Gloria Feldt on Women, Careers and the Power We Possess To Benefit Both

8 years ago

Recently, Brazen Careerist founder, Penelope Trunk, wrote a blog post that unleashed a torrent of diverse and sharply divided opinions about women's career pursuits in comparison with men's in the tech start-up world. In Women Don’t Want To Run Startups Because They’d Rather Have Children, she described what she sees as the incompatibility of the mandatory amount of time and energy required for pushing a tech start-up with raising kids. And then, she tied up this incompatibility to why women don't get funding:

Startups move at breakneck pace, under a lot of pressure to succeed bigger and faster than any normal company. And women don’t want to give up their personal life in exchange for the chance to be the next Google. Or even the next Feedburner. Which is why the number of women who pitch is so small, and, therefore, the number of women who get funding is small.


And I’m not even going to go into the idea of women having a startup with young kids. It is absolutely untenable. The women I know who do this have lost their companies or their marriages or both. And there is no woman running a startup with young kids, who, behind closed doors, would recommend this life to anyone.

For men it’s different.

After just over two weeks, the post has nearly 500 comments -- and they run the gamut. It a fascinating, infuriating and enlightening thread. But is it empowering?

For that, we turn to a New York Times column by Gloria Feldt, "Where Is the Female Steve Jobs?", that was published just before Trunk's post. In her piece, Feldt, a long-time advocate for women's rights and most recently the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think about Power, says:

While men might have shaped the culture, women have bought into it. I’ve repeatedly seen women come to power and step back. We put boundaries around our visions of what we can do. I’ve done it too. Fighting for others, in my work for Planned Parenthood, seemed worthy. Fighting for myself, or something I wanted, did not. We have a conflicted relationship with power that plays out in the worlds of work, politics and personal relationships.

I spoke with Gloria on behalf of in search of suggestions for how to understand Penelope's contributions, those of the commenters to her post and Gloria's own philosophy about women, career and power.

BH: How do you see the role of social media and the Internet in terms of how women can leverage these tools?

I was participating in the International Leadership Forum online starting about 25 years ago.  When you’re communicating over the Internet about topics you otherwise might have been talking about over the dinner table or in a business setting, and you have both men and women present, and you’re communicating in a way that all you see is the written word and you are not hearing the voices, and it’s asynchronous, and you can absorb it [at your own pace], it levels out the decibels. The men's voices [literally] are not louder than the women's. We all knew each other, and if we had been sitting around in a room, the men would have been louder, but I think that the Internet has made it possible for men's and women's voices to be at the same decibel level.

The advantage of this is, in part, simply people’s attention. There's not a woman to whom I have spoken who hasn’t had the experience of putting forth an idea and then a man says the same thing five minutes later, and it’s the greatest idea since sliced bread. In the business world especially, men's voices are heard when women’s aren't. But partly, it's the attention and a higher level of risk taking that men have for putting ideas out. Women will wait and defer but men just talk.

The downside of social media is that it is a very seductive time suck. You think you're really doing something but you’re not really doing much. You can spend a lot of time accomplishing very little.  But the upside is that it allows for an enormous amount of flexibility. You can do anything you need to do from anywhere you are. It's helpful for managing a household, kids and work at the same time. It offers networking capabilities. It helps you find your tribe and find people who care about what you care about.

BH: What are the pros and cons of women developing their own structures in which they're in charge, as with women-owned and managed law firms

Everybody has their own gifts and preferences about how they work. If women set out to make a law firm that’s all women partners and they do it with the intent of becoming the professional equals in terms of size and scope of business, that's a huge contribution. It’s great to do that, but it shouldn’t be the only route.

Ideally, when you get to a critical mass of women at a law firm or any other entity, you get to the point where you can make structural changes in the way an organization is run so that both men and women can have a life and earn a living, and so that both men and women can be treated fairly in terms of whose ideas are addressed.  The ultimate goal is to have the opportunity to contribute equally and if we have the desire to do it, that we’re doing it.

BH: In terms of the lack of parity in real-time, do you think that's being repeated online?

I have no empirical data, but it feels more equal, it seems like barriers don’t exist.  Look at my concept of carpe the chaos: any kind of change is chaos, but it enables people to think differently. If women don’t take the opportunity to do that, then shame on us.

BH: What role do men have in all this?

Use what you've got.  We can’t control what anyone else does. The feminist movement has changed men profoundly, but it has changed men by recreating the culture in a way that men grow up today in a completely different culture than their fathers and grandfathers did. It’s been really gratifying to me that at every presentation I’ve made in the last few months, there have been men and they’ve been about a third of the audience.  [At the event she was attending when interviewed] about half of the attendees are men and the questions from men were [about] what men can do to support women in these efforts.

