Why Women Must Change Our Narrative to Break Through to Leadership Parity

A basic tenet of Take The Lead is: It’s time for women to write ourselves a new narrative if we want to break through the stuck place and reach leadership parity by 2025.

So when asked to write for the fabulous new “Kardashian free” women-owned and focused website Vitamin W  (you may recall the “She’s Doing It” column on Amy-Willard Cross who created the site), I decided to put this idea out to you. (Thanks to Debra Condren for the “Fork in the Road” photo that illustrates this perfectly.)


Judging from the unusually large number of tweets and retweets, it hit a chord. Here’s the original post on Vitamin W.

Let’s start a conversation that will lead to big initiatives of all kinds—social, political, workplace, personal relationships. Let Take The Lead know what you think, and what you’d like to see us to do create a new narrative that focuses on solutions, not problems. The comments section below is open for your thoughts!

With a virtual thud, the Catalyst 2012 Census of Fortune 500 companies hit my e-mailbox:

NEWYORK (December 11, 2012)—Despite high-profile news about gender gaps, equal pay, and women on boards, once again the needle barely budged for women aspiring to top business leadership in corporate America, according to the2012 Catalyst Census: Fortune 500 Women Board Directors and 2012 Catalyst Census: Fortune 500 Executive Officers and Top Earners.

Ouch. For 50 years of the venerable organization’s existence, which began at that pregnant moment when second wave feminism would about nine months later birth Betty Friedan’s 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, Catalyst and its sister organizations—now numbering in the thousands devoted to research on and advocacy for women–have shaped the public conversation about women by using the most dismal data to highlight seemingly intractable problems.

Information has its own power. Quantifying discrimination can motivate companies to change hiring policies or politicians to change laws. Just as important, documenting the absence of females in powerful positions performed a crucial consciousness raising function women needed in those Mad Men days. For just as fish can’t see the water they swim in, many women—perhaps most at the time—accepted the way things were as the way they had to be.

I counted myself among them. I wasn’t one of the first feminists, though I was an early adopter, despite living in wild and wooly West Texas where men were men and women were screwed if they wanted to be anything other than housewives and mothers of large broods.

But this is 2013, people. The old narrative no longer works. It’s time to change that negative focus on today’s problems to a vibrant positive story about solutions for tomorrow.

We have to face the fact that women have been stuck at under 20 percent of top leadership positions across all sectors for almost two decades, according to the White House Project Benchmark study, but not let ourselves be defined by it. Shifting the narrative would foster a new wave of breakthroughs that I believe can catapult women to leadership parity by 2025.

After all, women have the purchasing clout of 85 percent of consumer goods sold, constitute half the workplace and 54 percent of the voters, and earn 57 percent of college degrees. So why does the narrative remain numbingly the same, creating so little progress that at the rate women are ascending to Congress it will take 70 years to reach parity and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg predicts that it could take 500 years for women to reach parity at the top of the corporate ladders?

Why? Because power unused is power useless. The problems have been researched and documented ad infinitum. We can continue to rail against them and get the same results. Or we can create a new, positive and solution-focused story about how women can achieve parity, and barrel right on through to make breakthrough progress in the 21st century just as the second wavers did in the 20th.

Power and energy come from going into new spaces, not from standing still or remaining mired in half-century-old tropes. It’s difficult to make the shift for three reasons we must understand if we are to change them.


First, like those proverbial fish, it’s hard to see beyond the constructs and constrictions of one’s own culture. And let’s face it, it’s in the best interest of the existing power structure to diminish the women’s movement, declare it dead, and dismiss its gains. In reality, feminism has become the predominant social value for both younger women and men today whether they claim the name or not. Women in their 20s, 30s and even 40s don’t just see a world different from their mothers’ experience, they live in a different world. Still, it’s a world where they are repeatedly told what’s wrong with them, that the workplace is rigged against them, and the double burden of managing family and work will fall to them, so they should curb their ambitions. That becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Second, when you fight an adversary for a long time, you can become its mirror, locked into a Kabuki drama. US women have had a very good year politically, thanks in no small part to well-timed misogynist revelations by the likes of Todd Aiken and Foster Freiss who seem to have failed sex education. We reelected a pro-choice president and defeated the guy who saw us only in binders for heaven’s sake. We elected a record twenty women in the Senate (still at that 20 percent level, but up from 18). Yet, I am bombarded with pleas for money from women’s organizations asking me to fight back against the latest attack, rather than fight forward for an agenda of their choice, pun intended.

Even newer, edgier women’s groups such as Hollaback and Ultraviolet (both of which I admire greatly) operate primarily from a position of reacting to gender based discrimination. Slutwalks, heralded as the new women’s movement are anything but — protesting but not creating systemic change.

And third, at some level, we’ve been co-opted into the culture of oppression, become drunk on the nectar of fundraising and support building made easy by sounding the alarm rather than leading to aspirations. I once had a fundraising director who became distraught when we won a political battle. “How will I raise money,” she fussed, “when I have no devil to fight?”

Instead let us ask, “Why do we need the devil to fight when we could be calling upon everyone’s higher angels to accomplish the next big steps for women?”

Almost all Americans now think women should have equal rights. The world is ready for equal rights—are we?

According to negotiation expert Victoria Pynchon, women work 20% longer and 10% faster to get the same reward as men. Women must stop focusing on those studies that decry the 23 percent wage gap and attend to the solutions: ask, expect, demand, intend, insist upon equal pay. And in every sector’s parity gap, the same scenario exists. Nobody will step aside for us once the doors are open. Women have to walk ourselves through. And the story we tell ourselves about ourselves will either propel or limit us.

It’s up to women to change the conversation. We must shift to a new vision of what is possible for the continuing advancement of women to full equality, and how it can be done.

To start from a position of believing we deserve it, and create a new narrative based on the possibilities for solutions with which we can shape a future where all women and men can thrive.

To embrace wholeheartedly this truth: we’re powerful as hell and we’re going to take our rightful place in politics, work, and personal relationships now and forevermore.

About the Author

Gloria Feldt, Co-Founder and President of Take The Lead, is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. She teaches "Women, Power, and Leadership" at Arizona State University and was named to Vanity Fair's Top 200 women Legends, Leaders, and Trailblazers.