Special Report on Women In Business: Revisiting Blog Postings from 2013-14

March 8th was International Women’s Day and the topic of women entrepreneurs became top of mind, as I was offered free drinks and brochures on the topic at my local Staples’ store! In a much more sustained way, however, in my blog, I have always been interested in the role of gender in entrepreneurship.

In my blog, I observe and discuss issues pertaining to communications and marketing clients and not to service providers (writers, like me, designers, social media specialists, etc.) But recently, I began reading and blogging on contemporary books that argue that improving the careers and lives of women entrepreneurs simultaneously improves the way that business is done. So although I have not directly addressed my past, current or future prospects in these postings, the implications of these arguments affect us all.

Similarly, these arguments cross gender lines to affect men and the issues men face as entrepreneurs and prospects. I’m grateful to the men in the “marcom” world who have always treated me with the respect of an equal, both in Canada and the US: AWAI and marketing and copywriting experts Steve Slaunwhite and Ed Gandia; LinkedIn guru and trainer, Wayne Breitbarth; and, most recently, Saskatoon-based marketer, Harley Rivet.

Drawing from blog postings that I made between 2013 and this year, in this “special report” I want to revisit some of the challenges and complexities of entrepreneurship for women, featuring the writing of Sheryl Sandberg (Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead [2013]), Debora Spar (Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection[2013]), Dianna Huff (“Why Low Self-Worth Drives Lower Wages for Women Freelancers – and What You Can Do About It” [2012]) and Arlene Dickinson (All In: You, Your Business, Your life [2013])

  1. Sheryl Sandberg: Lean In: Women Work and the Will to Lead (2013):

Every few years a book is released in the business world that is insightful enough to transcend the boundaries between the worlds of business and society (business/government, business/academia, business/the arts, etc.) or (in my case) between such divisions as copywriter and client or editor and writer. As I earlier discussed in my blog, Seth Godin’s Linchpin: Are You Indispensable (2010) was one such book. In the next couple of postings, I’ll discuss why Sheryl Sandberg’s bestseller, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, is another (New York: Knopf, 2013). It warrants a close reading from me and from the people with whom I work.  Freelancers may be negotiating an alternative pathway from the mainstream business world (on that see Michelle Goodman’s excellent book, My So-Called Freelance Life [Seal, 2008]). But that pathway isn’t any less subject to what women and men often experience as ongoing gender inequalities. These issues are what Sandberg, COO of Facebook, exposes and discusses.

Of course, as she readily says in her “acknowledgments,” such a discussion cannot reasonably be produced quickly by one person–particularly one as busy as she is, at Facebook. And, she openly states that she is “not a scholar, journalist or sociologist.” But a team of minds, including co-author, journalist Nell Scovell; and the sociologist and researcher, Marianne Cooper (and with the input of numerous others) has produced a manifesto for rethinking gender issues for the 21st century. Sandberg addresses women in the West; and  people (men as much as women) in every field, be they single, partnered, married, divorced, childless, parents or grandparents. (The research is US-based, but Sandberg’s insights are wide-reaching enough to transcend many cultural differences, without denying that those differences exist.)

40 years after the work of Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, whereby women became 50 percent of the college graduates in the United States, Sandberg takes as launching point the reality that the women’s revolution has stalled and true equality has not been reached.  Men still hold, she says, the majority of leadership positions in government, industry and academia, so that women’s voices are “still not heard in the decisions that most affect our lives.” She says that she, like most children of the 1960’s and 70’s expected the glass ceiling to shatter after she started working in the early 1990’s. Instead, she found “with each passing year, fewer and fewer of my colleagues were women. More and more, I was the only woman in the [board]room” (6).

The inequalities are even worse, globally, as she well knows, referring to the experience of  Leymah Gbowee, who received the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for helping to lead women’s protests that ended Liberia’s dictatorship. Sandberg says that when asked what women in America can help to overcome the atrocities against women in the East, Gbowee said: have “More women in power.”  (My one criticism of the book is the lack of space it gives to explore more globally women’s disempowerment. But that could be another book or several Ph.D. dissertations.) Daily American and Canadian news shows a limited tolerance in the West for exposing such atrocities in the East as female genital mutilation and forced childhood marriages.

But to return to Sandberg’s argument, there are a lot of “external” gender inequalities still present, in contemporary Western culture. To mention only a few, there are not enough companies with “flex-time” hours for working parents who raise young children; child care and parental leave are inadequate or outright absent. Mentors and sponsors who could assist women to advance their careers at crucial times are often hard to find. (Famously Betty Friedan refused to work or even shake hands with Gloria Steinem. And many women have found ourselves similarly “shut out” of power or authority by other, occasionally older, women.) Also, women continue to do most of the housework and to provide most of the child care, in addition to the “job” or “career” they may have, outside the home.

Sandberg describes the “chicken and egg” dilemma that most professional women face today. On one hand (the chicken): women need leadership roles to tear down external barriers and Sandberg urges us to do that work. But on the other (the egg): women need to eliminate those same external barriers in order for women (the egg) to get into those leadership roles in the first place. And she fully supports women who strive to dismantle barriers, as she has done, from which they undo the “external” gender inequalities she refers to.

But Sandberg also speaks of the “internal” barriers that women experience as ones that too easily perpetuate our inequality: women internalize the same kind of negative messages that we heard as children, throughout our lives. So we may feel insecure to speak up in class, to be aggressive in pursuing what we want and to be more powerful than the men near us. She writes: “We tend to discount ourselves in pursuit of career goals,” because we try to accommodate a partner and children that we “may not even yet have.” We suffer disproportionately from the imposter complex, frequently underestimating ourselves. And women cite “hard work” and “help from others,” when we do well. By contrast, men are quick to take credit for their accomplishments, without such qualification.

What to do? To “lean in,” in Sandberg’s title phrase, is to be ambitious in any pursuit. She advocates (by this term) for women’s self-confidence, in common sense ways, such as “sitting at the [boardroom] table” (and not in the symbolically peripheral chairs around the room); in finding partners to do more of the work at home, “to make your partner a real partner; and in shedding unattainable standards, such as “the Myth of Doing it All.

“Sitting at the table:”

Sandberg recognizes areas of gender difference, so that, for instance, she sees that  there is no one definition of “success” or ”happiness,” even though, as she says, true equality can only be won by increasing the number of women in positions of power. She rightly observes that not all women want careers or children or both: “We have to chart our own unique course and define which goals fit our lives, values and dreams.” And she notes that “some of the most important contributions to our world are made by caring for one person at a time” (10). But the reality remains that more women will be able to make ends meet and care for their families, if they wish, when there are more women’s voices heard at the highest levels of our societies:

“We can reignite the [gender] revolution by internalizing the revolution. The shift to a more equal world will happen person by person. We move closer to the larger goal of true equality with each woman who leans in” (11).

Generational differences also complicate gender inequality. Women born in the late 1960’s and 70’s like Sandberg have found it harder to integrate professional and personal goals, because we weren’t the ones to negotiate men’s equal involvement in housework and childrearing. So, as Sandberg found on the birth of her own son, women have been having “two, full-time jobs.”

Millenial women (born between 1980 and 2000), after watching their mothers struggle to “have it all” and suffer in that struggle, have too often decided against pursuing a strong career altogether. Yet in the 2010’s, 57% of undergraduate and 60% of Master’s degrees in the US are earned by women. Millenial “girls” (i.e. young women) describe themselves as being as “ambitious” as men, but lack the confidence to view themselves as “leaders,” “visionaries,” “self-confident” or “willing to take risks” (16). Since women face barriers in faltering confidence, childrearing and homemaking, more men land leadership roles. Men are more often left standing in the application line.

To succeed in a career, Sandberg says that girls must be raised to be willing to take risks and to advocate for their own interests, which for the most part is not happening. Entry level jobs are full of women, but further up the hierarchy, leadership roles are predominantly filled by men. An American McKinsey & Company survey discovered that 36% of men and only 18% of women aspire to be CEOs in their fields, early in their careers.

The lack of confidence among new generations of young women is perpetuated by cultural mores, whereby to describe a woman “very ambitious is not a compliment.” Women’s accomplishments “come at a cost” when men are applauded for their ambition and success. Sandberg illustrates the problem by citing the T-shirt sold to American teenage girls by J.C. Penney in 2011 that says, “I’m too pretty to do homework, so my brother has to do it for me” (19). Confidence should not be equated for women with frivolity or with arrogance, and therefore be subverted. But too often it is. Confidence will remain elusive for women, so long as they give ground to such philosophy.

Sandberg wonders aloud what it is that causes her to feel guilt or shame at hearing stories of her confidently organizing her siblings’ play, when she was a girl. Here the book would do well to discuss the “angel in the house” (once discussed in A Room of One’s Own and “Professions for Women” by Virginia Woolf) that Bernard Brandchaft terms “pathological accommodation.” Women internalize the misogynistic values that they must take care of everyone else’s needs, while effacing their own and themselves. As a child, Sandberg says that she zealously controlled neighbourhood kids’ (and her siblings’) behaviour, telling them what to do.  Now a grown woman, she could take pride in her ability to adapt a more mature form of that authority at work, instead of cringing, as she does, at the thought that she wasn’t (or isn’t) “nice.”

Sandberg exposes that women’s success is seen to compete with her likeability. She cites Mark Zuckerberg telling her after her first six months at Facebook that “If you want to change things, you cannot please everyone.” While most cultures believe that women should be nurturing and kind, the belief that women should be nurturing above all else prevents them from being successful–or even competent–at work.

Sandberg argues that women differ from men in feeling deep self-doubt that is completely wrong or unbased in reality. Women with ambitious careers are more likely than men to fear that they are constantly heading for failure. Opportunities have to be seized and sought out, and are not bestowed on a woman who is passive. Offered a challenging opportunity, women think themselves unqualified, while men leap at a chance and are impatient to grow into the role. Given a job description that is above their current vocational capacity, the majority of women decline to apply, seeing no “fit,” while men who find even 60% of a fit, rush in.

Cultural depictions in popular media, television, movies and social media often depict women who have powerful careers as being miserable, harried, unhappy, and neglected by peers and suitors. Sandberg notes that even the term “work-life balance” constructs the two concepts as diametrically opposed (23), when women can “thrive” in doing both.

These are some of Sandberg’s thoughts on women’s need to “sit at the table” –the boardroom one, and not only or necessarily the kitchen one. She also argues about women’s need to find real partners who meet them half-way (at home and with the kids) and her argument that no one of either gender ever “has it all,” or can “do it all.”

On finding a truly equal partner:

Having established that women need to “sit at the [boardroom] table, Sandberg sensibly writes that women need to find partners who will meet them half-way with childrearing and homemaking. Only with that kind of relationship can work and life actually balance. Her most practical comment is that women need to become less perfectionist in raising kids and keeping house:  treat your husband as an equally capable partner and he’ll become one. If you let him learn how to diaper the baby himself, instead of insisting that there is a “right [i.e. perfect] way” to do it, he’ll learn just fine. And letting children be comforted by their fathers, even though men don’t lactate, enables children to grow up, taking comfort and consolation from their fathers, too. Perfectionism here too interferes with gender equality.

Sandberg concludes by debunking the anti-feminist myth that women “can do it all,” or “have it all,” when in fact “done is better than perfect.” She cites Mary Curtis in The Washington Post as saying that success means that “women and men [must] drop the guilt-trip . . . . The secret is there is no secret – just doing the best you can with what you’ve got” (139).

Gender inequality certainly does persist in leadership and for the reasons that Sandberg mentions—women not sitting at the table; not working out equal relationships with their partners; and women thinking that they can and should “have it all,” when no one does or can.

But Sandberg says that it makes no sense that she and her college friends distanced themselves from the Steinems, Friedans and other, early leaders of the women’s movement. When Sandberg’s generation “lowered its voices, thinking the battle was over, they lost ground and hurt themselves.” She cites a 2009 poll that only 24% of women in the US today consider themselves feminists. But when offered a specific definition of the term, that “a feminist is someone who believes in social, political and economic equality of the sexes,” the percentage rises to 65%. That statistic still seems low to me, but, as Sandberg says, at least it’s moving up.

Throughout Lean In, Sandberg is often charmingly funny and personable, sharing her own decisions, mistakes and the ongoing difficulties of making good choices for herself, her career and her family. What she says is often common sense, but men and women need to hear it, because evidence shows us that commons sense about gender is not sufficiently at work in 21st century culture.

Women can have a “will to lead,” and Sandberg advocates supporting and “cheering on” women who want to sit at the boardroom table, and to “lean in” to their careers. Wider performance of women in companies and organizations and greater involvement of men at home will bring greater equality and happiness for all—including those who choose more traditional gender roles.

Coming from the crucible of writing a commencement-style speech to graduates of Barnard College, a privileged American women’s college, and from a highly influential TEDTalk that she delivered in 2010 (that went “viral”), Sandberg’s Lean In shows that she also practices what she preaches. For instance, as I indicated earlier, her book is not obsessively of her own making, but is a team-authored, collective effort of several women, and some men, as well. And she doesn’t expect the reader to agree with every choice that she has made. Her argument is nonetheless emboldening and confidence-inspiring.  She concludes: “There isn’t genuine choice until women have supportive employers, colleagues and partners. And until men are respected for contributing equally in the home, because only then can both sexes achieve their full potential.”

So why does it all matter?

Consider the global nature and need of women’s empowerment. And how we can shake up the status quo of gender inequality? Where do you find it in your work environment? To women, specifically: how will you share more traditional domestic work with the men in your life? To men: how willing are you to parent your children? How will women “lean in” to leadership in a career or as a freelancer? And how will you fight for women’s rights in countries where women have not yet ever “sat at the table,” found truly equal partners or made peace with the reality that no one can “have it all”?     [–September 20, 2013]


2. Debora Spar: Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection (2013):

A colleague and associate of Debora Spar, the President of Barnard College (the all-women’s liberal arts college in NY) contacted me in late 2013, after reading some of my previous blog on Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead (2013). This associate promoted another more recently released book, in a similar vein to Sandberg’s—Debora L. Spar’s Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013). Spar’s study addresses issues that include the psychology of the professions, including business and academia, and the complex role that gender and maternity play in it.

I was impressed by several of the arguments in Spar’s book. I want to focus not on her autobiographical exploration of gender inequality at work (which much of the book discusses) so much as on her analysis of the complex ways that the “glass ceiling” still exists for women in the higher echelons of our culture’s professions. Spar makes arguments that are relevant to creative artists (including writers and designers) and to the people who hire them. Debora Spar focuses on corporate and academic America; but many of the same arguments bear relevance to those sectors in Canada, as well.

I’m particularly interested in Spar’s writing on “perfectionism,” the noose that threatens professional people in every industry, and women, in particular (cf my earlier blog on Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, above). What these writers show us is that the only way to deal with the demanding and creative work of their careers (in my case, writing and editing) is to cut oneself free from the perfectionist’s “noose”—more particularly, from the fear-mongering and unrealistic expectations (whether internally or externally directed) that make it.

But first: who is Debora Spar? Earlier in her career, she was one of the youngest female professors to receive tenure at Harvard Business School. Raised after the “tumult” of the first wave of feminism (e.g. Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem), Spar, like Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook), thought that “the gender wars were over” and that “we thought we could just glide into the new era of equality, with babies, board seats and husbands in tow.” But it didn’t work.

Spar does not dispute that the “first wave” of feminism in the 1960’s enabled women to enter into the labour force more than any other cultural movement. She cites that in 2008 in the US, 47% of the labour force was women. 34% of lawyers that year were women and 30% of doctors. 61% of accountants and auditors were women, and some 25% of architects (174). This is hard-won gender participation. But fifty years after Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, Spar argues, women are still underrepresented at the “top of the pyramid,” where the glass ceiling persists. We are, as she says, still “stuck” below it.

The stats are revealing: in the US, only 15.2% of the board members of Fortune 500 Companies are women. Only 16% of the partners of the largest law firms are women.  And a scant 19% of surgeons are women. So why is that? What has gone wrong?

Academic studies of structural and psychological barriers that women face argue that women pay a “disproportionate price for juggling kids and career, and that many high-powered men remain subtly antagonistic to working with and promoting the women who surround them.” Spar foregrounds that even more than with today’s “old-fashioned,” stay-at-home Moms, limited maternity leaves, “mommy track” jobs (less demanding positions that accommodate child-rearing), and men who don’t play nice, women tend to suffer from “subtle and intangible factors that stem from underlying differences in how women tend to work and organize themselves professionally” (174). And because women’s differences are not recognized within the structure of messy work environments, Spar says, the “glass ceiling” persists. We are, as she says, “stuck in the 16% power cranny.”

Spar says that prior to the 1980’s, American women were “right to blame men for holding them back,” right to seek the changes in the workforce to enable themselves to rise in the “ranks of power.” Women did succeed in prying open men’s clubs, Ivy League Universities, equal-pay legislation, maternity leaves, child daycare at work, and so on. Also, many men are more enlightened in the 21st century than in years past. But she says that there remains a large gap between where women thought they’d be, in the 21st century, and where they actually are.

Only 21 companies on the Fortune 500 list are run by female CEOs. Women in the US continue to earn on average 23 cents less than men for every dollar they earn. And the underrepresentation of women applies across diverse industries (from “movie directors” to engineers).

Those limited 16% of women at the top either think like men themselves, or by extraordinary willpower, learn to operate in a male-dominated atmosphere. And women’s underrepresentation is not due to a lack of available, trained women: the “pipeline to the top” has been flush with women for more than 20 years. Women who graduated from male-dominated sectors at the time that Spar entered graduate school in the 1980s have not “soared or crawled their way to the top.” They have not reached the top, at all–their progress has been slower than anyone in the first wave of feminism would have expected, or else is non-existent.

At least some of what’s lacking in her view has been a “critical mass” of women in such positions to mentor junior female associates at crucial points in their careers, to ensure that diversity programs and accountability are properly implemented. Spar cites Ina Drew, one of the US banking sector’s longest-serving and highest-ranking executives as saying that such mentorship counts for much: “ ‘The top echelons of finance still lack mentors that women desperately need . . . If women remain unfulfilled by their positions, without the potential for growth and discouraged by male aggression, the discrepancies will persist’ ” (179).

Meanwhile, only at the lower end of the pay scale and professional range (e.g. nursing, hair-dressing, middle school teaching) have women made strides, so that two-thirds of American households benefit from the mothers’ contributions to family earnings. Mothers are the primary income providers in 40% of households and half of those are single parent households. The bad news at this lower end of the career spectrum is that many of these women are “barely holding on,” living paycheque to paycheque, at the bottom of the career chain. This is the place where women for generations have struggled and from which they were supposed to have been liberated, in the 1960s. In other words, women enter college and graduate school, followed by entry-level and mid-level positions in every industry, but “fall out well before they reach the top” (180).

Women choose to stop, decide that they need to stay at home, or to work part-time, or leave the “fast-track.” Such decisions may be sensible for individual women, Spar says, but the demographic result is “a landscape where women are still scarce and where the clashing of visions between what is and what was expected to be makes them feel scarcer still” (181).

What Spar refers to as “mommy-track” jobs are the positions gained from the less demanding path women sometimes take when they want to stay in the workplace, but not sacrifice their entire lives to it. It allows “retention” of the women recruited, trained and invested in, “but not advancement.” “Mommy-track” jobs offer more flexible scheduling to enable women to take off occasional hours, a day, a week, or to work sometimes from home: the reality is that few organizations have found ways to re-define their most important positions “in any way different from full-time chunks.” Spar says that only 2% of female financial managers and 13% of female lawyers work part-time. In a recent survey, even at Spar’s own women’s college (Barnard College), only 11% of female staff were found to work part-time.

Most part-timers work at the lowest end of the career spectrum, as “cashiers, waitresses, sales assistants,” etc. Managerial and better jobs go to full-timers. And once women have pulled over to the “off ramp,” career-wise, the road back, Spar observes, is “treacherous . . . . Positions disappear, salaries plummet, professional relationships grow stale.” And so only 40% of women who try to return to full-time professional positions, after having children, succeed in doing so. The rest settle for the “mommy-track” of “slower-paced, lower-ranked” jobs, or else retire early (184).

What conclusions we can come about women’s “16% power cranny” or impasse, and specifically how it connects to women’s quest for perfection?   [ –November 7, 2013]

As I earlier introduced, the “quest for perfection” in the corporate or creative or academic worlds often underlies women’s fears, anxieties and choices, reducing our creative energy and work. The power cranny affects not only those who stop before reaching the top16% of the pyramid, but also the women who were there (or destined to be there) but who bow out of high stakes corporate America to raise children–often because their husbands’ careers demand it.

Spar writes convincingly that perfectionism is at the root of gender inequality. It isn’t only about society-based pressure, but is also an internal dialog that results when women take pressures on, in inherently unrealistic and unfair messages and standards.  What creative woman hasn’t felt, when reaching for a contract that is beyond her experience, “maybe you won’t be good enough to do this?”

One criticism I have of Spar’s book, Wonder Women,  is that while she discusses perfectionism,  she tends to fall into the old trap of essentializing women’s perspectives and characteristics: she says that we tend to stress “consensus,” to be risk averse, to want to share power and to be liked by our peers and associates, and so on. (And of course the problems can also dog creative men.)  Our culture has not succeeded in raising girls to be women who feel strong enough and strongly supported enough to want to overcome the 16% “power cranny.”

Having seen their mothers or aunts fight to find a rightful place against the “glass ceiling,” young Generation Ys or Millenial women often settle for less in their careers, and settle early, at that. They see the road to secure “more” in their careers to be too encumbered with difficulties that feel too great to be overcome. (cf recall Sheryl Sandberg saying that young women today too often “lean back,” instead of “leaning in.”) Spar says that some of her own students foreclose their own careers, choosing lesser professional standings in anticipation of having family, etc., long before their lives actually take that turn (if they do, at all). Put simply, young women expect less than their mothers, aunts and (sometimes) even grandmothers did. And young women today quietly rationalize the loss of those dreams as the reality of not being able to “have it all,” instead of envisioning a culture in which an imperfect but important career and an imperfect but important family could be held in tandem. Young men also sometimes apply the truth that one still “can’t have it all” as a reason to give up trying to excel. But Spar suggests that they do so to a lesser extent than women. Women are capable of achieving no less at work and at home than men or than anyone else. But at least some of the time, they don’t.

