From Here to Where?

Written by Christine Riccelli
Photos by Duane Tinkey

[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hy a discussion on equality now, in an era when women are more educated and arguably have more opportunities than ever before? Because two new local studies show that equality—both in the professional and personal spheres—remains elusive.

“She Matters: 2012 Status of Women and Girls in Iowa” was released by the Iowa Women’s Leadership Project, a collaboration of 15 Iowa organizations and businesses. “The Nexus Index 2012” was produced by the Nexus Executive Women’s Alliance in Des Moines. Both show that educational achievement among women has yet to translate into equal paychecks or representation in the top levels of business and government. (Turn to page 58 for highlights from the reports.)

Gender issues recently have been in the national limelight as well:

• In July, Marissa Mayer, who was seven months pregnant with her first child, was named CEO of Yahoo Inc. At the time, she said she planned to limit maternity leave to a few weeks and to work throughout her time off. Although Yahoo drew praise for its progressiveness in hiring Mayer, her comment whipped up a storm of controversy. An even fiercer reaction followed Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” which appeared a few weeks earlier in The Atlantic.

• In August, U.S. Rep. Todd Akin from Missouri said that the female body somehow blocked unwanted pregnancies in cases of what he called “legitimate rape.”

• In May, the U.S. Senate passed the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, the landmark 1994 law that helps protect victims of sexual assault, stalking and domestic violence, but the House of Representatives passed an alternative bill that significantly weakens the act’s provisions. As of press time, the bill was stalled.

With such headline-grabbing issues as the backdrop, the following five leaders gathered in late July at dsm’s downtown office: Dr. Angela Walker Franklin, president of Des Moines University; Terry Hernandez, executive director of the Chrysalis Foundation and author of the “She Matters” report; Lorraine May, an attorney with Hopkins & Huebner P.C. and a Nexus member; Amelia Lobo, director of the Iowans for Social and Economic Development’s Women’s Business Center; and Leisha Barcus, a project manager at Kum & Go and a Nexus member who is facilitating the effort to develop a plan of action to respond to the “Nexus Index” results.

The lively, thought-provoking and wide-ranging conversation covered motherhood and mentorship, education and the workplace, internal versus external pressures, even the word “feminism” itself. Excerpts from the discussion, edited for length and clarity, follow.

dsm: Let’s start with the “Nexus Index” and “She Matters” reports. How did they come about?

Lorraine May: The first “Nexus Index” came out in 2004 to look at 10 indexes of accomplishment that we could measure year to year, such as educational achievement, economic parity and political power.

Terry Hernandez: For the “She Matters” report, the (Iowa Women’s Leadership Project members) agreed that it was important to get a statistical snapshot of women and girls’ lives in Iowa. We plan to revise it every year so we can see if we’re making progress.

Leisha Barcus: The making progress part is why I became so interested in the “Nexus Index.” Between 2004 and now, we’ve not made progress. The fact that we’re not moving the bar concerns me. I graduated from Creighton University in Omaha with very smart women, women with leadership capabilities and big personalities. When I went back to a college reunion, so many of them were no longer in the work force. They had made the choice to stay home. I wondered about the lost potential that I felt was no longer in the work world. At that time, I had two small girls; now they’re 14 and 16, and I’m in this quandary of what’s a mother to do? How do I mentor them? I want them to be economically viable and yet be able to balance motherhood and family life.

Hernandez: In the “She Matters” report, I think the thing that surprised me is that entering college, a lot of women major in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects, but the number who graduate in a STEM program drops off, and those who do graduate often don’t pursue a STEM career. I was looking at some of the barriers in college and at the workplace, and suspect it may be a cultural or hiring issue. If a woman looks for a position with career growth potential, the track for growth happens at the child-bearing age, so she may forego this path. How do we begin to find ways for companies to offer job flexibility or family leave so that women professionals can stay on the promotional track?

Angela Walker Franklin: I think that inherent in all of this is an internal conflict that women have, an expectation or perception that we must be all things to all people. I remember always doing the juggling act, trying to figure out which ball to drop. But I think it makes a difference how we choose to respond to that internal pressure and the external pressures that go along with it.

There’s peer pressure with teenagers, but there’s also peer pressure with professional women. There were times when some of my colleagues in academia who chose the slower route (to advancement and tenure) perceived those who chose the faster route to be neglecting some of those other (personal and family) duties. Then you’d have a sense of guilt for choosing the faster route and letting some balls drop. Sometimes we succumb to external pressures and decide we have to do what others expect instead of going with that strong internal sense of doing what’s best for us.

