March is Women’s History Month, and American women have come a long way since the early days of fighting for the right to vote. But women around the nation and around the globe are still fighting for equality in many realms, including in education, technology, equal pay, and campus sexual assault, and beyond. All month long, msnbc.com is highlighting female leaders who are fighting for the women’s rights issues of 2015.
Gloria Feldt is no stranger to fighting for women’s rights – she has focused on helping women throughout her entire career. In 1974, she joined Planned Parenthood and worked her way up through the women’s health care organization before taking the helm as president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America in 1996. After holding that position for almost a decade, Feldt launched “Take The Lead,” an organization that wants to reach full gender parity in business leadership in America by 2025, by helping more women get into leadership positions. Feldt also authored “No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power,” in which she offers tactics and strategies for women to achieve leadership positions and equality in the workplace.
Feldt answered our questions about women, leadership and her work at Take The Lead. Check out her answers below.
What inspired you to start Take the Lead? What is your mission and what are your objectives?
Take The Lead grew out of my obsession to figure out why despite open doors and laws prohibiting gender discrimination, women had been stalled at 18% of top leadership positions for almost two decades—and what to do about it. I’m a practical activist. “What to do about it” is my driving force. And Take The Lead is my legacy.
When I was researching my book, “No Excuses,” I was shocked to find it’s no longer so much external structural barriers, real though they are, but internal ones that make the difference in whether women seek public office, promotions and higher compensation. Women weren’t advancing in large part because they weren’t walking through the open doors. I concluded that women have an ambivalent relationship with power for many good reasons. But we won’t break through to leadership parity until we redefine power and embrace it in an authentic and constructive way. “No Excuses” includes nine leadership “Power Tools”—the “what to do about it.” Then, co-founder Amy Litzenberger and I decided to create the nonprofit organization Take The Lead to scale up the program. Its mission is nothing less than to prepare, develop, inspire and propel women to take their fair and equal share of leadership positions across all sectors by 2025. That’s 64 years faster than the most optimistic prediction for the U.S.
Take the Lead wants to achieve full gender parity by 2025. How do you plan to achieve this? What’s your model?
Our model’s key differentiations are that we:
a) crack the code by transforming women’s relationship with power and teaching how to change systems as well as oneself
b) are comprehensive—we prepare (teach), develop (network and mentor), inspire (role model) and propel ( thought leadership and movement building)
c) value collaboration as our scaling up strategy—we can curate as well as deliver programs, and partnerships are our mantra
d) count up–put the stake in the ground for leadership parity across all sectors by 2025
e) change the narrative from focus on the problem to focus on the solutions
We’ve all heard the argument for why gender parity isn’t important: “We should just put the best people in leadership roles, regardless of gender.” What’s your response to that? How does gender parity benefit people of all genders?
Yes! It is precisely because we want the best people in leadership roles that women should get the same opportunities as men to contribute their abilities at all levels, including leadership. In an economy that moves on brains, not brawn, and in which women consistently earn 57% of the college degrees, organizations are losing out when they don’t get the full benefit of that intelligence. Further, the business case has been amply demonstrated: companies with more women on their boards and upper management make more money.
Gender parity benefits people of all genders because it’s the right and just thing to do. But also, with two-earner families becoming the norm, men and children, as well as women, benefit when women get a fair shake and a fair paycheck.
You were president and CEO of Planned Parenthood for a decade. What are some of the most important things you learned about women and leadership during your time there?
I learned it all on the job. First, that leaders create meaning, and that is a skill women need to learn—to raise our hands, to enter a room with intention, to speak with confidence. Second, that controversy (which women often fear) is your friend because it gets people’s attention. Then you can deliver your message. And you grow your courage muscles by using them. Those are two of the nine leadership “power tools” I teach in leadership workshops and courses. (Power tool No. 2: Define your own terms and power tool no. 4: Embrace controversy.) I also learned the world turns on human connections and women are great connectors. And that courage and integrity are the values that must underlie all of the above to be a great leader, male or female.
In recent years, we’ve seen the coining of a new term: “the glass cliff,” where women leaders are brought in during times of crisis and pressure, and then fired when they can’t fix it. How do we fight this trend?
By enough women taking those opportunities and turning them into successes. Smart leader often take over struggling organizations—you get to try your wildest ideas that people would never buy when things are stable. (Power tool No. 5: Carpe the chaos.)
What’s your advice to women trying to get into leadership roles in their careers?
Declare your intention, know your value, give it freely but negotiate effectively to be recognized and paid well for it, and keep moving forward till you get what you want.
And finally: what’s your hope for the next generation of women?
The next generation can be the one that takes leadership parity to the finish line. I hope they know their choices are not just about them—that what each of us does enhances or limits opportunity for the next woman. I hope they know they have so much power in their hands to lead their own dreams forward, but that power unused is power useless. I hope they use power tool No. 1: Know your history and you can create the future of your choice.
Follow Gloria Feldt on Twitter here.
Read the rest of the profiles in our Women’s History Month series here.