By Theresa Noll
As Gloria Feldt points out in her new book, No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change the Way We Think About Power and Leadership, the dial of women’s progress is in many ways stuck.
The mainstream media is often quick to declare that gender equality has been achieved, but in the United States, where women comprise the majority of voters and college graduates, we make up only 17 percent of Congress. We spend 80 percent of consumer dollars, but control just 15 percent of the corporate boardrooms, and we continue to make just 78 cents for every dollar men earn. There is certainly still, as Feldt puts it, a “deep canyon between the promise and reality.”
These statistics are not news, but Feldt, the former president and CEO of Planned Parenthood, has an unusual take on the situation: as the title of her book suggests, she contends that women have “no excuses” for allowing men to continue controlling the majority of money and political power in the U.S. Where is the female Bill Gates, she laments, and why have we yet to see a woman president “The most confounding problem facing women today,” Feldt writes, “is not that doors aren’t open, but that women aren’t walking through the open doors in numbers and with intention sufficient to transform society’s major institutions once and for all.”
If Feldt is right, and the path to change is as clear-cut as organizing and wielding the untapped agency women already have, what is stopping us She believes that the lack of parity in the U.S.’s most powerful institutions can be attributed to women’s being more reluctant than men to fill leadership roles that we perceive as requiring ethical compromise. We operate on an outdated definition of power, which assumes that having power entails enforcing oppressive policies that serve the people in command and leave those at the bottom behind.
But if we can re-envision power as a participatory tool with the potential to achieve something for the collective good — “power-to” instead of “power-over” — we will feel more comfortable fostering our inner leaders and stepping up to task. “This . . . definition of power,” Feldt writes, “has the potential to change the world for good; for good in the sense of making life better and for good in the sense of changing it for all time.”
Feldt’s impressive cache of examples of women leaders who have successfully employed the power-to way of thinking ranges from Margaret Sanger, as she described previously in On The Issues Magazine to Hillary Clinton — incredible women who actualized their visions without holding others back. The gains they made for women and men alike prove that power in the right hands can be a wonderful thing.
So how can this power-to be channeled in ways that transform women into true leaders Feldt, whose own journey to the top spot at Planned Parenthood began with a part-time job at a modest branch of the organization in the seventies, maintains that every woman is already well equipped to start taking steps today, however small. She outlines nine “power tools,” each rounded out with examples of women who’ve made them work: know your history, define your own terms, use what you’ve got, embrace controversy, carpe the chaos, wear the shirt, create a movement, employ every medium, and tell your story.
Feldt believes that if women begin to factor leadership into their life plans — if we have the courage to ask for that promotion instead of waiting for the offer, to run for a position on the school board, to organize a meeting on a community problem — it won’t be long before the traditional definition of power has been turned on its head. From there, women will can embrace our rightful half of Senate seats and corporate board positions, vantage points from which laws and policies can be changed to benefit all women.
It remains to be seen whether power-to will be the key to changing the world for good, but No Excuses is a useful starting point for those seeking guidance on how to build leadership. Feldt’s offering of impressive success stories, her list of power tools and her sincere enthusiasm for fostering women leaders will leave her readers with a heightened awareness of the inequalities that must be overcome and a willingness to participate in changing the system.
October 4, 2010