I agree with Spar that the contemporary workplace is still “mired in the patterns of the 1950’s,” with employers being unable and/or unwilling to accommodate working mothers. But Spar also rightly observes that that doesn’t explain why women respond differently than men do, when dealing with tensions between work and family. Why do women bail first? And “jump quickly,” when they do not feel passionate about their work?

When choosing between compromising a job and compromising their family, women almost always preserve the family, Spar says that is not the case with men, who choose the jobs that best pay the bills. By contrast, women have an “all or nothing,” perfectionist pattern of thinking.

Spar presents evidence that the “mismatch” between jobs and commitment varies by time, gender and industry (e.g. women leave in droves in banking, law and consulting, while more stay in academia, medicine, entrepreneurial ventures) (187). If their husbands are large wage earners, women often opt out after having children, or if they feel ambivalent toward their careers, as if they have haphazardly entered into those careers, before they began raising children.

Spar interestingly argues that under US law in the 1970s and 1980s, women’s difference from men has been banished in favour of gender neutrality, in which it’s assumed that “given the  same opportunities, women will behave more or less like men” (193). She finds, on the contrary, that those differences may or may not involve non-aggressive consensus-building, leadership-inspiring, etc. (But recall my concern about the risk of essentialism.) Spar finds that women don’t work or provide leadership like men do.

In fact, she rightly calls for investigation into the ways in which institutions are qualitatively run differently by women, which she believes would prove the merits of having more women aboard in top professional positions. But at the end of the day, I agree with her fully that it’s just “common sense” that the 50% of the population that women represent need to participate in the highest professional ranks of our society. As Spar aptly says: “. . . the issue . . . is not about pulling token women into public places to pretend that their presence is more widespread.  The issue is about making it easier for all women to have the jobs and careers they want, and for all organizations to benefit from the diversity of perspectives that women tend to bring” (199).

One telling difference between women’s and men’s working methods  is evident in the story she tells of the way that new websites were created – one, for the business program at Harvard; and one created (later) for Barnard College. Deciding on the creation of a website at Harvard was done mostly by men, involved few conversations, after which implementation quickly occurred. At Barnard, by contrast, women held “listening sessions,” “consultations, working groups and committees” (196), followed by re-design, more discussion and alterations to meet the community’s approval. Spar observes that Barnard ended up with a better website than Harvard, but that it also took much more time and energy: “Same decision, but a wholly different dynamic” (197).

While Spar finds reason for optimism in firms that have begun recruiting women specifically and boosting their performance, she observes concernedly, that “expectations have become sky-high” (199). Of course, as she says, it’s unreasonable to expect women to act like men. But another piece of the gendered career puzzle is that women are expected to thrive in whatever career they choose, to rise “through the ranks happily, have the perfect partner, two flourishing children, and along the way, to have a healthy sex life and to look drop-dead gorgeous. Such perfection is not a reasonable expectation. Spar rightly argues that women who wish to have family could, in practical terms, avoid fields like investment banking and technological entrepreneurship, which are known to have 90 hour work weeks. One has to be one’s own advocate and know the requirements of one’s profession, if one enters into it. But perfectionism (for men and women both) can easily turn any of the top 16% of careers (and some that don’t get there) into 90 hour work weeks, as well.

Gender inequality allows some men to excel on a single project at work, while leaving the lawn unmowed and the plumbing leaking. This is angering since at the same time, women often feel they must balance all kinds of competing demands of work, children, spouse, housing, friendships, self-grooming and the list goes on and on . . . . Spar describe that difference convincingly, including in her personal experience.

Even worse is the reality that the burdens on contemporary professional women have now eroded the gains won by first-wave feminists. “The personal is political” has been but forgotten by many young and middle-aged women. As one former radical observed to Spar, “We weren’t fighting so you could have Botox” (231). First-wave feminism fought male oppression and patriarchy’s unattainable norms of beauty (e.g. the “Charlie girl” perfume ad and  the “wonder woman” reference of Spar’s title). And yet, our culture has gone on to celebrate women in the 1990’s, like “Murphy Brown” and Clair Huxtable on “The Cosby Show.” And since then, look at the superstar, “diva” demands made of women in reality t.v. such as “American Idol,” or “The Voice,” etc.  Women’s bodies are more objectified than ever (a point that Lady Gaga continually strives to make).

And yet, women still must of course confront the biology of pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding. Spar says that the expectations are “to be madonna and whore. Mother and wage earner. Smart but not arrogant. A leader but not bitch” (233-234). No one—man or woman—she says, can save the world while looking “like a 17-year old” or bake a perfect cake the night before a major presentation at work. And yet our culture is faster to criticize a woman when she doesn’t than it would criticize a man (e.g. Hillary Clinton’s intellect undermined by criticism that she has had “bad hair”).

Cultural stereotyping based on perfectionism has been causing women in the West (and no doubt in related ways, elsewhere), when faced with these impossibilities, to go “inward,” and control ourselves, to micromanage ourselves until we look and sound and appear to be “perfect.”  We move from options of what we “can” be to what we compulsorily “should be:” Spar comments that when there are more choices, women feel they must choose them all—perfect careers, kids and bodies. She says: “My generation made a mistake. We took the struggles and the victories of feminism [especially in the first wave] and interpreted them somehow as a pathway to personal perfection. We privatized feminism and focused only on our dreams and our own inevitable frustrations.”

