I was savoring my grilled salmon salad recently when my lunch partner’s casual comment made me drop my fork and get serious.
"They've asked me to be board chair at the Brooklyn Museum, I'd be the first woman in their 100-year history. But I don't know if I can do it," Elizabeth Sackler said. "What do you think I should do?"
Without flipping a lettuce leaf, I hopped right onto my soapbox. “You must do it. Think of what it will mean for the next woman with leadership abilities in the arts who needs a path to walk, a role model to enable her to see the possibilities. You have to ‘sit in the high seat,’ Elizabeth,” I said, quoting former Labor Secretary Frances Perkins when President Franklin Roosevelt tapped her to be the first woman cabinet member.
Frances Pepper (left) and Elizabeth Smith (right) working in the offices of The Suffragist, the weekly journal published by the Congressional Union and National Woman's Party from 1913 to 1921. Image Credit: Harris & Ewing, Wikimedia CommonsWomen’s Equality Day yesterday was the 94th anniversary of American women’s right to vote. This year, women are taking high seats at an astonishing cadence, even in unexpected professions.
- Michele Roberts became the first woman to head NBA’s players’ union shortly after Becky Hammon became the first female assistant NBA coach.
- Miryam Mirzakhani is the first female Field prize winner for mathematics.
- Amale Andraos was selected the first woman dean of Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Preservation, and Planning.
- And then there’s Mo’Ne!
So it would be easy to treat Women’s Equality Day as a charming historical artifact and assume women’s advancement to leadership parity is unstoppable, perhaps even nearing a full table of high seats.
But one thing we’ve learned from history or should have by now, is that it rarely goes in a straight line. And indeed, these recent female firsts remind us both how far we have come and that we have a long way to go before such milestones warrant no more headline attention than if men were to achieve them.
Few professions have broken the 20% barrier in their leadership gender balance.
As Denver University Women’s College “Benchmarking Women’s Leadership” 2013 study states: “[W]omen are outperforming men, but they are not earning salaries or obtaining leadership roles commensurate with their higher levels of performance.” And most people know the dismal 23 cent pay gap and the Fortune 1000 leadership pyramid that shows women at the tip top CEO level constitute a paltry 4.8%.
So how can we capture the momentum and use it to propel women to parity—our fair and equal share of leadership positions across all sectors, as Take The Lead’s mission envisions?
Parity Push Time
I’m a fan of my own Power Tool #1, Know your history and you can create the future of your choice, and it seems appropriate to focus on for Women's Equality Day. (Shameless but sincere promotion here--you can learn all 9 Power Tools in my upcoming online certificate course that starts September 30.) You don’t have to be a “first.” Each of us can play a part, large or small, to push that momentum toward true equality and parity. Even a very small pebble thrown into the pool makes a ripple that undulates outward indefinitely.
Four Ways to Push for Parity Every Day:
1. Go out and learn. Learn your own family’s history. How did your mother, aunts, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers fare in the past? How can what they lived through serve as an inspiration for you and your life? Study the status of women in society and policies that affect women and girls too.
2. Go out and teach. The day is full of teachable moments, mentoring, and role modeling opportunities. By sharing our own history, we also illustrate how the world can change and how we can contribute to making that change happen. Social media can be a powerful tool to supplement direct conversation. Shelby Knox, a young activist, has used her Facebook as a forum to share short vignettes of notable moments in women’s history with her more than 2,500-strong Facebook network.
3. Go out and raise hell. Start a campaign to require women’s representation in history courses to be half the content, or to include women’s history in every school history curriculum. Join Moms Rising to learn what you can do to make the workplace more flexible, the National Women’s Law Center, or any of dozens of women’s groups that advocate for women to learn how you can get involved in policy issues. Contribute to organizations you like, or join funding collaboratives like Women Moving Millions, Women Donor’s Network, to leverage your philanthropic impact.
4. Go out and just do it. Have you ever considered running for office but felt you weren’t qualified yet? Found out after the fact that a man with the same qualifications holding the same job as you started at a higher salary or got a promotion because he asked for it and you didn’t? Been asked to take a leadership position and hesitated to say yes? No more of that! Take The Lead. Just do it.
For more ways you can create the future of your choice, check out Kaitlin Rattigan’s post on Women’s Equality Day.
“For a people is only as great, as free, as lofty, as advanced, as its women are free, noble, and progressive,” said Susan B. Anthony, 19th-century suffragist leader who did not live to see the suffrage amendment to the U. S. Constitution that we celebrate today ratified. It was up to the next generations to complete the job.
By knowing our past, we can overcome overt and covert cultural barriers and implicit biases that remain even after laws are changed and doors opened. We can break old patterns within ourselves that hold us back. We can step forward and keep on stepping yet further forward, taking other women with us as we go. We can refuse to allow our power to be dissipated by victory or diminished by defeat. We can create the future of our choice.
Oh, and Elizabeth did say yes to chairing the museum board, and she’s incredibly happy about her decision. Women like her are my cause for celebration today.
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