Even though women make up half the population, less than 20% of leadership positions are currently held by women, whether in politics or the corporate world. As an interviewer, I have spoken to many thought leaders about the underrepresentation of women, and many people cited the challenge of balancing work and family as one of the main deterrents that continue to hold women back from advancing into these roles. Of course it would be helpful to have some common-sense policies like paid family leave and affordable day care, but some of the most transformative change needs to happen in our own homes, in our own relationships, and in ourselves. As Sheryl Sandberg told me in an interview for my book What Will It Take to Make a Woman President? Conversations about Women, Leadership & Power, “We are stuck in our gender-specific roles. Men need to do more childcare and housework. We cannot have equality in the office until we have equality in the home.” Yet rarely do we make this connection or know how to go about making this shift in our lives. This is no simple task since so many of these constrictive gender roles have been instilled in us since birth and these dynamics and expectations are hard to change without a road map for doing so.
Thankfully we have the brilliant Tiffany Dufu to shed some light on the subject. Dufu is a nationally recognized expert on women’s leadership (she was executive director of The White House Project, a launch team member to Lean In and current Chief Leadership Officer of Levo League). She realized this was a topic that was of particular interest to the women she encountered and that the best way she could offer guidance and ideas was by courageously sharing her own personal journey and struggles with some of these issues. The result is her inspiring new book, Drop the Ball: Achieving More by Doing Less. Ironically, one of the solutions she offers goes counter to what we have been taught as women—to do the opposite of trying to have it all and do it all and instead learn to let go and trim down our to-do lists by looking at it through a new lens. In Drop the Ball, she offers important insight on why she thinks the women’s leadership movement has stalled, offers helpful tips and advice, and encourages women to embrace their imperfections and the intrinsic messiness of modern life. In doing so, not only can women advance as leaders, but they can also focus on their priorities and what they truly care about and want for their lives, families and careers.
Marianne Schnall: I think this book is really going to resonate for a lot of women. What inspired you to write this book in the first place, and what are you hoping that readers will take away from it?
Tiffany Dufu: I was inspired by women to write the book. I have spent the vast majority of my career on collective solutions to women’s leadership challenges, which is that we don’t have enough of them at the highest level. And in 2013 it was, I think maybe because I was on the launch team for Lean In and I was just doing a lot more speaking, I kept having this experience where I would get up for 45 minutes to an hour, I would talk about our collective solutions to the women’s leadership challenge. I would talk about equal pay for work. I would talk about workplace flexibility and affordable childcare and all of the public policies and corporate practices that I thought were really important that we needed in order to create environments where women could bring their full self to the table. And one of the things that would happen is right after I would finish talking, the first set of questions that I would get during the Q&A were always personal questions that to me had nothing to do with what I had spoken about. A woman would raise her hand and she would say, “Um, yeah, I noticed during your talk you said something about your daughter who’s five and something about your son who’s eight and your husband, he’s in Dubai right now, and you’re in San Francisco with us right now, but you live in New York, and tomorrow you’re in Baltimore, and I like your dress and your shoes and you seem really sexy and happy, and you seem really into this career that you have, it’s all driven by your passion and your purpose, and I’m just trying to figure out, like, what the hell? How are you doing all this?” And all the other women would clap their hands and be like, “Yeah, mmm hmm, that’s what I was trying to figure out too.” And so I came up with this one-liner that I would use whenever I got that question. I would say, “Oh, I just expect far less from myself and way more from my husband than the average woman.” And everyone would kind of laugh, and I would try to move them on to what I felt were more substantive questions about women in leadership.
But one day I literally stepped back from the podium and I had what I call a “Tiffany epiphany.” It was a voice that said, “Honey, they’re not asking you how you manage it all because they care about you. They’re asking you how you manage it all because they’re trying to figure out, “How can I manage it all?” And if your life’s work is advancing women and girls, you owe them a better answer to this question than the one-liner you came up with to get a few laughs and move them on to what you think is more important.
Marie Wilson always used to say to me when I was working with her, “Tiffany, if you want to create real change in the world, you have to learn to meet people where they are, and not expect people to come where you are.” And I don’t know if you’ve had a time in your career or even life when someone that you respect has said something to you many times and you’re like “yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah,” but then it’s not until that future moment where you understand what they actually meant. In that moment, I understood what Marie was saying to me, because I would go on the road, and I would basically impose my ambition on hundreds of women at a time. And I would say to them, “I encourage you to be a CEO or to be a senator or to launch your own business.” But what the women were saying was, “Tiffany, we’re just trying to figure out how to get everyone out of the house at the right time and with the right backpack. That’s where we’re at right now, and can you come to where we are?”