May: I had a fascinating 48 hours when our middle daughter was about 3 years old. One Friday afternoon, I was chatting with one of my law partners and started to tell him how anxious I was to get out of the hospital after she was born because I couldn’t keep her in the hospital room with me. I got far enough to say that I couldn’t wait to get out of the hospital after she was born. He interrupted and, assuming this working mother wanted to get away from her baby, said, “Well, Lorraine, other women like to spend time with their children.” Ouch. Then, Sunday morning, when I tried to leave that same daughter in the church nursery, she wrapped both arms around my neck and started screaming. The woman who ran the nursery said, “You stay-at-home moms create such dependency!” Again, ouch.

After the condemnation from both sides of the “working mother” issue, I decided I just didn’t have time for guilt or to inflict it on anybody else. I learned to let it go. You aren’t going to meet other people’s expectations, nor should you assume that anyone else is walking in your shoes.

Franklin: I have a similar funny story. When my youngest son was born, he came sooner than expected and I didn’t get everything I wanted to take home with me from the office. So on the way home from the hospital—my husband and mom are both with me, and I’m feeling OK—I tell my husband, “Let’s swing by the office, so I can pick up a few things.” When people saw me run into my office, the glares I got from other women—they thought I had lost my mind. I was confident knowing that I’d be able to do the work I needed to do on my own terms, and I was OK with that. But the reaction from other people was, “Shame on you.”

Hernandez: Occasionally when we visit with legislators and ask them to think of women and girls as they’re making decisions, I’m surprised at the number that say, “Women should really be home raising their children.” I don’t know whether that’s an Iowa mentality or just a lack of understanding among some legislators of today’s reality.

Amelia Lobo: One of the things I always thought when I was in school was that technology would set us free—that workplaces would become more flexible and women could work more from home. But workplaces have not become significantly more flexible. … Companies continue to measure productivity by how many hours you’ve clocked in the office or by how much time is spent in front of the computer screen.

(Among lawmakers), I don’t see a concerted policy around developing women as an important intellectual resource for the state. Women who become highly educated in Iowa tend to leave. So what do we do as a state to develop a policy to retain these women right after college and then promote them once they’re in the work force? If you can keep women in Iowa through those first five years after graduating, maybe through scholarships or other incentives, they may be encouraged to stay here.

Barcus: Can we talk about the economics of education? My daughter needs to start looking at colleges. If she incurs debt of $45,000 a year and is strapped with that debt after graduating, she might not be able to have the choice later to (leave) the working world and spend time with her family. What do we (as a society) do with that investment in her?

Franklin: It’s sort of a Catch-22, because if you invest that money in undergraduate education and you want her to go forward to medical school or dental school, then there’s another doubling or tripling of that investment, and 10 or 20 years later, she may choose to not practice. I’d like to believe that regardless whether she will stay in the work force or not, the fact that she’s an educated woman will have an impact on the next generation and the community.

Barcus: I absolutely understand what education will do for her personally. But the reality is there’s a loan to pay back. Given the economic investment that we’re asking these young women or the community or the parents to make, we need to find a way to keep them in the work force.

Lobo: I think one of the keys is that the work force has to be more attractive to women in general. I think women get to my age—I’m 35—and they thought they could have a high-flying career, but that didn’t happen and now they’re frustrated. So then they say to themselves, “If that’s not my plan, then what do I do? Well, I’ve always wanted to have kids, and I’m not happy in my career, so why don’t I just give that up for a few years and focus on my family?”

May: I think there’s a real element of women learning to not want what they don’t believe is possible—that if you don’t see it happening and you don’t have any role models, you think that you better learn to want something you can have.

Franklin: That’s where mentorship can come in, because if those role models aren’t out there, it’s hard to imagine what that career path could be. So you go back to the traditional images that are more readily available.

May: What if you broaden the scope? Instead of looking at opportunities for women, let’s look at opportunities for every human being. Let’s include looking at opportunities for men to stay home with their children, having that be a socially acceptable option. Because whether you look at sexism or racism, you are identifying a sympton, not treating the problem. Unless and until you broaden all of those “isms” into a cohesive approach and stop focusing on any one in isolation, I think it’s going to be a difficult row to hoe.

I’m fascinated by the word “feminism.” Think about that word. What are the other “isms” you think of—racism, sexism, ageism—all describing bigotry and lack of tolerance. Why did we get stuck with that word? When you think of the negative connotations and associations of similar words, it’s fascinating to me that “feminism” is the word used to describe the search for gender equality.

I am also intrigued by the development of feminism. When I was in my 20s, it was the “feminist movement.” It seems to have devolved into a feminist philosophy with very little movement. And that is just incredible to me. We’ve got to move. We have to link arms with everyone else who wants to get rid of the “isms.”

dsm: And how do we move?

Barcus: With the Nexus group, we started (that movement) by framing a problem statement: What is our problem and what are we trying to solve? And what we’ve come up with is that opportunities are unequal. So, as Lorraine articulated so perfectly, this isn’t about just women. It’s about everyone having equal choices and opportunities. Once we frame our problem, we can start to address it.

