A Conversation with Marie Wilson of the White House Project

I wanted to share the post below that was originally posted on The Glass Hammer. If you have ever been curious about how Take Your Daughter to Work Day and the White House Project are related, read Marie Wilson's interview below. I find this extremely inspiring; especially as we head to the polls tomorrow.

“The first job I applied for was at DuPont. I took a test, and the results came back saying I was a candidate for management. They didn’t hire me because as they said, ‘you’ll just get pregnant and have a child.’ This was 1962,” said Marie Wilson, Founder and President of The White House Project.

Wilson, one of the honorary “Founding Mothers” of the Ms. Foundation and co-founder of Take Our Daughters to Work Day, has been advocating for women in leadership ever since.

“If you’re going to be a leader,” she said, “don’t rush to change yourself. The world is still mixed about ambitious women. You need people who will encourage you to dream big – and the world is often discouraging. You need a tough skin that is porous – slough off the critics, but listen.”

A Career of Service

Wilson studied philosophy and religion at Vanderbilt University and began working in civil rights in the 1960s. “Working in the civil rights movement, through a very political church, gave me a wonderful opportunity to see how advocacy and political change are both necessary to make important social progress – something that eventually led to my current work at The White House Project to advance women into leadership.”

She continued, “I understood the disempowerment of racism, but it took me a while to see that women of all races needed power. I got my first shot at it through lobbying for AAUW on reproductive choice, child care and environmental issues at the Iowa state legislature. Then later, through a newly minted position, building what became one of the largest divisions of women’s programming at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.”

She continued, “We built one of the largest divisions in the US to help more women enter and move up in the paid work force, and eventually to help integrate women into mostly male management teams. We went at this through changing the way individual women and men behaved – with mixed results. Then I read Rosabeth Beth Moss Kanter’s book Men and Women of the Corporation, where Kanter showed that structural issues, numbers (how many people in the leadership group are “like you”), the distribution of power, and opportunity, were key to how people behaved in these large organizations”

“To this day, I believe numbers, critical mass, is key to how it becomes normal for women to lead alongside men and put the focus on the organization’s agenda, not gender. I spent a couple of years working for an association of bankers where I put some of this learning into practice, and on the side ran a successful race against eleven men for an at-large seat on the Des Moines City Council,” she explained.

“One day I got a call from a friend daring me to apply for the executive director position at the Ms. Foundation for Women; the only national organization that came to places like Des Moines. I was intrigued and wrangled an interview that went well, because, as I learned, when you’re not really looking for a job you’re ‘irresistible.’”

Wilson got the job – and decided to take it. But it wasn’t exactly what she expected. “I must have really wanted to take the job; because I ignored the reality… they had no money. By the time I had moved to New York with my youngest son, they had moved the foundation into two little rooms. I had turned my life over – left a political office and a promising future in higher office.”

“Then I thought, ‘What would my mother do?’ So I went out and bought clothes!” she said with a laugh. She explained, “Really, people give money to organizations where people look like they are thriving.” This was 1985, and Wilson led the Ms. Foundation for 20 years.

At the foundation Wilson began to build the strategy that that had drawn her there, microenterprise; a strategy widely excepted now, but at the time, Wilson and her team had to help change the guidelines of major foundations who only funded women under “poverty” not “business development.” They also had to invent a way that institutional and individual funders could fund together and learn about this new income generating strategy. “We invented what was possibly the first donor collaborative,” she said.

One of her proudest achievements was founding Take Our Daughters to Work Day at Ms. “It was the first time I understood how important it was to give people something they could do about a large issue that needed to change,” she said. “I also found that the conflict involved in the program was important to keeping it alive: It caused people to ask questions not only about girls but about the issues that boys were facing.”

She concluded, “Finally, though, our core competency of funding women who were making amazing innovations in social policies dealing with health care, living wages and violence, I realized that until women moved beyond advocacy to sitting side by side at the power tables with men, things wouldn’t change.”