She continues: “Feminism was supposed to be about granting women power and equality and then about harnessing that power for positive change. . . . [R]ather than embracing these political objectives, younger generations of women have largely turned away from first-wave feminism’s external and social goals and instead turned in on their own lives, focusing, say, not on better neighbourhood schools, but on their own children’s SAT scores; not on social equity writ large, but on the professional advancement of small and highly specific groups of women. Rather than trying to address the world, we are trying to control our own small pieces of it” (236).

As perfectionism resurges, we need to see it for what it is, efface it and replace its expectations with attainable goals that “acknowledge both women’s aspirations and the obstacles to them” that women confront (237). Spar’s argument is certainly for “total equality with men,” but also to recognize women as different from men (and I’d add,  from each other), so that “women’s paths to success may be different and more complicated than men’s” and that those complications should be recognized and allowed to become part of the broader cultural discussion on gender and power (237).

In practical terms, this means that the challenges to the workplace caused by pregnancy and motherhood need to be openly discussed and “explicit” in the workplace, so that better maternity leaves and family-friendly workplaces result. Men need to help, not only at home, but also at work, to help accommodate women and women’s differences. And so do women who choose not to, or who are not able to, raise children.

Spar rightly observes that men haven’t had it easy, since the 1960’s, either. In the US, there was Vietnam; jobs lost to women in the 1980’s; and since then, the economic collapse of “male” industries, such as “construction, automobile manufacturing, electronics” (247). And men have had to strive to define “workable contours of a radically-changed home” (247). Canada was not involved in Vietnam, but has faced similar class, economic and vocational challenges to both sexes.

We are not yet to the point of celebrating difference and finding that “joy” (of all things) can come from what diversity offers to our culture. Perfectionist assumptions in our work and homes decimate the lives of both women and men. (And on the “lie” of perfection for creatives, see Seth Godin’s arguments on the primordial “lizard brain,” in Linchpin.)

Spar cites feminist Andrew Dworkin from Woman Hating¸ where Dworkin says that feminism is about restructuring “community forms and human consciousness so that people have power over their own lives, participate fully in community, live in dignity and freedom” (Spar 236). Notice that Dworkin refers to people and not only women. These are goals that are within our sight, but require much more conscious effort than our culture currently mandates to pursue. We are not attaining these goals and sometimes move yet further from them (e.g. some government policy, including women’s current underrepresentation in politics and other fields).

An academic of business and of women’s education, who shows cultural savvy and skill as a writer, Debora Spar (and not only Sheryl Sandberg and Seth Godin) certainly deserves several sentences in a new narrative of gender that we’re attempting to write, this century and in the West. This is a narrative in which everyone will acknowledge that “no one” (of either sex) can ever “have it all” and that the lie of perfectionism must be expelled, for the benefit of all of society, including for our cultural and creative work.  And while Spar’s study and my frame of reference here is focused on the West, these truths need now to be understood more globally, in the lives of Malala Yousafzai (Pakistan) and Leyma Gbowee (Liberia). And in the lives of the many girls and women whose names have not yet been uttered, and that we still too conveniently bracket off as the “East.” [–December 5, 2013]


3. Dianna Huff: “Why Low Self-Worth Drives Lower Wages for Women Freelancers and What You Can Do About It” (2012).

I continue this series by drawing upon a powerful recent article on women’s earning potential in business, by American B2B web copywriter, Dianna Huff. I want to emphasize that it’s not simply the money female creatives are paid that’s at stake here. It’s about professional growth, value and respect (and yes, if you’re hearing Tina Turner here, it’s a sign that this isn’t a new problem, but one that has resisted and become more firmly entrenched than it was to the reforms of Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem).

In her article, “Why Low Self-Worth Drives Lower Wages for Women Freelancers – and What You Can Do About It,” Dianna Huff says that women in copywriting and marcom careers often earn less because they set low fees, often “lack . . . money knowledge” and also suffer from “low self-worth.” The result is what Huff calls the “pink collar ghetto,” in which women make less than men for the same jobs. Women tend to accept job offers and not negotiate for a higher fee, because we think we’re lucky to have the job at all. So Huff found herself making only half of her previous “day job” salary of $42K (i.e. only $21K), when she started freelancing, 15 years ago. That’s despite having already managed for years a small manufacturing firm and having done corporate marcom work. Not surprisingly, Huff says, her first few years were “miserable.” And this is a common complaint among freelancers anywhere that I’ve lived, visited or worked.

Huff cites the American female journalist Mika Brzezinski who has written candidly about her challenges in securing income that matched her experience and worth. In Knowing Your Value: Women, Money and Getting What You’re Worth, Brzezinski says that for many years, her male co-host on breakfast television made 15 times what she did. Like Huff, Brzezinski worked “mega” hours at a beginning freelancer’s wage, seeing red in her bank statements (after her wardrobe, supplies, etc. were paid for) at the end of every grueling month. Both women (Huff and Brzezinski) worked at low starting wages and spent their next years “fighting and clawing” their way to a better one (Brzezinski). Both women argue that among these mistakes that women make in business, the following are three that recur:

(i)   As women, we tend to undervalue our skills and experience. We should use project (not hourly) fees and raise rates to meet any comparably qualified man in the industry. In the past, Brzezinski and Huff kept getting ghetto rates, despite being perfectly able to write anything in their fields and do an excellent job at it. Women tend to think we lack experience, that we don’t need more than “pin money,” that we lack awards or recognition that others may have, and that we’re only worth the “going rate” of “10 cents per word” (or other, similarly absurd fees).