Franklin: One way to frame the question to some of the challenges we’re talking about is to ask, what does a woman, or anyone, need to be successful in a career? What are the basic elements that define success? Then you’re talking about how we get there as opposed to what the roadblocks have been and why we haven’t gotten there.

Lobo: I’d like to talk about that a bit. Part of the problem with feminism is the perception that it’s for the upper middle class and upper class. I think we have to be mindful to the fact that there’s a difference between having difficulties and making decisions because you have a lot of choices versus having these difficulties because you have few choices. Women with a lower education or income level have far fewer choices and face more challenges that will limit them.

But I do think that whether you’re a well-educated, middle- or upper-middle-class woman or a lower-income, lower-educated woman, some of the things you need are the same: quality child care, preschool, a year-round educational system. We have an education system that’s based on a model that’s 100 or more years old. … We have to consider what we are willing to pay as taxpayers in order to keep productive people in our labor force. It needs to be seen as an investment.

dsm: Some of the things we’ve been talking about—whether year-round school or more flexibility in the workplace or ensuring there are opportunities for everyone—obviously can’t be addressed by women alone. How do we draw men into the conversation?

Hernandez: I think you have to find some champions who are male and who get it. My sense is that a lot of men don’t even realize they’re being sexist … and we need to call them on it when we (witness) it.

May: Let’s focus on the benefits of equality, to factually demonstrate the success that is possible if all of us get to play the game. Statistics show that corporations and societies that provide opportunities for all people to use their skills and contribute are more successful. They make more money. Maybe that’s the mechanism that we ultimately have to use: It is in your best interest that all of us be able to participate.

Barcus: I think another important question to touch on today is do young women even think there’s a problem? My daughter thinks that she can do anything in the world and that there are no barriers. On the one hand, wow, what a great attitude to have, but on the other, where are the young women who will continue the work of the generations before us?

dsm: Yes, and what can we do to encourage young women and engage them in the conversation?

Lobo: In general, women tend to become more radicalized as they become older, largely because of their experiences. I think that it takes being discriminated against or knowing you’re in a work force that’s dominated by men or knowing that you’re not getting the recognition that you deserve in order to realize that by golly, I’m a feminist.

The other thing I’d say is that a lot of time we have role models who are really high. If I’m hitting a ceiling at 30, I’m immediately going to think, “I’m never going to be Hillary Clinton.” I don’t have that role model who’s 40 who said, “I struggled with these issues and this is how I resolved them.”

May: I don’t think we should expect others whose life experiences are different from ours to take on causes in the same manner that we addressed them. In some ways, the Civil Rights Act simply drove sexism underground and therefore younger women have not been exposed to the same overtly discriminatory conduct that permeated our experiences. That doesn’t mean that sexism is gone. It does mean that the experience of younger women makes it more difficult to identify and quantify.

Nor should we expect only women in their 20s to be leading this charge. When I was in college in the 70s, two of the greatest leaders of the feminist movement were Bella Abzug and Betty Friedan, both then in their 50s. There is a certain “opportunity factor” that comes with age.

Besides, I have complete faith in the younger generation, including our own amazing three daughters. As they grow and mature, their insight and dedication will move our society forward farther and faster than we even perceive possible.

Hernandez: Mentoring is so important for women of all ages, but particularly so for young professional women. Those of us who have spent years in the workforce can share stories, counsel younger women in our offices, and provide some informal coaching when they struggle. Even though I’ve worked for years, I still like to sound things out with other women, and reaching out is not often comfortable for younger women, so we need to start the connection.

dsm: Which goes back to what you were saying about mentorship, Angela.

Franklin: A lot of women who are in that in-between step are just trying to find their own way. That was one of the struggles for me. I never had a female mentor in academia. I was looking for that woman, but my mentors were all male until late in my career.

May: Interesting question that several of you have hit on in a variety of forms: Do we have to adopt male characteristics to be successful? Or is it possible to change the paradigm?

Franklin: There’s also still the double standard. The same traits that you see in a man—he’s a go-getter, he’s aggressive—would be described differently with a woman—she’s manipulative, she’s controlling.

May: Which is why I don’t think becoming male is the answer.

dsm: I don’t, either. So how do we change the paradigm?

May: You be the best you. I believe that’s good enough. I so do.

Barcus: Women leaders have fantastic characteristics that are generally associated with women, like listening skills and empathy. Traits like confidence are generally associated with males. But all those skills should be on the list. We should look at what makes a great leader so the characteristics are no longer gender-specific but are ones that apply to everyone.

dsm: Are there any final thoughts that anyone would like to express before we adjourn?

Franklin: I just want to make one comment. … We talked a little about insulating ourselves from this perception that we should be something different than what we really are. … When women get to the point that they can feel comfortable in their own skin—and I believe the psychological phrase is where the locus of control is, internal versus external—we can begin to insulate ourselves from attack and see that the choices are all ours.

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