Amid a year of progress for women, some missteps to learn from

Story highlights

  • Peggy Drexler: 2013 saw big gains for women but some mistakes we can all learn from
  • She says Paula Deen, Kathleen Sebelius, Miley Cyrus, Lara Logan were some who stumbled
  • Drexler: Janet Yellen, Mary Barra were among the trailblazers in the rise of women this year

It was a big year for women, 2013.

In the past 12 months, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg called on her fellow females to "lean in" to their careers.

And lean in they did: Janet Yellen was nominated to become the first woman to head the U.S. Federal Reserve and General Motors named Mary Barra the auto industry's first female CEO. In a new epilogue to her book "The End of Men: And the Rise of Women," Hanna Rosin wrote that, thanks in part to strong political women like Kirsten Gillibrand, Tammy Baldwin and Claire McCaskill, the patriarchy is officially dead.

Peggy Drexler

But not all landmark moves by women were points scored. A few of the year's biggest missteps serve as powerful reminders of what NOT to do in 2014:

Say things in private that you wouldn't in public: As part of a lawsuit filed by a former employee, erstwhile beloved celebrity chef Paula Deen admitted to having used racial slurs, including the N-word, and admiring a plantation-style event where the "whole entire wait staff was middle-aged black men." It was a particularly ironic revelation, given that she'd built her reputation on being something of a comforting, maternal figure. She was promptly fired by the Food Network and lost endorsements with, among others, Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Target, and Sears.

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Tweet without thinking: Just before the holiday, PR exec Justine Sacco pressed send on a last-minute tweet before boarding a 12-hour flight: "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!" She had just a few hundred followers at the time. But the Internet has a way of making the intimate go viral, and by the time Sacco landed in South Africa, she was the biggest Internet story of the week. She endured public excoriation and, ultimately, lost her job. And though Sacco's words were insensitive at best, the outrage that followed -- which included some death threats -- proved that Sacco isn't exactly the only one lacking empathy.

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Tell only half the story: Lara Logan's deeply flawed report on Benghazi that aired on "60 Minutes" threatened the long-running news program's credibility and called into question journalistic practices across the board. The worst part: The mistake was avoidable, according to a CBS review that stated the accounts provided by the report's key source differed from versions provided to the FBI. As a result, Logan and her producer were suspended.

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Stay silent in the face of criticism. When the website for Obamacare launched -- or, more accurately, failed to launch -- it was Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius who took most of the heat. Millions called for her firing, and the voices only grew louder as Sebelius initially refused to testify before Congress about the nearly inoperable website.

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Muddle the message. Miley Cyrus' butt-shaking, foam-finger-waving performance at the MTV Video Music Awards in August was a lesson in how shock sells. Though the act spawned much outrage -- Vogue reportedly pulled its plans to feature her on the cover, and longtime boyfriend Liam Hemsworth moved on as well -- album sales climbed. But then she followed it up with a topless photo shoot with Terry Richardson; a not-quite-pornographic music video; and an admission that, yes, she is singing about drugs (sorry, kids!). In the end, the takeaway was clear: The act overshadows the talent. Chances are good that as we move into 2014, it's the foam finger we'll remember more than Miley's songs.

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Use shame to motivate. California mother of three Maria Kang became headline news for a photograph she posted to her Facebook account in which she appeared toned and tanned in a sports bra and short shorts beneath the provocative caption, "What's Your Excuse?" After the photo went viral -- and Kang was bashed for "fat shaming" -- she claimed she'd only intended to motivate others. What ensued brought out bullies on both sides, and served to undermine any positive conversation Kang might have envisioned. The fact is that by posting the photo, Kang was issuing judgment on others. And she was judged in return.

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Assume all women want the same things. Even one of the year's more inspiring messages for women contained elitist notes: In calling for women to "lean in" to their careers, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg assumed that all women want to "have it all" -- or even want the same things, period. Her book, "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead," ignited a powerful discussion. But in some ways her experiences are so far from the norm of the majority of women in the workforce, and her edict about what women "should do" is so absolute, that her larger message, unfortunately, got lost at times.

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Frida Ghitis: 10 women who shaped 2013

Of course, 2013 was filled with many gains -- Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis' pro-choice filibuster, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer standing by her decision to ban working from home, then seeing the company's stock soar, and Angelina Jolie's very public double mastectomy among them.

For every errant twerk, pop culture saw its share of positive messages for women, including Malala Yousafzai's "I Am Malala" -- a Pakistani girl's tale of being shot by the Taliban for speaking out about the rights of women -- and the consistent challenging of the Hollywood body ideal in Lena Dunham's "Girls."

Missteps are part of the normal course of life; they aren't a step back. But it's key to remember, as we enter 2014, as women make greater strides in the battle toward complete gender equity, that their words and actions matter. Greater gains, after all, also mean more people are watching.

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