Skip to main content

Why women must seize this moment

By Gloria Feldt, Special to CNN
updated 10:38 AM EDT, Thu March 14, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gloria Feldt: Work/life balance and women's success big issues in the culture recently
  • Feldt: Sandberg, Mayer, Slaughter at center of moment that's divided women; it mustn't
  • She asks: Why is this still problem? Workplace should be changing for big influx of women
  • Feldt: Workplace structure laid out by men, but women should use new leverage to change it

Editor's note: Gloria Feldt is the author of "No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power" and a former president of Planned Parenthood. She is co-founder and president of Take The Lead, an initiative that aims to propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Follow her on Twitter @GloriaFeldt. Join CNN Opinion on Facebook for a live discussion about women and the workplace on Tuesday from noon to 1 p.m. ET. Watch CNN's special coverage of "What Women Want" throughout Monday and Tuesday. Plus, watch Soledad O'Brien's interview with Sheryl Sandberg on "Starting Point" at 7 a.m. ET on Monday, March 18th.

(CNN) -- At the launch party for Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg's controversial new book, "Lean In," New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg complained only half jokingly that the book -- which hit Amazon.com's best seller list well ahead of its March 11 release -- is doing way better than his book did. Then he introduced Arianna Huffington, who introduced the woman of the moment.

And this is unquestionably a moment.

Its significance can be measured by the roiling controversy touched off in recent weeks over the role and place of women in society. (If estrogen were combustible, smoke detectors would be screeching.) More specifically: How women navigate life as they inch their way toward a fair and equal share of roles in a still male-dominated workplace and in the home space.

Goira Feldt
Goira Feldt

Sandberg and two other alpha females -- Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer, and Princeton professor and former top State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter -- have taken turns at the center of the debate, Mayer recently when she declared an end to employee flextime in favor of face time, angering many women (and men), who considered the move a step back.

The myth of balancing motherhood and a successful career

Slaughter, in an Atlantic article last year, wrote of backing away from her State Department job over mom-guilt and then criticized Sandberg for signaling in her popular video talks "more than a note of reproach" to such a retreat, while she encouraged women to stay in the game, come what may.

The new book by Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, may have caused the biggest stir. It's a well-researched overview of problems women face navigating what she calls the career "jungle gym," and exhorts women to embrace their power, live up to their highest ambitions, and own the work/life choices made along the way. Some women -- many who haven't read it -- have slammed it as elitist or as placing the burden of change too much on women and not enough on workplaces.

I've been an activist for women for decades, so I'm thrilled that a top female corporate leader has declared her intention to energize a new wave of women's advancement. But the inevitable backlash is a troubling diversion.

For one thing, why is this a women's discussion? Who ever judged a man for not being home to cook his child's dinner or wipe her nose? Or opting not to take paternity leave? Why this incessant drumbeat about women and the work/life choices they make? Why should only women shoulder the double burden of work and family responsibilities? And why hasn't the workplace caught up to the needs of the women who have been flooding into it for years now?

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



One answer, according to a research paper last year from a team headed by University of North Carolina's Sreedhari Desai, may be resistance of married men with stay-at-home wives. The team's findings included, for example, that "employed husbands in traditional and neo-traditional marriages, compared to those in modern marriages, tend to (a) view the presence of women in the workplace unfavorably, (b) perceive that organizations with larger numbers of female employees are operating less smoothly, (c) find organizations with female leaders as relatively unattractive, and (d) deny, more frequently, qualified female employees opportunities for promotion."

Organizational structures of workplaces were, after all, designed originally by men, for men with wives at home caring for the kids, the old folks, and the house. And culturally ingrained "implicit bias" influences both men and women to value men's traditional leadership roles more than women's.

Opinion: Working moms, don't try to be perfect at home

But such attitudes are neither realistic nor sustainable. In today's world of two-earner families, businesses that don't shift to accommodate to families' needs -- such as paid sick leave flexible enough to permit caring for children and elders -- are not only dysfunctional, they lose their women workers. Recognizing this brain drain and its negative impact on business, nearly 550 CEOs from major companies globally have signed the Women's Empowerment Principles, a collaboration between U.N. Women and the U.N. Global Compact (its tagline: "Equality means business").

I recently attended a convocation of this group, which includes such giants as Ernst & Young, Deloitte, Calvert, and Accenture, and heard male and female executives passionately asserting that inclusion of women is not just the right thing to do, it is a strategic business imperative.

If women are so strategically important -- and graduating from college and pouring into the job market at a higher rate than men -- shouldn't they be in a position to demand a more family-friendly workplace?

TIME looks at the woman behind Facebook
Laura Bush: My girls help others
Marissa Mayer's maternity leave mayhem

Consider: If women had been in charge of creating the organizational structures for the last few hundred years, wouldn't we all have figured out how to care for the kids and elders without losing the value of half the population's intelligence in the workplace?

It is time for women to stand up to seize this moment, as sure to wreak havoc with prevailing norms as the Second Wave feminism that inspired me in the 1960s to morph from real West Texas housewife (I mean really real -- three kids by age 20 and no employable skills) to college student to volunteer women's activist to a full-out career.

Let's stop dancing on the head of a pin to someone else's argument about who is more righteous: the woman who opts out to care for children, or the one who leans in to leadership in the corporate world, or the one who dodges both options to create a part-time alternative. Conflicts like this keep women fighting each other rather than using our collective power to push for systemic changes in the workplace, changes that can open up choices for us and generations to come.

Work and family: How do you it work?

Creating them isn't easy, but the steps are simple. I call it Sister Courage, and like-minded men are welcome to join.

First, be a sister at work -- make alliances with people who share your concerns. Don't let yourself be isolated. Reach out to give help and ask for help when you need it.

Second, have the courage to raise issues. Engage even when it's hard. That doesn't mean being unkind. It does mean not backing off. It means defining your own terms -- for flextime, for pay raises, for promotion, for creating a practical, productive work situation where everyone wins.

As a military strategist once told his advisers, when they told him they couldn't possibly win on the battlefield as mapped: "Draw a bigger map." And negotiation expert Victoria Pynchon says women do benefit most from negotiation when they operate from a straightforward position they define and stick to.

And third, put sister and courage together into a purposeful strategy and keep moving until you've reached the goal. Don't backslide in the pursuit of parity goals. As Linda Hirshman illustrated in "Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution," the gay rights movement has changed attitudes toward same-sex couples by applying these movement-building principles. If women quit arguing and work toward systemic changes together, we can retool the workplace for a successful 21st century.

If we don't? Twenty years from now we may still be bemoaning the fact that even though women earn 57% of college degrees, hold 85% of the consumer purchasing purse, are 54% of voters and half the workplace, they're stuck at under one-fifth of congressional, corporate board, and top management seats.

Social movements by nature are messy and do not go in straight lines. Striving together, not just to adapt ourselves, but to change the system is the key to a fair, just, and thriving society for women and men.

Editor's note: Join CNN Opinion on Facebook for a live discussion about women and the workplace on Tuesday from noon to 1 p.m. ET. Bring your questions and thoughts.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gloria Feldt.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 11:17 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
updated 10:05 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
updated 8:03 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
updated 8:12 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT