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Bonnie St. John

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How Do We Move the Needle on Women's Leadership?

Posted: 04/20/2012 2:28 pm

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's recent confession that she leaves work at 5:30pm to have dinner with her kids -- but was afraid to talk about it for years -- highlights the way women continue to navigate a road to leadership very different from the route men face. Sheryl has come out of the closet as part of her continuous and courageous campaign to change the landscape for leaders of the next generation -- including her own daughter. Like her, when I look at my teenage daughter, Darcy, I feel a call to help the next generation find a better way than the torturous damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't choices we've all come through. So more than two years ago, I convinced my only child to take off with me on the adventure of a lifetime to meet and really get under the skin of women leaders from around the world, including Sheryl Sandberg.

"I hope I do something this cool with my daughter one day," Sheryl told us. "You are an inspiration."

From the very beginning, our journey to understand women's leadership was a collaborative process -- which, when you are talking about a mother and a teenage daughter, means we argued about everything. I suggested that we interview CEOs, politicians like Hillary Clinton, military leaders and other amazing women. Her face scrunched up like she was in pain.

"Well," she told me, "if you just make the book about CEOs and famous politicians, most people won't feel like the book is for them. We should also talk to some people who are less well-known -- people anyone can relate to."

Why didn't I think of that? Of course she was right.

Darcy's observation made me reflect on the myriad women's conferences I've attended and/or participated in over the years. You know, the kind of events where really smart women get together -- leaders of "think tanks" and research centers, top corporate executives, the heads of NGOs, etc. -- and it feels like we're all talking to ourselves, about the same topics, over and over again. Geena Davis, the movie star and activist on women's issues, sits on the board of The White House Project and told us about the benchmarking study they completed.

"What we found is that women have stagnated at 18% on average across the board for years, and in many areas, women leaders are an even smaller percentage. Why 18% -- isn't that bizarre?" Geena exclaimed while sharing a fancy artisanal pizza with Darcy and me in an open, Southern California café.

"Why do we have to keep having firsts?" she said, shaking her head. "It's ridiculous that we would have the first woman anything in the 21st century. Unbelievable."

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I was struck by that classic 'what got you here won't get you there' frustration. All these self-referential conferences and gatherings were an important means of support and education to get women to where we are today. No small achievement, to be sure. But what will it take to move the needle now? For starters, my daughter was absolutely right -- we need to widen the conversation.

Thus, our new book, How Great Women Lead, released on the "TODAY Show" yesterday morning, chronicles our two-year mother-daughter adventure into the lives, and life lessons, of extraordinary women, covering four continents and spanning three generations. We did, in fact, get to meet some of the political and business leaders I look up to: Hillary Clinton at the State Department, Condoleezza Rice at Stanford, Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook, Chairman of Deloitte Sharon Allen and the President of Liberia Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, to name a few. But we also branched out to include women like Geena Davis and Marin Alsop, the only female conductor of a major symphony in America, a microfinance leader in Nicaragua, a fighter pilot, the head of a movie studio, a fashion designer, a stay at home mom and even a high school student lauded for her change-agent activities.

More than a treatise on leadership, the book is written from a woman's perspective, with a woman's sensitivity. It's an epic journey complete with Darcy barfing on the side of the road in Nicaragua, buying new dresses in London and wearing them to a star-studded movie premiere in Hollywood and rock climbing together in Maine... plus some incredible leadership insights and advice all along the way. The narrative we've constructed shifts the paradigm from women adapting to a man's universe to women celebrating their uniqueness, fortifying their passions and forging new and exciting paths to define leadership in today's society.

This entire project has opened up my eyes not only to point up the challenges we still face, but also to celebrate the signs Darcy and I have seen all around us that others share our passion for creatively widening the conversation on women's leadership.

Catalyst, the 50-year-old premiere nonprofit membership organization expanding opportunities for women and business, is reaching beyond North America and Europe with a new office in India, increased partnerships with their counterparts in Japan, South Africa and Australia and plans to continue connecting the web of global knowledge and action. Perhaps even more revolutionary is their new organization to involve men: MARC, Men Advocating Real Change. This exciting innovation provides men with a platform talk about how to help with women's leadership issues, as well as discuss their frustrations and challenges.

The group we discussed with Geena, The White House Project, a 14-year-old organization for igniting leadership among 21-35 year old women, has hired an enormously talented, young, African-American women as President -- which, let's admit, is a radical step in a movement that has historically been shaped by middle class, middle-aged, white, two-legged (I had to throw that in there), North-American women. Brava, Tiffany Dufu!

More and more of those traditional conferences are also breaking the mold. Womensphere Summits and Simmons Leadership Conferences are just two examples of organizations bringing together women leaders across industries and borders that are not traditionally included -- more scientists, technology innovators and globally significant speakers are being invited to join the dialog.

Hillary Clinton had an interesting way of reinventing the traditional conversation. We attended a luncheon she hosted at the State Department for women leaders in international diplomacy where she asked each of them to attend along with a younger women they were mentoring. Suddenly, fresh idealistic faces were included in this roomful of forceful, powerhouse women. The event facilitated an open, interactive interchange that pulled the entire group together as one.

Secretary Clinton told us, "Everywhere I go in the world, I see that talent is universal, but opportunity is not. Particularly for women."

Right now there is a brilliant girl somewhere in Africa who could be a physicist, a doctor, or Secretary of State. Or even a president. But that girl will never get the schooling that she needs. Somewhere there is a mother who is struggling to recover from a natural disaster like Haiti's or a manmade disaster like the Congo's. She is wondering whether there will be a future at all, never mind what it holds. There are so many talented women who will never, ever have the chance that women have in our country.

Her words gave us goose bumps and conveyed the urgency and global dimensions of our call to move the needle on women's leadership. What are the solutions? I would love to hear ideas in this forum about how we can get beyond that 18% to become true partners in leadership with our male brethren all around the world.

 
 
 

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