And I decided that I should, that I owed it to them, and that them not having the answer to that question and not being able to sort out all the things that were on their plate was literally stifling their ambition. Because why would you want to take on more when you already feel like you’re overwhelmed and you can’t do anymore, you know? That’s why I wrote the book.
I’m a bit of a bookworm, I love books. Books have always been kind of touchstones for me in terms of my life being changed and my mindset being opened, and so I thought it was important to tell my story in the form of a book because, quite frankly, in order to answer that question, I was going to have to reveal a couple of things. One was my dirty little feminist secret, which was that for most of my career, while publicly I advocated for women’s non-traditional role in the public sphere, in my own home I was on Stepford Wife autopilot. So I was going to have to go back and tell that, and I was also going to have to take them through the journey of my messy transformation. And I thought it was important to tell it, and the book is largely memoir because I know women very well--we’re very stubborn-- so I couldn’t write a how-to book, because women would be like, “Well who is she to tell me how to live my life?” But I just thought, “Well, if I write my own story, maybe someone will be inspired by it.” And of course the secret of the book is that, hopefully, by the time you get three quarters of the way through, you’ll be like, “Wait a minute, is she talking about herself or is she talking about me?”
MS: Oh, completely. I definitely related to so many of the things that you were writing about. I think it is really important and I admire your honesty and bravery in telling your story and talking about where we’re struggling, not thinking we have to always have it all figured out. How would you describe the message of the book and your own journey in terms of “dropping the ball,” which, when we hear that, we always think of that having a negative connotation, but how did you identify that as a positive and even necessary thing?
TD: Well there are two ways. There’s just the practical sense that I got so overwhelmed that I eventually did start dropping balls… not that I was necessarily trying to. And I discovered that the world didn’t fall apart, and I had never had that experience before because I had always been someone who cared deeply about not dropping balls and had been paranoid about not dropping them. And so, it kind of kept them up in the air. You know that, “Oh, you mean the mail can pile up and it can be spilling over my kitchen counter and no one’s going to come and arrest me for not paying the parking ticket, and none of my friends are going to divorce me and life can still go on.” That for me was a huge awakening that I wanted more women to have because if there’s one thing I feel like we need more practice in, it’s just failing publicly. To know that life can still go on.
But for me the biggest ball that I needed to drop was just this huge ball around unrealistic expectations and just doing it all, and ultimately that’s the ball I feel like women should drop. And it’s the most insidious one, and it’s the reason why the book is called Drop the Ball and not How to Get Other People to Pick Up the Ball. Because in my experience, once I dropped the ball, it really did open up a whole new world of possibilities for what I could attain and what I could achieve, in large part from just engaging the people around me. I was giving a podcast with someone a few weeks ago about the book, and one of the things she said was that it must have been easier for me to be able to drop the ball because I had a husband who could pick some up. She was asking me a very good question: what if you’re a single mom, or what if you don’t necessarily have somebody to pick up your balls? And I thought it was such an important question around our own consciousness and mind-shifting. Because if seven or eight years ago, you had suggested to me that I could drop the ball because I had a husband who could pick them up for me, externally because I have a strong enough marriage I would have said to you, “Oh, that’s such a great idea, like I could probably ask him to do a few more things.” But inside of my mind, I would have been thinking, “Okay… she must not have a husband because otherwise she would know that they’re useless.” I could have sworn to you that before my drop the ball journey, there was no one to pick up my balls. No one. And that ultimately is what has helped me to flourish at work and in life, this letting go of it. It doesn’t mean that I don’t ever wash the dishes--it just never occurs to me anymore that it’s my job to wash the dishes. Or that I’m a bad person or a bad mother or a bad wife or a bad worker because I don’t.
MS: As you know, I partner with Michael Kimmel on our Women & Men as Allies series. Last year’s event featured a conversation on At Work and At Home, and I remember the panel talking about the fact that women often complain that men don’t help out or share enough of the parenting responsibilities, but often we don’t ask them to or let them or we criticize the way that they do it. And you write a lot about this in the book. How can women change our attitudes and our behavior in a way that empowers and supports men to help us and even offers them incentive to just change those dynamics at home?
