11/22/2013 09:58 am ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

Women in Business: Q&A with Caryl Rivers and Dr Rosalind C. Barnett, authors of The New Soft War on Women

Caryl Rivers is a professor of journalism at the College of Communication at Boston University. A nationally known author and journalist, she received the Helen Thomas Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Society of Professional Journalists.

Rosalind C. Barnett is a senior scientist at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University. Her pioneering research on workplace issues and family life in America has been sponsored by federal grants, and she is often invited to lecture at major venues in the United States and abroad. Dr. Barnett has a private clinical psychology practice and is the author of scholarly and popular books and articles.

How has your life experience/s made you the leader you are today?
Starting out when we did, when discrimination was daunting, we had to carve out our own paths with few models. Women, if they worked at all, were expected to be teachers, nurses or secretaries. Roz Barnett opted for graduate work in psychology, when no woman in her family had ever gone to college. She experienced great insecurities about whether she could actually achieve her goal.

Caryl Rivers' mother was a lawyer, who faced steep obstacles in her own career. So Caryl was forwarned about the potholes ahead, and indeed, they did not fail to appear. Few females were hired as journalists, outside of the "women's pages" that featured news about food, fashion and parties.

The fact that we had to battle in-your-face discrimination toughened us. The injustice motivated us to work even harder to show the skeptics that they were wrong, that women could be leaders in their chosen professions.

Why do you believe so passionately in women's issues?
Because we struggled so hard, we wanted to make it easier for the women following us. Part of our passion comes from discovering that the stereotypes were a poor fit for us--and for millions of other women. We wanted to expose the myths about all the things that women couldn't do--and that our research was proving that they could. Unfortunately this struggle continues, but hopefully because of our work, those battles may be at least a little bit easier.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
When our children were young, we were constantly juggling. Finding time for everything made for long hours, but happily, there were rewards that lightened the load. We may not have made it to every school event, but we made sure our kids had plenty of time with us. They let us know that they appreciated what we were doing--including making major contributions to the household finances. Our husbands' love and support and their willingness to co-parent made our complicated lives easier. Our own experiences--and a mountain of research--tells us that the children of working mothers turn out just fine.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your respective academic careers?
Highlights include the six books we have written together which have received critical acclaim and, we hope, have helped to shift the landscape of women's and men's lives. But perhaps the greatest reward has been a decades-long partnership in which we support each other and gain enrichment for our lives.

The main challenge for Roz Barnett has been the ongoing struggle to obtain adequate research funding to sustain her body of work. The temptation was to move away from research on gender and towards topics that were more easily funded.

For Caryl Rivers, a major problem was that she was paid considerably less than her male colleagues of the same rank, despite fifteen books and many articles. Thankfully, that situation was remedied after many years. A new president of Boston University launched a major campaign to bring gender equity to the school, underscoring the importance of strong leadership in making change. Leaning in is helpful, but can only go so far.

How can women successfully utilise new technology to tackle the gender gap?
First, we have to make sure that the gender gap in technology closes so that women can actually get in the game. One roadblock is that scientists and mathematicians and their work are stereotyped in ways that make those career choices unattractive to many women.

You'd never guess from the stereotypes that engineering and science are typically collaborative efforts--teams working closely on complex problems. The image of the socially awkward nerd, working alone with test tubes in a dingy lab, is a far cry from reality.

Moreover, we know that women often look to jobs that have a social impact-- where they can do good while they do well financially. Scientific teams have drastically reduced childhood leukemia, helped restore the Everglades, preserved sea turtles in the Caribbean, reduced AIDS in Africa, learned how to save lives by predicting volcanic eruptions and solved crimes through forensic science. Such activities are often not what women think when they hear the words "math and science." When we connect technology to social good, women will be more likely to travel this path.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Women are doing spectacularly well in universities, getting more advanced degrees than men, but in the workplace it's an opposite picture. Women are stalling out, and the higher they go, the harder it gets. Cutting-edge new research tells us that a whole network of land mines is exploding women's progress as they try to move ahead.

What are your thoughts on Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In book and movement?
Sandberg did all women a service by reopening the issue of women, work and leadership. Her book is built on what individual women need to do to attain leadership positions in the companies they work for, and her "lean-in" circles can be very helpful--more, perhaps, for elite women than for women in general. However, as Sandberg herself admits, we have to look beyond the individual in order to craft solutions to gender discrimination. Our book lays out an approach that involves not only individuals but corporate culture and national policies as well.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Roz Barnett's mentor was a professor at the Harvard Business School who took her under his wing as a newly minted Ph.D. and provided her with support and encouragement which was immensely helpful in launching her career. Caryl Rivers' husband Alan Lupo, a journalist and columnist, was her biggest cheerleader and always encouraged her to stretch her wings and take risks, which often paid off.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
For Caryl, Gloria Steinem was inspirational by the way in which she made feminism seem both fair and generous, and by her courage in battling for women's rights even through the jeers, insults, threats and ridicule.

For Roz, Betty Freidan was an inspiring, supportive and thoughtful woman who provided encouragement to people who shared her passion for gender equality.

What do you hope your latest book, 'The New Soft War on Women' will achieve?
We hope to rewrite the current national narrative that women are soaring, about to take over the world, that the glass ceiling is a thing of the past and discrimination is yesterday's news.

The facts are quite different. Gender discrimination has not disappeared but it's gone underground, and is all the more dangerous for being unseen.

Cutting-edge new research tells us that a whole network of land mines is exploding women's progress as they try to move ahead. We want this book to be a wake-up call for all of us, to ensure that The New Soft War will not succeed in crippling women's hopes and dreams the women-are-winning narrative undercuts our ability to fight the Soft War.

If women buy the message that all the gender battles are over, but they still aren't advancing as fast as they should be, then they may well believe there's no one to blame but themselves. What to do? Take more courses, beef up your credentials with more degrees, work harder, join company sponsored self- esteem-building programs and on and on.

But if the problem is subtle discrimination, along with deeply entrenched gender stereotypes, self- improvement will have only a limited payoff for getting into the C‑ suite. If you put all your eggs into the self-improvement basket and forgo any concerted action with other women (or sympathetic men) , your stall will be permanent. Too often, we have met the enemy, and she is us.