Founding the White House Project

Wilson continued, “After almost twenty years, I left the Ms. Foundation to dedicate the third act of my work life wholly to women’s leadership. At the time the US was 47th in the world in women’s political participation. Now we are 74th.”

SHhe continued, “When I saw the numbers of women in leadership, I was stunned. I had no idea it was as bad as it was. People really thought (and still think) that women occupy at least half the leadership positions in the U.S.”

The White House Project was created to advance women’s leadership across sectors, and works “at the nexus of business, politics and media.”

She explained, “Kathleen Hall Jamieson, then the Dean of Public Policy and Communications at Annenberg, told me that we had to change the conversation about women’s leadership to succeed, to change the perception of women as leaders.”

“We tackle this through training, and have now trained ten thousand women across five regions to lead in their communities and especially to run for office. Tomorrow 107 women trained by The White House Project will run in various states across the US.”

“You can’t be what you can’t see,” Wilson said, “and through film, media, and popular culture we attempt to show women as leaders.”

She continued, “Finally, we have a Corporate Council, who insisted that we quantify the numbers of women in leadership and with their encouragement of our corporate council, we recently benchmarked women’s leadership across ten sectors of American culture and found that on average, women are only 18% of the leadership in these sectors.”

“The final survey, Benchmarking Women’s Leadership, is filled with recommendations about how to change this percentage – flexible schedules, sponsorship, recruitment and retention strategies, but looping around to where I began, I don’t think anything short of what the civil rights movement did – move from advocacy to accountability, and establish targets for the numbers of women in leadership will really get us there – that and a national comprehensive child care policy,” she said, the mother of
five children herself.

“I’m really interested in the whole business of how we get to the numbers we need without quotas,” Wilson explained. “And just as other countries have forged ahead of us with quotas in politics, now, led by Norway, others are following suit and mandating the 40% mark for the numbers of women on their publicly traded boards. We will see the effects the new research on diversity promises as other countries innovate and profit. We will be left in the dust.”

Women are Transformational Leaders

Wilson believes that women are sorely needed as leaders in the new economy. “We need to look long term at the issues of business’s relationship to society, beyond quarterly profits – both for the health of our people and our communities.”

She continued, “But there is anxiety about what the future holds. And women have lots of experience in toughing it out. The climate calls for the skills women have. “There are calls for transformational skills – being able to move, to shift. Women have been able to shift careers forever. Women have had to be adaptive leaders to survive.”

Advice for Women Leaders

“As much as possible, do what you love.” She continued, “and if you want a relationship, find a relationship that will support you – that will mutually support both of your ambitions.”

“It’s important to be optimistic,” she said. “If you’re a hopeful person, everybody will bring you their despair. Despair – I eat that stuff for breakfast!” she joked.

She continued, “In all of my life, I’ve been interested in young women and how they are moving in life and work. Their energy is contagious! I really enjoy helping young women understand they have the power to make something happen and opening doors for them. I have an enormous privilege that way. It’s one of the things that gives me pleasure,” she said.

She continued, “My mother says that she wishes she hadn’t taught me to serve,” she
joked, “because she says, ‘I’d be rich.’”

“But I am rich – in a way that really matters.”

Feminism or Bust

This morning on twitter one of the female pilots I follow posted a link to the story below. It is written by someone who grew up in similar conditions to myself, which is part of the reason I identify with it so well.

It is only recently that I decided that I am a feminist. Women still have a glass doors in front of us and it drives me nuts. According to a  brochure that I got at SXSW (get yours here) 57% of 2008 undergraduate degree recipients are women and 56% of advanced placement test-takers are women. BUT only 25% of professional IT-relates occupations in the 2008 workforce are held by women (which is down from 36% in 1991) and 11% of corporate officer positions at Fortune 500 technology companies are held by women. How dismal. 

What is going on? For me, I was taught I could be anything, just like the author of the post below. I still have my Barbie Astronaut. It was shocking when I got to the workforce. There are so many women at my level and above, but, there is a shift that happens around the vice-president level and suddenly, there are hardly any women. 

