of all I was a BAD MOTHER.
This was before cell phones. So I couldn’t find out more till I arrived home. Acrid burnt toast odor met me the door. My eyes watered as much from relief as from the fumes, upon finding that my son was in need of hugs, but sustained no injuries, and there were no irreparable property damages.
His dad was due home from working his night shift shortly. I had taken a chance that I could safely leave my son for an hour while I rushed across town to fulfill my work obligation. I loved my job and the income was important to our family’s ability to pay our basic bills.
These are the kinds of choices workers still face every day. True, some jobs are more amenable to flextime than others. In my case, twenty children arriving at school that morning had to be greeted by an adult. And certainly the children in my class were from homes where their parents were even less likely to have flexible jobs. So they needed a teacher to arrive on time as much as I needed to be able to go home to take care of my child.
Given that teachers are predominantly female, and women still are the predominant caregivers in most families, it would have made sense for my school to buck the budget pressures and hire a floating teacher or substitutes for such situations. Because they’re bound to happen to all human beings at some time or another.
Too much is still frozen in time
Things have not changed sufficiently, despite important progress and examples of creative flex time policies reported by the Wall Street Journal.
From the highly paid to those making minimum wage, far too few women in America have flexible work options—almost three-fourths of working adults state they don’t control their work schedules…The lack of flexible work options often leads women to quit needed jobs.
This is a problem because most families need two working parents to support their family, many women want and need to continue their careers, and when women take time out of the workforce they face huge wage hits, or pay cuts, when they later return (as 74 percent do within two years). These wage hits take a life-long toll: On average, women take an 18 percent cut in their pay, a significant wage hit, for an average of 2.2 years out of the labor force—with women in business sectors taking an increased hit of 28 percent. For those women who stay out of the labor force for three or more years, the news is even bleaker: A 37 percent loss of earning power.
Designating a day to promote flextime is a step forward. But let’s not rely on Karma to make the real deal happen, as Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella advised women regarding their pay raises. No, it’s time to campaign hard for policies that allow flex time, where the work delivered is more important than time spent behind a desk.
My own sports story begins in elementary school. I was often humiliated by being the last person chosen for the softball team. Probably today to make all children feel equally worthy, they draw lots or number off. But when I was a girl, I was the epitome of the dreaded epithet, “Play (whatever) Like a Girl.”
Except for the spelling bee. Everybody wanted me on their team for that. How “like a girl.” Another story for another day.
The more I failed to perform well at sports, the less I played, and the klutzier I therefore became.
I lived with three loving but busy adults for the formative first six years of my life and was rewarded for being quiet. Oh, they enrolled me in ballet and tap, in stereotypical girl child fashion. I was cute in my pink ballet tutu. But I was also the slightly chunky one on the end who was never quite on point. In tap, I was a total disaster, the top-hatted, foot-clicking version of Wrong Way Corrigan.
It was expected that my boy cousins and playmates on the block would be active and boisterous. I envied them. Tried to run after them, and have the scars to prove it.
It wasn’t until years later, after I had children and was starting to thicken around the waist, that I was motivated to engage in any significant physical activity.
It started slowly with 10 or 15 minutes of exercises I learned from a women’s magazine. Periodically I would run laps around the nearby football practice field. (We lived a block from the real Friday Night Lights.)
Thank You, Jane Fonda
But I lacked the tenacity or lung power to stick with running. About when I hit 40, though, Jane Fonda released her exercise videos. I did one almost every morning until I got hooked on exercise endorphins and couldn’t start the day without feeling the burn.
Thank you Jane, for changing the lives of many women by showing us how to exercise like a girl and love it.
Here a shout out to Bernice Sandleris overdue–the “godmother” of Title IX, the 1972 legislation that had brought equity to girls in various aspects of education, but is best known for requiring schools to provide boys and girls equal access sports.
The value of participation in sports for girls and women is profound: learning leadership skills, physical discipline, teamwork, and how to compete in a positive way understanding that sometimes you win and sometimes you lose, and you come back to play again another day.
