"It's done more damage than almost any phrase in the English language to women's self-esteem."
Feminists have spent decades changing laws and opening doors for women in the workplace. So, what’s stopping them from charging ahead and claiming the corner office?
Women make up half the workplace in the U.S., but hold just 18% of leadership positions. Although women are making gains in this respect, they won’t reach full gender parity until 2133 at the current pace of change, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2015 Global Gender Gap Report.
Gloria Feldt, former president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the co-founder of Take The Lead Women, is on a mission to speed up the process by teaching women how to actually take power. I recently spoke with Feldt about women in leadership, why it’s do-or-die time for the women’s movement, and why she hates the phrase “having it all.”
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Lauren Schiller: Why do you call Take The Lead Women today’s women’s movement?
Gloria Feldt: Movements go through phases and stages. The challenge of twentieth century second-wave feminism was to change discriminatory laws, open doors and give women an opportunity to aim for whatever they wanted to accomplish in their lives. The challenge of the twenty-first century is for women to walk through those doors, because once you have opened them and once you have laws that make gender discrimination illegal, what’s next? Nobody’s going to step aside for you. You have to walk through those doors yourself, and that is the lesson that I believe women have yet to learn.
Let’s talk about women’s relationship with power. What is your point of view on that?
In 2008, at the moment when it seemed like we were going to have our first woman president, the assumption was that because the role model was there, that other women would be just jumping all over themselves to put their hats into the ring and run for office. It turned out that the real story was that women are half as likely as men to even think about running for office, and when they do, they still have to be asked multiple times before they will finally take that step. I, having been an activist for women already at that point for several decades, thought to myself, “Oh, my goodness. What is wrong? What is happening? Why? Why is it if you have the opportunity that you wouldn’t take it?”
I started a study, and…I quickly discovered that the same dynamics were at work in the corporate world, in entrepreneurship, in who does the laundry at home. The dynamics are the same, and it’s all about how we perceive our own value and how we activate that value in terms of the power we believe we have in this world and the intention that we have to use it or not.
I came to believe that it’s not women’s lack of ambition, as some of the research says, but rather, a much lower level of intentionality that is culturally learned. It’s something that boys are still socialized from the moment of birth, and that is you know the world is your oyster. Whereas girls are still socialized to think first about what other people think about them. That puts the locus of power outside of yourself.
Do you see a correlation between access to birth control and increasing the number of women leaders?
If a woman is going to have the ability to be in charge of any of the rest of her life, she first has to be able to be in charge of her own physical being, and that includes her childbearing. There’s just no question. A woman needs two things to be fully free and equal in this world. One is to be in charge of your own physical bodily decisions, including whether and when to have children. The second is to have economic power and justice and be able to support yourself. If you have those two things, then you can be fully free. You can’t be coerced, you can’t be manipulated into anything that you don’t want to be manipulated into, and if you’re in an abusive relationship, for example, you have the means get out of it.
What about this question of whether women can “have it all”?
Oh, I hate that so much. I hate that phrase. I think it’s done more damage than almost any phrase in the English language to women’s self-esteem.
All of life is a daily choice. Every day we have to make these choices about what are our primary intentions, what is it that we want to accomplish with this one life that we have, what are the tradeoffs that we’re going to make. Sometimes you might back off a while, and that should be true whether you’re male or female. Sometimes you might back out for a little while and spend more time with your family. Sometimes there are caregiving responsibilities for elders, as well. Other times, you’re able to jump in and want to jump in and give it your full attention.
What’s the best advice that you’ve ever gotten about leadership?
One of the best pieces of advice I ever had was ask for it by name. This was early in my career, and I was at a training session and I was asked what position I would ultimately like to hold. I was kind of mealy-mouthing around, and I didn’t give a clear, straight answer. A man there looked me in the eye and said, “Ask for it by name.” It rings in my head all the time. You can’t expect other people to know what you want if you don’t ask for it. You can’t expect your boss to know that you feel like you’re getting ready for that next promotion if you don’t tell her or him that and explain why you are, in fact, ready for it and that you would like to have it. They can’t know that if you don’t tell them.
Lauren Schiller is the host of Inflection Point, a public radio show and podcast featuring conversations with women who are changing the status quo. The above article is an edited and condensed version of the broadcast interview. Click here to listen to the full audio.