We have enormous power at our disposal and we should use it. And while doing that, we’re going to change the men. At the policy level, we can make changes that require certain behavior, like laws against domestic violence. We couldn’t even use that term a hundred years ago. So there’s a lot that we can do and I totally advocate for when those changes can be dealt with through policy. I’m tired of hand-wringing and saying, "Oh, isn’t it awful!" We have a huge amount of capability and power right now and my point is, use it!

BH: Gendered language - where does it fit in online and offline?

I once named a panel, "Girls, Women and Ladies" in order to redefine those words and show that they are not settled.  The title is from a very sexist country and western song! So there was the ability to use it tongue-in-cheek.

Language forms us as well as how we learn it. The use of the term "whore" in politics is a good example. No one can hear that word and not think "female." Maybe there are male prostitutes in the world, and there certainly are, but there’s no question that it’s a gendered term. It  just is.  There's a big irony in that, with prostitution having been the oldest profession because it was the only one women could have. It puts women in a totally untenable bind.

BH: What about the double-edged sword of speaking up - using your power but then being labeled as aggressive or too assertive, or the b-word?

The systems haven’t changed, but there have been some changes.  Using the example of Hillary Clinton, she was treated horribly by the media, but her running for office took the sting out for women who would be and are running after her.  It's imminently clear that leadership can come in a turquoise pantsuit with a higher pitched voice, and that is the real payoff.

In the day to day situation, one of the things we can learn from men is to not take things so much to heart. We want people to like us and I like people to like me, but in the grand scheme of things, if it’s a situation in which I’m trying to accomplish something, I’m more interested in people respecting me. And I just think that we have to – one thing we need to do is to really calibrate those negative reactions that we get and not let them throw us off our game. Girls and women are still socialized today to be more empathetic – I would like men to be more empathetic. It would be a good thing if boys were socialized more to understand feelings. But in the meantime, it’s important for women to learn to keep their eye on the ball of what they’re trying to accomplish and not worry about every slight they perceive on the road to getting there. If someone is barring the door and not letting you through, that’s’ one thing. But if someone is saying something that hurts your feelings, that’s a very different thing.

It is hard to change a culture while you’re living in it and there will be moments of extreme frustration. I have them all the time, but it’s worthwhile and as you are there, you are creating a new model and the next person coming along will see you as the new model.  I hate to lay this off on women but you are models for the next women who come along so it’s important to give thought to these questions because it wil have an impact on your future and other women in the future.

BH: As it related to what Penelope Trunk's post describes, what ideas do you have for practical ways to shift the "opting out" paradigm?

I never believe that anything is ever inevitable, but that thinking is the American way.

The first thing is to have thought it through before the fact. It's hard to do.  It’s a big Q [how to have the career and the family and not have one spouse working 20 hour days]. What are the possible answers you have to consider? What about opening up the whole day care accessibility question? What about recreating our thinking about work life so that it’s understood that there are times in everyone’s life when you step back for a while, but for both men and women [to think about this]?  Who says there has to be a linear ladder only? We live long lives, why can‘t we all recognize that it’s acceptable for someone to decide to take five years out and have a more flexible life?

BH: But you do have to accept the trade-offs if you recognize that seeking career satisfaction may not be linear?

Who you hang out with changes when you change something in your life. The greatest predictor of what your next step is going to be is who you hang out with.  What I’m trying to point out to women is that there is a consequence of opting out whenever you’re going to do it.  Leslie Bennetts [author of The Feminine Mistake] points to the consequences of women thinking they’ll be taken care of by a man and then suddenly they’re destitute. What I’m really talking about here is that there’s a consequence if you don’t stay on the track. You reinforce the notion that it’s not worth it to hire and train and invest in a woman because she’ll leave when she has kids and then you’re making it hard for the next woman.

And also, until women have reached parity, it’s the old principle of when you go through a door, you take someone else with you, certainly until we’re there, and even after we’re there. The boys club exists because they understand that they must help each other. We must do the same.

The consequences when we don’t use the capabilities we have are not just for us as individuals; we also need to recognize that we’re part of a larger culture and history and movement and what we do has an impact on others. With all of this said, we need to change the workplace so men and women can have a life. We see men wanting flextime too, and that’s a huge change and a huge opportunity, too.

For more wisdom from Gloria:

Jill Writes Like She Talks
In The Arena: Jill Miller Zimon, Pepper Pike City Council Member

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