I wanted to continue to improve rather than go downhill physically at middle age. So I hired a trainer and began to build upper body strength for the first time. Wow. What a difference it made. I began to feel a mastery over my body and my physical prowess that I’m guessing male children learn by the time they are five years old.
The definition of “play like a girl” was clearly changing. When my husband and I were visiting friends around the 30th anniversary of Title IX, their nine-year-old daughter Sarah came racing home breathless and sweaty from her soccer practice. My husband said to her in his old-fashioned “like a boy” way, “You must be a tomboy.”
Sarah looked at him like he had two heads and replied, “What’s a tomboy?”
I led a women’s executive leadership workshop on “Women, Power, and Authentic Leadership” recently. A business school professor presented just before me, so I arrived early to observe her segment.
She’s a highly skilled communicator who presented terrific content. Her elegant attire and direct but modulated self-presentation perfectly mirror how women are advised to look and speak to succeed in the business world. I know she’s passionate about advancing women in leadership and I was eager to garner some tips from her.
During the Q and A, Sarah, I’ll call her, was asked how to handle male colleagues’ informal gatherings—golfing, going out for drinks or afternoon coffee. Sarah acknowledged that these groupings are where relationships are formed and business decisions often made, and that when women are excluded, it can mean they also lose out on promotions. At a minimum, it keeps them from being recognized as full partners on the work team.
She gave the example of several men in her department who go for coffee every afternoon and never invite her, despite officing in the same hallway. She rolled her eyes and said, “Whatever. I don’t let it bother me. Occasionally, if I have something I want to discuss, I’ll invite myself along. They never reject me—they just don’t think about including me. I don’t think they have ill will. It’s more like they don’t quite know what to do with me.”
I cringed, wishing she had let it bother her and had done something to change the dynamic. Because the first way to keep women from leadership parity is to keep them excluded from the informal relationship web.
I made a mental note to share with participants my friend Nathalie Molina Nino’s technique. She worked globally almost exclusively with men senior to herself in age and position. When she was excluded from the men’s golf games, she didn’t learn to play golf as many women are counseled to do. (Not that there is anything wrong with golf; some women play for business relationship building because they like the game. I myself would have failed golf in college had there not been a written test.)
Instead, Nathalie staked her position on the team by doing something she enjoyed and inviting the others in. Before business travel, she researched restaurants, cuisine, and wines of the area. She planned a memorable dinner and invited all the men. This positioned her as a leader, not a follower begging to be let into the cool kids’ circle. She became the cool kid everyone wanted to be with. Sharing meals, and a little excellent wine, opened lines of communication; the men then felt more comfortable working with her as an equal in other settings as well.
The second burning question from a participant was whether she should join the women’s workplace affinity group at her company. Sarah advised against it, saying it pigeonholes you as a “woman professional” instead of merely a “professional.”
No one countered that advice, whether from intentional complicity, that pesky niceness that women are socialized to exhibit, or lack of awareness that she had implied women are less valuable than men.
And here, Sarah had just excused the men in her department for going off together as an all-male group for coffee! Men have been doing this forever and been applauded for it. This is in fact how most business gets done.
Again I cringed. During the break I told Sarah that I would be giving a different point of view because I didn’t want her to be surprised. She was most gracious about it and I intend to continue the conversation with her since as a professor in the business school her influence can be widespread. The second way to keep women from leadership parity is to avoid joining with other women in order to advance us all.
I asked the participants to think through why employee affinity groups were formed in and what their purpose is—mutual support and to make up for the disadvantage of being a member of a group that has been traditionally less privileged or discriminated against. No one says LGBTQ people shouldn’t join affinity groups — and look at the progress they’ve made in bringing equal treatment to their colleagues in the workplace in a relatively short time.
I shared Valerie Brown’s story of using her role as chair of the African American affinity group in her company to differentiate herself and get the promotion she sought. She set the group’s agenda around how demonstrating their value to the company by bringing in business and making sure they got credit for it.
We are what we are, and we are at our best when we can be authentically ourselves. Declining to join a women’s network out of fear of being pigeonholed as a women is as ludicrous as men declining to wear pants because it might pigeonhole them as men.