What’s The Next Great Leap For Women?

by Gloria Feldt on March 2nd, 2012
in 9 Ways Blog, Create a Movement, ForbesWoman, Gender, Inspiration, Know Your History, Leadership, No Excuses, Workplace and tagged , , , , , , , ,

You can now find me on ForbesWoman.com. My first post will tell you why it took me so long to get started. And now that I’ve jumped into the deep end of the pool, I want to share what I think is the Next Great Leap for women. I’d love to know what your thoughts are. Victoria Pynchon has already weighed in with an amazing piece about sponsorship.

Because my book, No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power, came out officially in paperback on Leap Day—a perfect day for a book about women’s relationship with power, no?—I’ve been thinking hard about what the next great leap forward for women should be. So I thought I’d better check out the history of the every-fourth-year calendar adjustment that gives us February 29.

Watch Out, Men

Leap Day inspired a leap of vision and blazing hope for women in 5th Century Ireland when St. Bridget persuaded St. Patrick to declare a woman could do the unthinkable: ask a man to marry her.

At a time when a woman was, for all practical purposes, owned first by her father and then by her husband, marriage meant not love but economic survival for her and her children. No doubt many seized their one chance to override gendered power norms and choose their own fates.

The tradition continued, with merry belittlements to remind women how little power they had the rest of the time. Men had to pay a fine or give a silk dress if they refused marriage proposals. Women on the prowl for husbands sported red petticoats as warning so poor beleaguered men could dash in the other direction. Haha.

You may be laughing because Leap Day privilege now seems an amusing anachronism. Not only do the majority of men and women think it’s perfectly fine for a female to propose marriage, the End of Men has been proclaimed, Women’s Nation declared, and New York Times columnist Nick Kristof dubs women “Mistresses of the Universe.”

But such puffery masks how far women have yet to go to achieve genuine parity. The next norm-changing leap must be women creating and earning wealth that places the female 51 percent of the population into power balance with their male counterparts.

Effective leadership and actions that create fundamental social change are rooted in the language of power, of which wealth is a key source. If women are ever to complete their staccato journey to equality, they must join that discourse with full throat.

The dismal data are well known. Women in the U.S. have been stuck for decades at a paltry 18 percent of the top leadership positions across all sectors, on average. Currently, that’s 17 percent of Congress, 15 percent of Fortune 500 corporate boards, a mere 3 percent of top clout positions in media companies that define the cultural narrative. Far from being mistresses of the universe, women earn 78 cents to a man’s dollar, and yes, that’s for comparable positions and with comparable experience.

The saints won’t intercede this time; indeed the social positions of the political right have hardened to 5th century proportions, making the phrase “barefoot and pregnant” relevant again. Catholic Bishops’ would deny even non-Catholic employees birth control insurance, and some presidential candidates brag how little they care for the poor—of whom America has more than any time in a half-century, and whose face is disproportionately female, 17 million compared to 12.6 million men.

Yet while lack of money is often cited as a reason women fall behind, money is rarely acknowledged as a tool for enabling women to meet the social justice aims at the core of feminism. The very programs with laudable goals of launching women often buy into a poor-me narrative without changing the way women think about and embrace financial power. This is why noble efforts to recruit women candidates for office, corporate gender diversity initiatives, and endless studies decrying bias in the workplace have scarcely moved the dial.

But here are three strategies that can: value yourself, define power on your terms, and think bigger.

Value Yourself:

It’s painful to know the entire wage gap can be attributed to women not valuing themselves sufficiently to risk negotiating for more. Timidity in negotiating entry salaries and promotions costs women on average half a million dollars each over our lifetimes.

“Recruiting and retaining high-performing women to crack the diversity and inclusivity nut American business has been as elusive as the creation of cold fusion,” observes Victoria Pynchon, principal in She Negotiates and attorney-mediator.

But in an opportune turn of the business case, organizations have good reason to court women. Those with more women in leadership make more money, according to McKinsey and Catalyst. Similarly, female legislators work harder and get more legislation passed than their male counterparts.

So no worries about asking for what you deserve. Employers need you more than you need them.

Define Power on Your Terms:

 Power unused is power useless.

You can’t win political office if you don’t run. You can’t get into the C-suite if you don’t ask for the promotion. And you can’t sit down after an advance and expect the forward motion to continue. Professional women who opt out of the workplace claiming “I choose my choice” compromise their financial futures and make it harder for the next woman up for promotion to convince the boss she won’t leave when she has kids.

Women understandably resist the traditional definition of power: power over others. But power is what we make it.  When I suggest women change how they think about power from oppressive “power over” to expansive “power to,” I see their faces relax as they embrace it—for their own good and the good they can do for others. Innovation comes from the more expansive kind of power, and a more collaborative model of leadership–one reason companies with more women in top leadership perform better.

Think Bigger, Then Bigger Still:

Microcredit boosts women entrepreneurs. And it’s great to see the proliferation of services like Daily Worth and Money Zen that coach women to financial literacy and self sufficiency.

But the leap to economic parity begs for bigger thinking.  Like Women Effects Investments, that aims to raise not millions, not billions, but trillions to invest with a gender lens. They’ll increase access to capital for female entrepreneurs, put the heft of their investments toward companies that promote workplace equity, and invest in socially responsible businesses that improve life for women and girls globally.

I want to see the female equivalents of Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg, who create enormous wealth through technologies that change how people live and think.

And while it’s wonderful that Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, might become the richest woman in the world, Sandberg’s much-circulated TEDWomen speech tells women how to adapt to organizations designed by men for men with wives at home. Isn’t it time instead to change those antiquated structures so both women and men can earn a fair living and have a life?

Power and energy come from moving into new spaces, not from standing still or defending what’s been won. Wealth is feminism’s next great frontier in the long struggle for justice and equality.

This Leap Day can be the moment about which future generations will say THAT was the moment of blazing hope– the leap into a future more prosperous and flourishing than any the world has known.

This article originally ran in a blog post for FORBESWOMAN. Check it out here along with other women you really should know.

Gloria Feldt

Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.

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