Guest Blog: Gloria Feldt
I’m smitten with Rey, “Star Wars The Force Awakens” protagonist played by Daisy Ridley. She's the archetype of today’s woman, possessing more power than she knows, yet summoning her Force to save the day in a world shaped by a conflict narrative she didn’t create.
We first encounter the spunky Rey scrounging for her daily sustenance, making do with or re-engineering the resources she’s given. Soon events propel her to overcome vast unsought challenges, disrupting power structures as she spaceship-hops from planet to planet. And we know (because Disney told us) more episodes are coming. The heroine's journey is unfinished.
Boom! A young woman is the new face of the Jedi and heir apparent to Luke Skywalker. Change is possible.
Driving this pop culture shift on our planet is a historic moment of strategic inflection, as former Intel CEO Andy Grove called such times. I call it a perfect storm in a good way. If taken at full tilt, it can close our gender leadership and pay gap, the solution to which has been as elusive as cold fusion.
Women have ascended to almost half of the workplace and mid-management. But in upper leadership, women have long been stalled at under 20% averaging across all sectors, earning 20% less than men for comparable positions when controlled for experience and expertise.
Why do women remain so far from parity despite success at changing discriminatory laws and opening doors?
In 2008, just when it seemed we’d have our first female president--Feeling a bit of déjà vu?—Elle magazine asked me to write about women running for office, the implication being that with a female role model aiming for the top job, women would be clambering up political ladders.
Turned out the story was women don’t run. They are half as likely as men to think seriously about running for office, then must be asked multiple times, then think they should take courses to learn how, whereas men just do it. The pattern is the same in corporations, entrepreneurial businesses, and professions.
I’ve been an advocate for women for four decades, but it had never occurred to me that once doors were open, women wouldn’t rush through them. I was shocked. I kept digging and observed that the disparity is profoundly rooted in women’s culturally learned ambivalent relationship with power and intention.
It’s hard to change a culture while you’re living in it, and the combination of stereotype threat, implicit bias, fear of losing roles in which we are comfortable even though they limit us, and remaining structural barriers such as organizations designed for men by men with wives at home, conspire to make the pace toward parity somewhere between 63 and 500 years, by various estimates.
Not being Yoda, I can’t live 500 more years no matter how hard I try. So I had to do something to disrupt the pattern.
I wrote No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power to give women concrete tools for breaking through the remaining barriers. Now I’m researching Episode II and am euphoric about what I see.
Rey's are all around. Women are at a historic crossroads, smack in the middle of those inflection points, where progress to their fair and equal share of leadership positions and remuneration is not inevitable but possible. Boom boom:
1. Justice meets profit
For me, gender parity is a matter of simple justice. But fairness and justice alone rarely win the day.
It’s amazing how quickly things change when it becomes clear that more women in leadership isn’t just the right thing to do but also makes more money. A benchmarking study by Denver University shows why having women in leadership improves bottom lines. It makes sense that greater diversity creates better ideas and more innovation, and that women’s greater risk aversion is a good balance to men programmed from birth to be daring. Further, women buy 80% of consumer goods and services. They gravitate toward providers that authentically appeal to their interests by including women at all levels of product design and promotion.
The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that gender equality could add $12 trillion to the global economy. The world will be a more just place for both men and women when there is more gender parity in leadership. And isn’t it cool that business will be better too?
2. Preparation meets passion
Women now earn 57% of college degrees, making gender parity in leadership a competitive edge for any company striving to be the best in its field. Participating in the paid workforce for self-realization as well as economic necessity is one result, and with it more joy, purposefulness, and intention among women.
And despite all the handwringing about so-called work/life balance, the truth is that what women really want in their work is power, not power over others but the power TO use their talents and their hard-earned preparation to achieve in the field of their passion.
3. Media meets mentorship
The adage that if you can see it, you can be it is true. As the Women's Media Center has documented, despite progress, women are too often not seen, heard, or in charge of which stories are told in the media. Still, women are finding ways to make their voices heard and get the role models they need. The Op Ed Project has almost doubled the percentage of opinion pieces by women published in major newspapers. Women still use social media for friendship, but are now also as likely as men to use LinkedIn and other professional networking sites. The proliferation of mentoring and peer support opportunities for women, such as Lean In circles and Glassbreakers and a plethora of local professional networking groups, are the female equivalent of the golf game and old boys' networks.
4. Technology meets opportunity: The very technology developed to enable greater productivity has reshaped human ability to structure work more flexibly, enabling more family friendly policies that women (and, increasingly, men as well) want. It has also literally recreated the work world into one where brains, not brawn are the most valuable commodity, making gender irrelevant and opening opportunities not previously available to women. And technology is an infinite resource best created in collaboration, tapping the leadership skills viewed as most effective --and most identified with female leadership.
5. Genders meet on same planet
Women’s employment is now the norm. The single paycheck family is now the exception and it’s likely that both partners bring home the bacon and participate in childcare and housework (though parity is also elusive there). So the traditional organizational structure is passé. Paid parental leave is galloping forward and I predict affordable quality child care will be the next frontier. Companies that like Salesforce commit to leaching the implicit bias out of pay and promotions will be the ones that succeed.
The shift in economic power is redefining what parenting and income earners contribute in terms of value, realigning the parameters within which both sexes may find fulfillment. It allows them both to apply their talents in areas that return the greatest gratification.
But The Journey Continues
Women’s challenge in the 20th century was to change laws and open doors. Our challenge in the 21st century is to walk through those doors with big intentions. And we must each bring other women along to break through to parity once and for all.
But in doing so, we must remember there is little value in simply substituting a female warrior for a male one. The latest Star Wars entertained but did not completely satisfy because the new characters largely acted out old memes. The same battles rage on.
Women must have a true awakening of their Force, the power we already possess, to take these rare moments of strategic inflection to redesign power and work in this long heroine's journey to full social and economic equality. Then we will see gender parity in leadership by 2025.
Gloria Feldt is the cofounder and president of Take The Lead and author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. A congenital CEO and activist, she hangs out on social media far too much—how like a woman—so find her @GloriaFeldt and @takeleadwomen. She writes about social and leadership trends for women and leadership and what to do to reach leadership parity in her lifetime. A version of this article was originally published on FastCompany.com.
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