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Why Gender Equality Is So Hard to Achieve

Sept. 27, 2016

It's all about how we see power

Finally, someone said it out loud.

“There’s a reason why we haven’t had a woman president,” President Obama said at a fundraiser earlier in September. “We as a society still grapple with what it means to see powerful women. And it still troubles us in a lot of ways, unfairly. And that expresses itself in all sorts of ways.”

Women have long been aware that to get their ideas valued, copying male behavior patterns is not the ticket—they have to work differently. Recently the women serving in the White House revealed how they made it their mission to support each other’s ideas and initiatives with a technique they called “amplification.” They gave ownership to the woman who first put an idea forward and praised her idea. They didn’t allow it to slip away unnoticed as so often happens in meetings, only to be restated and claimed by a male colleague.

On Huffington Post, actress Kristen Bell took another route and produced a witty video on “Pink Sourcing,” a sly alternative to outsourcing showing how hiring women allows companies to offer less money per hour, less benefits and career recognition—without leaving the country.

With all the talk about gender and leadership, why does parity take so much effort?

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The country’s issue with powerful women is not about any one candidate, and it is not about any one job or industry. Across the board, women are still underrepresented at the heads of governments, enterprises and nonprofits. Fewer than 20% of top leaders across all sectors are women—only 4.2% women are in C-suite positions among Fortune 500 companies; 18% women fill top leadership positions across all sectors; and 19% of those serving in Congress are women.

One of the trickier aspects to making sustainable progress is determining how to talk about what exactly parity would look like and what its most essential elements are. And at the heart of that are the twin concepts of leadership and power.

I’ve learned from my work leading national organizations, starting a new one devoted to women’s leadership, and deep research and writing about the topic, that “power” is the word we need to redefine, even to transform. Our concept of power has traditionally been caught in the grip of “power over.” It’s a battle of mighty over the less endowed. And it’s a model that increasingly doesn’t work in this century of lighting-speed innovation, deep-seated and deadly conflicts in multiple corners of the world, and a marketplace that stretches well beyond Main Street into countries and cultures far removed from our own, increasingly built on brains not brawn. And it’s a kind of brute assertion that many women are frankly uncomfortable embracing in order to level the playing field.

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The women I’ve been talking to, like the women in the White House, are liberating themselves from this old model of power and seeing what happens when we switch it to “power to,” as in power to innovate, power to create, power to make life better for their families and communities, power to change the perception of a company in the marketplace, power to see treaty negotiations that ensure peace for families through to their difficult and often fractious end.

Women no longer need to be more of a man than their male counterparts; in fact, as studies increasingly show women’s leadership skills are a force to be valued for the results they bring, the profits they measurably demonstrate. The business case and the justice case for gender parity have converged. Women are no longer the question; they are very often the answer.

A major study released last year by the Peterson Institute for International Economics and audited by Ernst and Young Companies looked at more than 22,000 publicly traded companies in 91 countries. The results showed that having women in the highest management ranks equaled increased profitability. The World Bank similarly has reviewed governance and says those countries with more women in political leadership make better decisions. Other studies have reinforced this bottom line: women’s leadership, as it turns out, benefits everyone.

Let’s stop fooling ourselves and admit that many are afraid to give women a fair share of chairs at the table and equal say in the big decisions all humans have to face. And let’s face the reasons why and review the numbers that speak for themselves. Let’s end the fear and lead the way to a new paradigm that will benefit us all—women and men. Let’s check our language and the language we hear in public discourse and be honest about what we mean when we talk about the nature of leadership and power and what we need of both in this century.

It’s a huge and profound social shift. But it’s way past time.

Gloria Feldt is the co-founder and president of Take The Lead and the author of four books including No Excuses.