By Marylene Delbourg-Delphis @mddelphis
Last Friday, Marian Scheuer Sofaer invited a few friends for a breakfast in Palo Alto, CA with Gloria Feldt, who presented her now famous book, No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think about Power. A great intimate setting early in the morning that did not diminish Gloria’s energy and determination to fight for the cause of women: “Women today,” she said, “are in the midst of an unfinished revolution.” While it is true that women have come a long way (“maybe”), parity is still not here – women’s salaries are still lower than men’s, and as of September 2010, the United States ranks 73rd among 186 countries in its percentage of women serving in national parliaments (not to mention the dismal percentage of women in the boardrooms, etc.). “Women need to lead their own way forward.”
Gloria Feldt states the problem unambiguously: “By far the most confounding problem facing women today is not that doors aren’t open, but that women aren’t walking through the open doors in numbers and with the intention sufficient to transform society’s major institutions once and for all.” The former president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America (who had given birth to three children by the age of 20), Gloria Feldt offers a relevant flashback on Margaret Sanger (1879–1966), who opened a birth control clinic in 1916. Not only did she transform her convictions into actions, she did not ask for permission: she did it.
The book evolves around a very interesting analysis of the relationship of women to power. Most of the time, “power” boils down to being a demonstration of force, through attitudes, rhetorical means and the like; in other words, the word denotes a “power over” things, situations, or people. This is a vision of power with which women are traditionally uncomfortable, as it reeks of centuries of servitude and bullying. Implicitly getting back to the actual etymology of the word, Gloria Feldt exhorts women to understand the term as designating “the ability to,” and speaks of a “power to…” This means: the capacity to accomplish things, and before anything else, the faculty of ridding oneself from the fear of coming across in an unfeminine fashion or a sort of “bluestocking.” This latter is a term that ended up being used derisively to stigmatize educated women in the 18th century, targeting the members of the Blue Stockings Society, an important educational and social movement created in England by Elizabeth Montegu (and to which the first woman-programmer in history, Ada Byron Lovelace belonged!)
“Power-to” is the new responsibility of women. They have the responsibility to take advantage of what the fight of other women has granted them over the course of the 20th century and pursue the cause by resisting fear and speaking up — especially as results already speak for them. Catalyst, Ernst & Young, the World Bank and McKinsey have clearly acknowledged an improved efficiency in organizations including at least 30% of women at the top.
The book provides a wide range of tactical tools and ways for women to overcome recurring demons (such as the feeling of not being “quite ready” to apply to a given job, for example) and ends up with a forceful exhortation: “Don’t follow your dream — lead it.” While it may be true that women often do not have the same “track record” as men, often because the road has been more difficult for them, it’s also true that they can make up for time lost efficiently.
Many of the case studies are inspiring. Don’t try to tread a “fine line” or compromise indefinitely, as did Hillary Clinton in many respects. Lean forward. True, it’s hard for women CEO to take a long maternity leave, but at least we can decide to own our bodies, and we can decide to have kids on our own terms. It’s up to women to organize to make sure that if women retreat from the workforce temporarily, we help them come back. So let’s not conclude that parenthood and powerful careers are incompatible, or brazenly declare that “Women Don’t Want To Run Startups Because They’d Rather Have Children.”