TD: I think that the key is starting with ourselves because men want to support--they fundamentally want to help. But I think that the big challenge for women is that, in all fairness to us, we have been socially conditioned to assign our value as human beings to our performance in certain roles.
We begin usually as daughters and it goes onto friend, to student, to worker, maybe to wife, mother. And, unfortunately, men have roles too, but women have to put the word “good” in front of all our roles. So we can’t just be a daughter, we strive to be a good daughter, right? And a good sister, and a good friend, and a good student, and a good worker. And all of what is required in order to fulfill those roles is far too much work than is humanly possible.
But keep in mind, we’ve been receiving messages that we should be doing that for our entire lives--from watching the other women in our lives, from popular culture. I personally grew up on The Cosby Show and I thought I was going to grow up to be Claire Huxtable. She was this woman with perfectly coiffed hair, she always had these amazing outfits, her makeup was always perfect, she was strong and witty and smart and insightful. And she has perfectly well-behaved children and her house is always clean, and in the second season she made partner at a law firm. I mean, how ridiculous is that? But I didn’t realize that until my drop the ball journey.
So I would say the most important thing that women can do to just let go on the home front. And to detach our roles and what is happening on the home front from our value as people. And it doesn’t seem logistically feasible, but it’s just how you feel. Like when I think about how closely I tied how my children’s hair looked to my value as a mother, it’s remarkable to me. If my son doesn’t have a haircut, if my daughter’s hair isn’t beautifully braided with her beads, or isn’t beautifully twisted, I really feel like my kids are going to be walking down the street and someone’s going to look at them and say, “Ooh, who is their mother, and why doesn’t she love them?” My husband never has a thought that he’s a bad father or that anyone would question who he is because his son needs a haircut. And that’s really the tough piece. I have some tools and tips in the book. I talk about delegating with joy. I talk about things like using a management Excel list. But at the end of the day, no tool or tip is going to compensate for your home control disease until you manage that first.
MS: How can we raise our girls and daughters to understand that they don’t need to do it perfectly or do it all? It just seems like so much of the messaging gets baked in so early.
TD: I would say that the baked-in messaging is less words and more modeling. I never, ever remember anyone telling me that I had to do it all. I don’t recall anyone ever telling me that I needed to do it perfectly. I just experienced perfectly-cornrowed hair. I just experienced my homemade birthday cake. I just experienced that there were never any dirty dishes in the kitchen sink. So I think that the most powerful thing that we could do to disrupt gender expectations on the home front is to model this disruption ourselves. Because our children are watching us. And I think that part of the reason why sexism is such an insidious -ism to crack is because it’s the one -ism that close proximity to someone who isn’t like you doesn’t really help the situation. All of our other isms, when you spend time with people from the LGBT community, when you get to know them personally, you become invested in them and their stories and their civil rights. We do this with people of color, we do this across religious lines and ethnicity. But because our gender indoctrination starts so early at home, and because even a staunch feminist like myself for most of her young adulthood was not disrupting that in the home – we were kind of running on default. So, I think it’s less what we say to our girls and our boys, and it’s more what we model for them and what we don’t model for them.
MS: You’ve long been an advocate for gender parity and getting more women into leadership roles, since they’re so underrepresented. What’s the bigger picture of the Drop the Ball movement besides how it affects our personal lives and careers? How is it connected to the wider movement?
TD: I think it’s connected because it’s become really clear to me and, of course, McKinsey and Lean In pointed this out in their last study on women in the workplace: the unequal division of labor at home literally stifles the ambition of whoever is the primary caregiver. So literally, the person who is washing more clothes at home, washing more dishes, responsible for the runny noses… all of that plays into their psyche, quite frankly whether they’re a man or a woman, around what they’re going to be capable of in the workplace. And it’s part of the reason once women get to middle management, we make a conscious or unconscious decision that this is kind of where we want to hover because we can’t take on anymore. And we’re looking at the C Suite and we’re saying, “Hm, I don’t think I really want to do that.” So that to me is why I feel like the Drop the Ball message and the book is important because now, more than ever, I just don’t feel like we have the luxury of not being leaders. I would love for us to have more women whose bandwidth is freed up, especially psychologically, but also just literally, so that they can aspire to the highest level.
