by Katharine Daniels
Executive Editor, The WIP
- USA -
Recently, I had an insightful conversation with Linda Tarr-Whelan, author of Women Lead the Way: Your Guide to Stepping Up to Leadership and Changing the World. As the founder of this online publication it is such a pleasure when I can connect in person with writers in contrast to the virtual world where we usually communicate. This personal interaction always provides a greater depth and context to our work at The WIP, so it’s only natural that my conversation with Linda also brought refined clarity on the impact of women’s leadership and its implications for media.
The premise of Women Lead the Way is that leadership balance brings greater progress. As she explains, with a minimum of 30% women at the tables of power “our voices resonate fully to add the affirmative difference of our experience and values.” In both her book and in our conversation Linda stressed how far behind the rest of the world the United States has fallen as the result of our underinvestment in women.
The United States ranks 69th in the world in women’s political participation – we have an equally dismal record in Corporate America. In the 101 countries that have embraced what Tarr-Whelan calls “The 30% Solution,” often through legislation or constitutional mandates, the result has been an intensified focus on the issues that are important to women – improving health care and education, ending violence, and developing long-neglected resources for working families. These same countries have also seen a better business bottom line with more women in power. Tarr-Whelan cites studies that show that the financial firms with more women at the top in France and Denmark weathered the 2008 economic crisis better than countries with fewer women in leadership positions.
One has only to look at the all too familiar faces of the automobile, banking, and investment house executives to recognize one striking similarity – they were all men. If the corporate world valued the qualities Tarr-Whelan identifies that women leaders share – developing relationships, partnerships, teamwork, collaboration, and risk awareness – the crisis may well have been averted and certainly the solutions would differ. One need not look too deeply into the crisis to recognize that a little forward thinking and a consideration of long-term consequences could have saved both the U.S. and global economies.
Ironically, it is our historical leadership in women’s rights Tarr-Whelan cites as one of the reasons for the USA’s reluctance to adopt The 30% Solution. Although our women’s movement dramatically improved women’s lives and brought us closer to equality, the movement concentrated largely on what Tarr-Whelan identifies as “Outsider” work – “advocating, marching, challenging discrimination, and banging on the door for entry to change the way business is done.” This Outsider work has kept the focus on gender, not on the agenda. Admittedly, I was taken aback by this conclusion and asked Linda to elaborate.
“I would ditch the term women’s issues for the rest of my life,” she declared. Linda then shared an important lesson from her years fighting for women’s rights – “To call anything a women’s issue…is to marginalize it.” She makes a distinction between the value we place in our culture on issues that are viewed as societal and those we perceive as “women’s issues.” A critical mass of women at the table broadens the context of what society values and the solutions put forth begin to reflect the values, ideas, and concerns women share. The context opens up from a narrow focus on “women’s issues” to the greater framework of the societal agenda. “As Insiders and partners, rather than competitors,” she explains, “we can change systems and institutions to reflect our views, values, and experience.”While reading Women Lead the Way I gravitated to the portions of the book that reference media. I found myself drawing conclusions between the underrepresentation of women in leadership positions and the many issues I have with the dominant media in this country. In my conversation with Linda, I began to see how the lack of women’s progress in our field and the complacency around the issue is inextricably linked to a missing context in the story of women’s progress in media.
I asked Linda why it is that statistics such as only 14% of guest appearances on Sunday talk shows are women or that women represent less than 25% of opinion columnists don’t seem to resonate with more Americans. According to Linda, instead of delivering stories in broader contexts (such as the impact of having women in leadership positions), the media delivers sound bites about “firsts” – the first prime time woman anchor, the first woman astronaut, the first woman candidate for President. In neglecting to deliver the full story, the media’s focus on firsts alters our perception of progress and leads us to believe it is greater than what has actually been achieved. So again, by telling the story within the larger framework of women’s transformational leadership the story broadens from the limited perspective of a gender issue to a societal need.
Tarr-Whelan points out that only 3% of media “clout” positions are held by women, thereby skewing that which is deemed newsworthy. In media, if women had the critical 30% of leadership positions the context of stories delivered to the public would undoubtedly change.
Linda shared with me something she learned earlier this month at the Journalism and Women Symposium held in Utah. “Because of the lack of women’s leadership at the higher levels of decision-making in media, women are kept to a different style than what they would like to do to connect better with women readers,” she told me. “I don’t think people realize how really busy women are; so, if the contextual framework is not there for women to sort of perk up and say ‘this relates to something I’m interested in because of my profession, or because of my family, or my community,’ it’s going to go right on by.” Issues such as taxes and national security have dominated the political conversation in this country, demanding a large percentage of the mainstream media’s attention, despite the fact that these are not the stories that necessarily interest women.
Toward the end of our conversation Linda told me “Transformational leadership is about achieving our dreams.” In her book she concludes with a look toward the future, highlighting what the world will look like once we’ve embraced The 30% Solution – a time when all our leaders “think over the horizon,” a time when all our leaders “work collaboratively,” a time when all our leaders are “problem solvers who work to strengthen the economy without sacrificing families and communities.”
I am proud to say that Tarr-Whelan’s broad context for what it means to be a leader embodies the values we already embrace at The WIP and built this publication upon. Our community is forward thinking. Our community is working collaboratively toward shared goals – such as sustainability and peace. And most importantly, as Linda would put it, as leaders we “bring strong values, fresh air, and inventive thinking to change outcomes.” Together we are delivering women’s perspectives within the context of women’s ideas and solutions as they relate to the global issues on which we report.
I hope you will visit Linda’s website to order a copy of her book and encourage all the women in your life to step up to leadership. Together we can change the world.