Click Image for SourceIt drives me nuts when people accept this as just a fact and decide that it won't get any better. Why aren't they pushing barriers? Why aren't WE pushing barriers and not only opening those glass doors but shattering them. As a newly wed, I find it even more degrading that people think that having a child is what I should be doing right now. I have a career a head of me with specific goals and a plan. I refuse to let the status quo slow down my journey of removing the glass door. 

We need to change the way we educate women in our society. We need to keep telling them they can do anything but also remind them that the path hasn't been completely paved for them. Hopefully, one day it will be. Until then, we have a lot of work that needs to be done. I hope you join me in busting a few glass doors.

Here is  Jessica Bennett's post Feminism or Bust

Who needs feminism when we've already won the war? Oh wait—we haven't. 

If you'd have asked me two years ago, I'm not sure I would have described myself as a feminist. It's not that I didn't believe in women's rights—what modern woman doesn't?—but it was just that, well, I didn't really see the point. When I think about it now, it sounds ridiculous—I know. But it's telling of a generation like mine, who shrugged our shoulders at the thought of feminism; we were already convinced that we had won the war.

I was born in 1981, sixteen years after Barbie became an astronaut and just around the time that Sally Ride joined NASA. I might as well have come out of the womb with POSTFEMINIST etched into my forehead: by the time I reached age 1, women had surpassed men in earning college degrees; I turned 11 during the "Year of the Woman," and I remember annual trips to my dad's law office, long before Take Your Daughter to Work Day became Take Your Child [boys, included] to Work Day. All my life, I was told that men and women were equal—so equal, in fact, that it wasn't even worthy of discussion. Like most of my friends, I outpaced my brothers and many of my male peers by a landslide in school, and took on extracurricular activities by the handful. I'd had it ingrained in me that I could accomplish anything I put my mind to. And I did, without ever embracing the fabled F word, or even learning about it in school.

So for all the talk about feminism as passe, mine wasn't a generation that rejected it for its militant, man-hating connotation—but because of its success. Women were equal—duh—so why did we need feminism?

It's only recently that I, and women my age, have come to eat those words. (In the words of Clueless's Cher, our own postfeminist idol, "As if.") High on our success in academia, entering the workforce was something of a shock: we felt like outsiders in a male-dominated club. I'll spare you the depressing statistics—if you want them, there are more than enough in this week’s issue of NEWSWEEK to get you started—but the point is this: equality is still a myth. We need feminism now more than ever. "I've heard people say, 'Why are you a feminist? You can work, you can vote, you can do everything you want,'" says Jessica Valenti, the author of Full Frontal Feminism. "And just because there aren't all these laws against us—your husband can't [legally] beat you—it doesn't mean that sexism has gone away."

It hasn't gone away, but it may be harder to pinpoint. Which makes the support of other women, whether they call themselves feminists or not, all the more important. "I think the biggest issue young women face today is that there's no real movement behind them," says Susan Brownmiller, the feminist scholar. Case in point: a 2001 Gallup poll found that only one in four women consider themselves feminists. I'd bet most of those feminists are my mother's age.


Part of the problem with feminism, of course, is the word itself. Though it was meant to be inclusive (men could engage in feminism in a way they couldn't engage in the "women's" movement) it has alienated from the start. When feminism first hit the American lexicon in the early part of the 20th century, suffragists were divided over its use; as early as 1919, women were calling themselves "postfeminists," says Harvard historian Nancy Cott. "There was only about two seconds in the history of the world in which women really welcomed [feminism]," says Gail Collins, The New York Timescolumnist. "There's something about the word that just drives people nuts."

Many would argue that it was the media which would pervert feminism's modern use: as NEWSWEEK put it in a 1970 cover story, "A new specter is haunting America: the specter of militant feminism." Even today, describe the the bloggers at The F Word, "No woman I know would unapologetically describe herself as a feminist." Feminism is something dirty, denigrated—to be looked upon with scorn. If, in the modern culture, gender equality does come up, the response is simply: "I'm not a feminist, but—" (Translation: Please don't think I'm a man-hater/ugly/being difficult!)