MS: You mention in your book learning to apply a few filters to better prioritize your life decisions. Can you talk a little bit about that?
TD: One of the things that is really important is getting clear about what matters most to you. It’s the first question I ask women when I connect with them. I meet with at least six or seven women a week. And we just talk… about their lives, about their struggles, about their dilemmas. I try to help them achieve clarity through guidance and encouragement, and I learn a lot from them as well.
The first question I always ask them is, “What matters most to you?” And the reason why it’s the most important question is because most of us, unless we’ve taken the time to intentionally take ourselves through some kind of process of figuring out what matters most to us, we’re executing based on what matters most to other people. We’re literally living someone else’s story. So the first exercise I take them through is getting clear about that.
And, for me, once I got clear that what mattered most to me was advancing women and girls, nurturing a healthy partnership with my husband, and raising conscious global citizens, I then had what I needed to figure out, “what is my highest and best use to achieve what matters most to me?” If what matters most to me is raising conscious global citizens, and I’ve got scheduling a dentist appointment on my to-do list, is scheduling a dentist appointment my highest and best use in raising conscious global citizens? No! All of a sudden, something that I was stressing over, that I thought if I didn’t do meant that I was a terrible person, wasn’t very important, at all, in the scheme of things. Doesn’t mean that it still doesn’t need to get done, but it certainly means that I don’t have to do it. Definitely doesn’t mean that I’m a bad mother if I don’t get around to it. And that’s the first step of dropping the ball.
So I talk about what matters most, and then I talk about getting clear about your highest and best use, which is essentially a combination of what you do very well with very little effort. So for me, for example, one of the things I do very well with very little effort is coaching others. One of the things that combines with that is, “what is it that only you can do?” One of the things that only I can do in relationship to my kids is instill the values that I want them to learn. It’s still very hard to outsource the installation of values. So my highest and best use in raising conscious global citizens is engaging my kids in meaningful conversations every day. Basically, I have coaching conversations with my kids every day about what kind of day they created, about the decisions that they made, about the thoughts they had, about how they interacted with the people in their world. And so, even if I didn’t make the dentist appointment, even if I didn’t help my daughter sell her Girl Scout cookies, even if I forgot to get the flip flops for the swimming class, I know that I am doing exactly what I need to be doing every single day to raise conscious global citizens because I did stop for 20 minutes in the airport and have a meaningful conversation with them.
MS: You write and talk a lot about women supporting each other. Why is that important and how can women learn to cultivate and reach out for those relationships?
TD: I think it’s important for us to support one another, because your leadership journey is a team sport. It’s not a solo endeavor. No one gets to be successful without the investment of other people. And if you operate with that mentality, then it makes perfect sense that you would constantly be recruiting and engaging people to support you in your leadership journey.
MS: You write a lot about twists and turns you’ve had and your own growing pains on your journey. If you could go back, what would you tell your younger self?. What advice would you most want to convey to young women today who are just starting out on their journey?
TD: That you already have everything you need to be successful. Though I remember spending a lot of time trying to reach outside of myself in order to acquire things that I thought that I needed, when now in hindsight, the things that had made me most successful, the things that are my capital, the things that are my highest value, are things that I had all along. And it’s so ironic, but you’ve already got it. You are everything that you need, as opposed to operating from this feeling of inadequacy, as if we’re not enough.
MS: That’s beautiful, Tiffany. Are there any last thoughts or words of wisdom you have to offer regarding how to start dropping the ball? Any one message that you would most want to get out?
TD: I think probably the message that my parents taught me that has contributed most to my ability to create change in the world: if you want something and you’ve never had it before, you’re going to have to do something you’ve never done before in order to get it.
For more information on Drop the Ball and Tiffany Dufu’s work, you can visit her web site.
Marianne Schnall is a widely published writer and interviewer whose writings and interviews have appeared in a variety of media outlets including O, The Oprah Magazine, Marie Claire, CNN.com, AOL Build, the Women’s Media Center and The Huffington Post. She is the founder of the What Will It Take movement, the co-founder and executive director of the women’s website and non-profit organization Feminist.com, and co-founder of the environmental site EcoMall.com. She is the author of Daring to Be Ourselves: Influential Women Share Insights on Courage, Happiness and Finding Your Own Voice and What Will it Take to Make a Woman President? Conversations About Women, Leadership, and Power. You can visit her website at www.marianneschnall.com.