(ii)   We sell ourselves short because we think we’re “LUCKY” to work from home, to have time for our children and/or to have a flexible schedule. The “lucky” complex is simply not realistic. Luck does not pay the mortgage and it’s not what enables a freelancer or executive to do the outstanding work that they do. And yet, after leaving the corporate world, it took male B2B copywriter (and Huff’s friend) Ed Gandia two years, compared to Huff’s own eight (“lucky”) years, to reach an annual income of $100K.

(iii)   Women tend to buy into “lack” thinking: Huff (and Sandberg and Spar similarly) observe that women can be harsh and cruel when evaluating their female peers. (Madeleine Albright, former US Secretary of State has said that “there’s a special place in Hell for women who don’t help other women out.” In Canada, Former Governor General Michaelle Jean has spoken similarly.) Women sometimes judge each other by how much time we spend with family; on who brings the “good” (i.e. homemade) cookies or who makes their kids’ Hallowe’en costumes from scratch; and on how much money we spend on ourselves (seen as negative, when the money “should” go to our children and family). Huff remembers reading books and articles on how to live “on the cheap,” (wearing 10 year old clothes and shoes, going without manicures or frequent haircuts, etc.)—all out of the belief that she couldn’t afford (read: deserve) anything new.

The solution is that earning more money, both Huff and Brzezinksi write, starts with each individual woman. Huff says that there’s always an excuse for low earnings: the economy isn’t good, one’s clients are cheap, it’s a “man’s world,” or one’s industry simply won’t support high rates.

So what’s the upshot? What can be done to address the problem? Brzezinski says that women need to find their own assertive tone (and not try to mimic her male peers’ argumentative one) to negotiate the fees they deserve, and not to back down. Additionally, Huff recommends three things:

(i)   As women, we need to determine our worth, which should have nothing to do with what other people charge, how cheaply you can live (“noble poverty”), or how much your spouse makes.  Charging what you’re worth pertains to your skills, your experience and the value you provide to clients. Huff tells women: look hard at the work you do to see how you improve your clients’ bottom lines or businesses. Look at what makes you unique or different—e.g. education, experience, skills, expertise, and traits like sensitivity and intuition.

(ii)   Women need to charge what we’re worth: once we’ve determined our worth and how our work helps companies’ bottom lines and performance, we must charge what we’re worth. Yes, we’ll lose some clients, but we’ll also gain better clients who value what we do.

(iii)   Women need to regularly raise our rates: Huff points out that attending conferences and workshops, learning on-the-job, and taking on new projects that stretch us are all factors that help us to grow, and for which we should regularly raise our fees. The clients we get will in turn issue us the contracts that help us to grow and change even more. We’ll give more and better of ourselves, so that our clients’ businesses will grow and improve: it’s a synergy, a win-win situation. [–December 20, 2013]


4.  Arlene Dickinson: All In: You, Your Business, Your Life (2013):

She is a venture capitalist on CBC television’s celebrated programs “Dragons’ Den” and “The Big Decision.” And she’s the owner and CEO of Venture Communications (one of Canada’s largest independent agencies with offices in Calgary and Toronto): Arlene Dickinson knows a thing or two about entrepreneurship! She makes some critical argument that also affect women entrepreneurs, in her discussion of failure in business, in her new study, All In: You, Your Business, Your Life (Toronto: Harper Collins, 2013).

Dickinson first argues that for entrepreneurs like her, work often veers toward workaholism, which undermines the division between “work/life balance.” She says that “work is life” for many business people (57), that the two areas are not distinct. That means, as a result, muddling through “the mess” of daily living, sometimes dedicating your life to business; later putting that business “on hold” to nurture a marriage, etc. She says that “Balance is the enemy of excellence” for herself, and for others like her: “There’s no such thing as a part-time entrepreneur, in my opinion,” she writes. “You’re all in, or you might as well go home” (83 my emphasis). Although she does not specifically refer to the role of gender in these comments, she repeatedly cites her own experience as an apparently “insubordinate” administrative assistant (earlier in her career) and her experience and intuition as a mother as factors that drove her into business. She gives credence to women’s experience in business by her simultaneous devotion to her family and her intention to share her life with a partner, after experiencing two divorces.

She recognizes that differences separate one entrepreneur from another, saying that “We all have to do what we have to do to survive and put food on the table.”  Our survival strategies will vary. But she also warns that the perfectionism that we’ve already discussed (in Sandberg, Spar and Huff) can undermine all early entrepreneurs’ efforts to build their businesses: “. . . it’s also true that there is no ideal time to leave the safety net, and that it’s willingness to take the safety net-free leap that is the sign of a true entrepreneur.”

Even if you disagree with her “work is life” philosophy, Dickinson advocates reasonableness, in other ways, as being necessary for entrepreneurship – and in particular for women. She says that “the idea of being good enough” is healthier than being “perfect or excellent or irreproachable” (64). She says that the struggle to “be a good enough mother and a good enough entrepreneur at the same time” isn’t easy for women who are both, but is an essential one to fight (84).

Being “all in” (in the title of her book) does not mean that women have to be perfect, then, but instead that you accept and learn from your whatever your failures are. And her writing on failure is some of the best in the book. These are some highlights:

1.) One reason that failure can fall so hard on entrepreneurs, Dickinson says, is that the worst “nay-saying” comes from yourself, not from your critics: when you criticize yourself negatively for whatever failure you make, the pain and agony that arise are far more detrimental than the original failure itself. That self-abuse is especially common to women achievers.

Self-criticism surrounding failure can inhibit our progress in business. Negative internalized fear is called “resistance” (as Seth Godin has written, in Linchpin).  Dickinson shares Godin’s argument that you must act against resistance, however uncomfortable that may feel, if you want to succeed as an entrepreneur. You may need to act before it feels comfortable to do so. But you also paradoxically have to be comfortable enough with failure, itself, in order to learn from it and to work beyond it (217). These are challenges that women face more than men do.