Feminists have long labored over how to change feminism's image, and the notion is perplexing. But perhaps the more important question should be not how we repair the word, but how we show young women that the meaning behind it—the simple belief in gender equality—is still relevant, even in 2010. "I don't think that not wanting to identify yourself as a feminist is particular to this generation," says Collins. "But the assumption that everything is fine is very strong with this [group]."

As Gloria Steinem once put it, you're either a feminist or a masochist. At 28, I now proudly choose the former. I hope the women that come after me won't have to wait that long.

For more on feminism, check out NEWSWEEK's article on young women and sexism and the authors' new blog, The Equality Myth.

Pipeline's Broken Promise

Pipeline's Broken Promise was passed along to me today. While we all know that women are lagging behind men in regards to promotion and their actual salary, they brought some new information into the mix.

They found that "women lagged men in advancement and compensation starting from their first job and were less satisfied with their careers" which isn't a surprise. At all. What did catch my eye was something that negated what I had been taught in school (thankfully). In previous economics classes, my professors always asserted that the reason women make less is because of their time out of the office for child birth. Pipleine's study actually corrects for this and shows that there is still a discrepancy. It even shows that women who have not had children are still not getting the same salary increases or the same promotions as men. In 2010, this is outrageous.

Millenials & Technology

A great post Jolie O'Dell over on ReadWriteWeb. I wish all took this stance with millenials and technology. I try to work smart. I know which programs will allow me to accomplish the same task, quicker, and at a higher satisfaction rate. I expect state-of-the-art technology so I can do my job. When I don't have it, I become discouraged and I end up wasting more time because the task takes twice as long. My time in the end, costs the company more than if they would have purchased the technology in the first place. Food for thought.

We all know that young folks use the social Web for personal purposes, from keeping tabs on family members to sharing party pics with friends. And yes, as we reported more than a year ago, they even use the social Web - gasp! - while at their places of employment. But they're also using more tech for work-related tasks, including interacting with customers and vendors and forming or strengthening new and existing partnerships.

According to a 5,595-person, 13-country survey from tech consultancy Accenture  since this generation has grown up with daily doses of technology in one form or another, "They don't see bright lines between work
and personal, virtual and physical, sanctioned and prohibited. It's not, 'Would you approve this, boss?' but, 'Whatever gets the job done.'"

Millenials may not be completely aware of their company's IT policies, including those on social media use. For example, only 40 percent of U.S. citizens ages 14-27 know what their company's IT policy is. That percentage dips to 38 percent in the U.K., 36 percent in Australia and a laid-back 25 percent in France. And even if millenials are aware of these policies, many choose to ignore them and bypass restrictions.

IT managers often see these behaviors as weaknesses - loopholes that allow for security breaches and loss of productivity due to distractions and heavy multitasking. But they might also be allowing millenials to work smarter, not harder.

For example, more young people are using real-time communication methods such as IM, thus reducing the amount of time checking email and waiting for an asynchronous response. In fact, 10 percent of respondents said supervisors used SMS and chat to communicate with them, and 20 percent more said they wished their bosses would use these media more.

Web apps are also gaining favor in the young workplace. Around 75 percent of respondents said they used online collaboration tools and applications for work purposes; many of these millenials also thought that workplaces should be improving their use of emerging technologies. "Globally," states the report, "about one-half of millennials have accessed online collaborative tools, online applications and open-source technologies from free public websites when those technologies are not available at work or when the versions offered at work don't meet millennials' expectations."

Young people's expectations are also high when it comes to selecting their next employer. Not only did 37 percent of respondents say they want to see state-of-the-art technology being used in their prospective workplace; just as recruiters and hiring managers often snoop around search and social sites to investigate a potential hire's character, the millenial job-hunter will check up on prospective companies, peers and bosses, as well.

