In defense of Sheryl Sandberg’s much maligned Lean In, I compared the book to No Excuses by former President of Planned Parenthood, Gloria Feldt. That book, which I read a couple years ago, has a similar thesis. It focuses on strategies that can help women succeed in the workplace, and it debuted with no feminist uproar.
Feldt responded to Reel Girl’s post:
Thanks for making the comparison between my book and Sheryl’s. You hit the nail on the head in many ways. I’d just like to say for the record that since my goal is to move women forward toward parity in top leadership positions, I’m thrilled that a woman like Sheryl in a powerful corporate position is so willing to say these things.
She and I have discussed that there is a need to be able to work in the system and to change it. I tend to come down more on the side of changing the system, but then movement building has been my career.
And I’m doing it again with Take The Lead (www.taketheleadwomen.com) if anyone wants to check it out and possibly hop on board to help us reach leadership gender parity by 2025.
Here is my comment back to Gloria.
Thank you for your comment to Reel Girl. I’m grateful for your long career in helping women and happy that you wrote No Excuses whichI learned so much from. I appreciate your support of Sheryl Sandberg’s book, though in some ways, your email perpetuates a misconception about “sides” that I want to address. You write:
I tend to come down more on the side of changing the system, but then movement building has been my career.
There are no sides here. Women can’t change the sexist system if they the lack basic skills do so. This may not seem like a huge deal in your comment, but this schism is presented and replicated all over the media when discussing Sandberg’s book, just last Sunday again on “60 Minutes,” and it can be distorting.
In 1998, When I was 28, I cofounded the Woodhull Institute for Ethical Leadership to address this lack of skills and also, the class divide in feminism. So many young women, including me, had big dreams, but little idea as to the practical tools of how to achieve them. It was like we’d missed out on a basic training course that the men had taken.
Woodhull’s mission was to train women ages 22 – 35 in the skills they too often lacked. We saw this age period as crucial for women to lay the ground work for successful careers, a time where they needed support and training that they weren’t getting. There weren’t non-profits that focused on career development of this demographic, so we created Woodhull.
Modules at Woodhull included: media training, negotiation, advocacy, how to get published, financial literacy, how to write a business plan, and public speaking. Every Woodhull module included a component on ethics. There’s no point in becoming a leader if you can’t be an ethical one, give back, help people, and do your part to change the world for the better.
Woodhull ran into challenges raising money. Foundations wanted to give money to non-profits that served 100% inner city/ low income women. Even when 2/3 of Woodhull constituents came from inner city/ low income and were scholarshipped, foundations weren’t interested in that ratio. Woodhull didn’t want to adapt to funders, because part of the reason Woodhull was founded was to bridge the class divide. Women who came to Woodhull valued that diversity. Many said they had no other place to address class differences and similarities openly and to learn from each other. Again and again, we witnessed that young women, across the board, whether from the richest or poorest families, didn’t know basic financial literacy or had difficulty receiving applause without flinching.
You don’t get much more privileged by birth in America than me. My great-grandfather was Charles Merrill, the founder of Merrill Lynch. He was an early investor in Safeway stores, and my grandfather became CEO of that company, building it into the world’s largest supermarket chain. My father was also a CEO of Safeway until he left the company to buy the San Francisco Giants. I think that part of the reason I became a feminist so early is because in the world that I grew up in, the gender disparity was huge. Sometimes it seemed like all of the men were running the world and all of the women were dieting.
Following my college graduation, many of the privileged men I had grown up with went on to start their own companies, open restaurants, publish novels, and produce films. Most of the women I knew, who were smart, creative, and had a sincere desire to have a positive impact on society, took low-paying, low status jobs for big corporations or non-profits.
What I also noticed in these women, and not the men, and an issue that you address in No Excuses, was a profound ambivalence towards success and power, basically what it means to be successful and powerful as a woman in America. For all of these reasons, I founded Woodhull.
The class divide among women, whether it manifests as the stay-at-home vs working mommy wars or feminists against Sheryl Sandberg, is the major challenge keeping women from achieving parity. Even the foundation and non-profit worlds systemically reinforce this fatal gap. If women can’t bridge the class divide, we’ll stay stuck, but if we can overcome it, nothing will stop us.
The bad news is Reel Girl ran out of bandwith not once, but twice. ARGH.
The good news is the sexist posters from kids movies are back up. If you haven’t seen them, you can look now.
You should also check out Laura Beck’s post on Jezebel. She writes about the bad influence the limited representations of females has on kids:
As for how it leaves girls feeling, this is probably something many of us can relate to. As a child, I strived for the perfection of a Disney Princess, perhaps subconsciously knowing I’d never achieve that, I started imagining myself in the shoes of more adventurous male characters. I’ve talked to many women who’ve had similar experiences, this sort of transference. Lacking decent female role models, it’s not surprising many girls live stories through the eyes of boys and men.
There’s a passage in Margaret Cho’s hilarious 2002 autobiography I’m the One That I Want that talks about this in terms of race. This is paraphrased, but she basically says that, as a young girls, she couldn’t wait to grow up and become white like everyone on TV. Heartbreaking, and I think this experience resonates with many people. When you don’t see yourself reflected in media, you push yourself into it.
Beck also goes on to tell a creepy but unsurprising story:
Now, a personal anecdote. I have a friend who’s a writer working in children’s TV. She’s constantly taking meetings and pitching stories, and she told me when she first started in the business, she pitched stories with girl leads. However, after being told to change the protagonist to a male character more than a few times — and once being told to actually turn the movie into a live action rom com for adult women!? — she now pitches almost entirely male-driven stories. And guess what? She’s selling.
What is surprising is that so many people buy the bullshit line: “Girls will see movies about boys, but boys won’t see movies about girls.”
How can we see cool movies about girls when no one will make them?
Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s Miss Representation— a documentary about how mainstream media contributes to the under-representation of women in positions of power and influence in America– aired on OWN last week. TV viewers learned the following stats, listed below. Makes you think twice about taking your kid to a movie.
Only 16% of protagonists in film are female. Only 7% of film directors and 10% of writers are female.
Between 1937 and 2005 there were only 13 female protagonists in animated movies. The female characters in G rated movies are just as likely to wear revealing clothing as in R rated movies.
“All of Hollywood is run on one assumption: That women will watch stories about men, but men won’t watch stories about women. It is a horrible indictment of our society of we assume that one half of our population is just not interested in the other half.”
– Geena Davis