2.) Mistakes are the form that failure takes: Dickinson writes that “It’s not the mistakes themselves that hone your entrepreneurial skill – rather, it’s what you learn from your mistakes and the degree to which you’re willing to grow from them” (215).

Mistakes make people better entrepreneurs, and improvement “is honed with losses . . . not honed with profits” (217). One of the book’s best lines is this: “Profits spur you to do more of the same thing; losses and mismatches push you to do things better” (217). She cites an early entrepreneur, Thomas Edison, who said “the fastest way to succeed is to double your failure rate” (215).

3.) As an entrepreneur, Dickinson says that you need to look at your failures tolerantly and unemotionally:

“[You] don’t just need faith in yourself and your creation to develop the kind of invisible shield that protects you from taking rejection personally or taking your own mistakes to heart. You also have to develop an almost forensic ability to view your missteps and outright failures objectively” (218).

Dickinson points here to a critical concept here for everyone (and not only for female entrepreneurs)–dealing with loss and negative emotions. She argues for the need first to deflect rejection or loss and then to bracket off or suspend your emotions, in which I part company from her, finding that unhealthy and ultimately impossible to do. I’d argue that emotions (including loss from failures) must be acknowledged, felt and worked through (in our own time and space), before we can learn and grow from them. Experiencing loss and pain, when we know the source and reason, can become the opportunity for insight, self-understanding and for respect toward, and cooperation with, others (who may be the source of the criticism). Here I posit is an alternate way in which the work/life dichotomy collapses. Life can be “messy,” and there may be tears or venting in the boardroom and not only in our own offices.

Recognizing that criticism or loss hurts because it resonates with whatever previously-existing issues we may have (and we all have some “buttons” that get pushed). But awareness of those issues can free you to experience subsequent losses and simultaneously to learn from them.  For instance, an entrepreneur, “Jane Smith” can recognize that the memo that she wrote to her employees was, from their perspective, long-winded and rambling, when Jane recognizes that those employees still like her and usually respond well to her efforts to communicate. When Jane recognizes that they are not her abusive Uncle Bob, and works through the distress that reminds her of him, she finds an opportunity to grow: she can learn ways (that Dickinson says are “objective”) to write more concise memos that her employees better appreciate. Jane Smith also learns implicitly that others’ criticism is not necessarily abusive.

This process of working through failures, mistakes and losses is of course not only relevant to women, but also to men. Dickinson argues that emotions need to be “remove[d] . . . from the equation” if one is “to recover and move on quickly” (218). But there I differ, since any removal of emotions or finding an “objective” way to view failure is not possible, without first working through our own emotions, domain often assumed to be women’s, when it in fact pertains to both sexes. But Dickinson and I are eyeing the same goal on the horizon—to end perfectionism, but also to be able to grow from one’s failures and mistakes.

Dickinson deserves credit, though, for bringing more attention to emotions in business and especially to the detrimental effect of shame on entrepreneurship, which many business people, especially women, register only unconsciously:

4.) She writes that failure shouldn’t be a “cause for shame” (217), while also recognizing that our culture attaches shame to our failures. Dickinson defines shame effectively as a “feeling of innate wrongness and isolation. And when you’re experiencing shame, you’re actually telling yourself that there’s something deeply wrong with you – not only with specific actions you’ve taken or words you’ve said, but with you – as a person” (213). Shame is, therefore, the most soul-depleting affect there is, so that growing through mistakes should never involve feeling ashamed for having made them.

Dickinson writes that shame destroys the “self-esteem, entrepreneurial spirit and creative drive you’ll need to bring your business to reality. The work of building a business is hard enough – you can’t bring it your all if you’re playing hurt” (213). And she also insightfully says that if you’re in an environment (be it business, artistic, academic) where “by virtue of the fact that you just don’t fit in, you’re labelled a failure, you’ve got to take immediate steps to protect yourself, because entrepreneurship is a marathon that you’ll need all your mental energy to run” (213). Try doubling that for women who bring in less than 70% of what men at comparable levels of achievement receive.

So Dickinson’s All In: You, Your Business, Your Life, bravely discusses the role of failure in entrepreneurship. She makes her points for women and men, both. Failure may arise from negative self-commentary; mistakes, an inability to work through the emotions stirred up by work and by failure; and by shame. Failures can be as minor as not having as many clients as we’d like or need, to the much more dramatic failure, say, of declaring bankruptcy, as some entrepreneurs do. Failure is rarely final, she writes. “ ‘No’ usually means ‘not yet’ or ‘not quite like this’ ” (221), and can be the basis of extraordinary professional and personal insight and development.

For me, my business must allow for balance, if I’m to be a creatively nourished and productive person. Work is not life to me, but I recognize that the boundary between the two sometimes blurs, during intensive periods.  All In (echoing Sandberg’s title Lean In, but taken from Brene Brown’s writing on shame) can refer to an attitude of creative and emotionally aware engagement with our work. That perspective does not necessarily mean workaholism –on the contrary, it helps to fight against it — and we can in fact try to “work” intensively enough, when you work, to free up our lives (in the work/life balance), the rest of the time. [–March 6, 2014]


Having analyzed inequality in gender roles that reinforces the “glass ceiling” that persists for women entrepreneurs, I’m here concluding my special report on women in business. In what ways do you find the insights of Sandberg, Spar, Huff and Dickinson helpful to you, as a female or male entrepreneur? How can these business women’s insights bring about growth and strength for you and for the field? Please send me your thoughts; I’d be delighted to hear from you.


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