To hear some respondents explaining their attitudes and behaviors in their own words, check out this video from Accenture:

Although these attitudes and work styles can clash with older managers' expectations, they can also provide great benefits to a workplace and team. "Millennials are more intimate with technology than any previous generation," the report states. "Even high school interns can now add value. Companies that figure out how to tap younger workers' tech savvy and listen to their ideas in a productive way will likely enjoy an increasingly strong innovation-based competitive advantage.

"Listen and learn. Millenials are a resource to be tapped, not a problem to be solved.:

What do you think of these results? Do they line up with your experiences using tech in the workplace and the attitudes and behaviors of your colleagues? Let us know in the comments.

Inequality - Women & The Baby Issue

In my current research, I keep discovering how great the inequality is for women within my sector. In my current organization, women make-up a majority of the membership. Yet, when looking at the number of those women who are in executive positions the number is miniscule. It drives me nuts! As a woman, I plan to help fix this. The plan on how we will help women in my sector is still in the blueprint stages and is forthcoming.

Bellow is an article about Silicon Valley. As many can guess, the tech sector, is lacking in women. Here is Stacey Higginbotham's article Silicon Valley Has a Women Problem, But Women Still Have a Baby Problem.

A post yesterday on TechCrunch did a wonderful job of illustrating how many more men than women there are in the U.S. venture capital industry — and how that imbalance extends to tech entrepreneurs. It also extrapolated a rationalization for this gap that, while reasonable, was incorrect. Silicon Valley’s gender problem isn’t that complicated — it boils down to babies. As in, those who have them can’t be a startup CEO, too.

Vivek Wadhwa, the author of the TechCrunch post, included a nice list of reasons why women entrepreneurs and women-led venture-backed companies are scarce:

Sharon Vosmek, CEO of venture accelerator Astia doesn’t think that VCs have an overt bias against women. Instead, it’s the way the venture-capital industry operates. Vosmek says that these “systematic or hidden biases” include: 1. that VCs hold clear stereotypes of successful CEOs (they call it pattern recognition, but in other industries they call it profiling or stereotyping.) John Doerr publicly stated that his most successful investments – and the no-brainer pattern for future investments – were in founders who were white, male, under 30, nerds, with no social life who dropped out of Harvard or Stanford (2009 NVCA conference). 2. VCs invest in people they know. If women aren’t in their natural networks, they won’t get through the door. We know that still today, men and women network in separate business networks. 3. VCs want to invest in serial entrepreneurs. (This further reduces the chance for woman entrepreneurs.) 4. The VC community is obviously male dominated, and it just got worse…after the cold freeze VCs experienced over the past 24 months, many women partners exited the industry. As the Diana Project research shows, a firm with women General Partners is more likely to invest in women entrepreneurs.

However, it was a comment from TechCrunch reader Chem that actually laid bare the issue of why women aren’t better represented in tech — essentially, it’s because women have babies, and the perception is that when we do, we leave the workforce to take care of them. And while Chem’s stereotype isn’t correct ( I was back at work and even took on a more demanding job soon after my daughter was born), the fact that women are “supposed” to bear the brunt of raising children is a huge reason why women aren’t more visible at the helm of venture-backed startups. It’s the babies, stupid.

Or rather, it’s the idea that women should shoulder the burden of raising children, an idea that dominates our society to such a degree that many women and men buy into it without question. Society at large explicitly perpetuates motherhood and not parenthood (check out the New York Times, from stories that demand mothers learn how to speak nanny, to the spate of “wow-men-are-now-staying-at-home” stories, and implicitly enforces the status quo through its policies around access to childcare for babies, school calendars and thousands of other complicating factors that any family, be they dual-income or single-parent, must navigate.

And when that navigation does require a trade-off, it’s generally still the mother that makes it. Which means that yes, once women have babies there are forces that can keep them from taking on a 90-hour-a-week startup gig. We can bemoan a scarcity of female role models in tech, entice women into the math and science professions or even blame women who leave the work force to take care of kids for the lack of gender diversity, but to fix the problem, we’re going to have to discuss the lack of parity between men and women when it comes to raising children.

Because Wadhwa is right: Gender diversity is important, and women shouldn’t have to choose between raising a family and building a startup any more than men should.