WHAT'S NEXT: THE EVOLUTION OF WOMEN
from our series on CALIFORNIA’S NEXT TWO DECADES
What's Next for California? IS AN ORIGINAL SERIES on California's future, featuring exclusive interviews with visionary thinkers in the arts, science, technology, and academia conducted for Leadership California by Global Business Network (GBN).
Nancy is a writer, futurist, entrepreneur and coauthor of two books, The Futures of Women: Scenario for the 21st Century, and Nuclear Weapons Decision Making. She consults with Fortune 500 companies and organizations on the future, and on diversity, women’s issues and leadership development. A popular speaker, she has addressed a wide range of organizations from the National Academy of Engineering to The World Bank. Nancy is also the president of Morning Star Imports, a small company that imports tribal and ethnic jewelry. Previously, Nancy spent her professional life in public policy and politics in Washington, D.C. where she lobbied and directed a number of private organizations focused on foreign and military policy and served as legislative director to Senator John Kerry.
TO PREPARE FOR LEADERSHIP CALIFORNIA'S recent scenario-thinking session, GBN interviewed four provocateurs who stretch our thinking and challenge conventional wisdom.
THEIR VIEWS HELP US understand the scope, pace, and dynamics of possible long-term changes in areas critical for Leadership California: business and education, women’s roles and opportunities, demographics and philanthropy, and more.
WHAT FOLLOWS ARE OPINIONS, not designed to give us answers, but to elicit questions that force all of us think more deeply about what the future might hold.
READ THE THREE LEADERSHIP CALIFORNIA SCENARIOS HERE
The Evolution of Women’s Issues and Status
GBN: Nancy, you have been actively involved in women’s leadership issues for decades, as a senior political staffer in Washington, D.C., a futurist, an author, and an entrepreneur. Looking back 25 years, what has surprised you the most in terms of the evolution of women’s roles and opportunities?
Ramsey: What surprises me most is that younger women take for granted the daily freedoms and opportunities they have, without understanding that unless they consciously and continuously support those freedoms, they’ll go away. Who would have imagined a debate about contraception in 2012?
I was not an activist in the feminist movement; I was doing nuclear weapons decision-making at the time. Although I wasn’t out in the trenches, I’m really glad other people were. When you look back at the accomplishments of that movement and how much changed in society as a result, it boggles my mind that there’s a lack of awareness that these are not gifts given, but goals fought for.
GBN: How does that link to the current status of women in business?
Ramsey: I think that speaks very much to women in business and women in leadership, because these days you don’t say the “women” word, especially in corporations. Instead, you find a camouflaged way to talk about women’s issues. Women see that they’re still getting less money and being passed over for promotions. But they go to HR and try to soft-pedal it, because they’re afraid that raising gender issues is going to be a problem for them, a black mark in their evaluations.
It’s a real problem if you’re not able to keep gender on the table, like you do diversity. Diversity, by the way, has become a race or ethnic-group issue. The gender issue is sublimated. The latest code word is work/life balance. But I’d venture to say I’ve never talked to an HR person who has said that work/life balance is a major concern for men in the company.
They’ll occasionally ask to take off early to go to a soccer game or to coach, but work/life balance remains a female issue, most often without any real leaders. And so it’s a void in companies and a void in public policy. And as a void it’s like a black hole; things are going to fall into it and be gone forever.
It’s women who put gender issues on the table—and still have to keep them there. Let me tell you a story about Lindy Boggs. Her husband, the House Democrat Majority Leader, disappeared in an airplane crash on a fundraising trip in Alaska. Back in New Orleans, Lindy ran for his seat in that district and won in a landside. She had three small children at the time. She decided to move the family to Washington D.C. and go home to Louisiana on weekends like her husband had done, so the kids would have greater stability. But when she went to buy a house in Washington, she couldn’t get credit. She didn’t even have a credit card. Now, she had lived in Louisiana all her life. Every banker knew her. She was a member of Congress and the wife of a late-congressman. But no bank would give her a mortgage. So she put herself on the Banking Committee, and wrote the legislation that extended the Equal Credit Opportunity Act to women.
“The women’s leadership ladder that existed in communities and brought women to elective office has weakened, if not disappeared.”
Same story with Patsy Mink. She was an outstanding college student at the very top of her class. She applied to more than 20 medical schools and was told, “We don’t take women.” So she became a lawyer and, like Sandra Day O’Connor, was only able to get a job clerking. She was elected to Congress in 1965 and wrote Title IX, the landmark legislation that prohibited gender discrimination by federally funded institutions. Now, that tells me that electing women to public office brings something to Congress and to lawmaking that men just don’t bring. They can be feminists, but they don’t have the life experience of women, including these daily pass-overs. The same is true in business.
No one gives women anything. They fight for it, and they consciously support it. As soon as you don’t support it, either in the legal process or in the public policy domain or in the boardroom, it disappears.
Women in the Public Sphere
GBN: Are you surprised that there are not more women in public office?
Ramsey: Yes and no. When Pamela McCorduck and I wrote The Futures of Women in 1996, we projected that by 2015 we wouldn’t be even close to 50/50. All of my friends in Washington said, “How dare you!” especially since it came out in the Year of the Woman. Well, the numbers today are—what?—16 percent in the House and 17 percent in the Senate? And as some of them retire, younger women are not running for their seats. It’s become too ugly and too expensive.
In addition to that, the women’s leadership ladder that existed in communities and brought women to elective office has weakened, if not disappeared. Organizations like the League of Women Voters are not as strong in communities as they were. School boards—often a first step—are no longer dominated by women. Why? The answer is that women went to work.
People are very concerned about public education now. One of my theories is that’s a result of women having—and pursuing—so many more choices. Once you had the smartest women in America teaching school and often committing to it for life; that’s not the workforce that’s teaching school now. That’s not to say that teachers aren’t bright, just that teaching is not a career choice for women in the same way.
You don’t have the same involvement of women in education on a day-to-day basis: as teachers, as active parents and PTA presidents, as leaders in the community. And education has suffered as a result.
The Glide Path to Equality
GBN: In The Futures of Women, published in 1995, you posited that society’s conventional wisdom or “official future” was that women would continue to be invisible. And then you said, “But of course that official future isn’t going to happen, because women have an official future of their own.”
Ramsey: Right. “The Glide Path to Equality:” a steady ascent, partly enabled by technology, which would create greater flexibility and opportunity. I think the glide path to equality is now the official future of both women and men, largely because there are so many women in the workforce. But the study that Pamela McCorduck and I did on why there are there so few women in leadership in the IT industry raises questions about that.
What we found was that there isn’t a glide path. There certainly isn’t a conscious effort to move women up in leadership. Companies recruit madly to get the best women engineers into their companies and then they don’t support them. These engineers get put into teams, which inevitably include some men who do everything possible to stall their progress. It feels like this can’t still be happening in 2012. These attitudes shouldn’t exist in young men, but they do.
And so these women have three choices as brilliant, talented engineers. They can suck it up and stay in there, and if they’re lucky, get a mentor. That mentor is critically important; he (rarely a she) provides support, walks them through the system, and sees that their careers move. Or the women just say, “Forget it; I don’t need this. I’m going to go to start my own business, or do something else in the private sector.” The third choice is moving over to management where they may reach high levels, but not high levels in engineering. Even then there is a glass ceiling in IT. A number of the women that we interviewed said it’s a two-way street. There is a culture at the top that is so viciously competitive, bordering on constant rudeness, that’s left over from the early days of the culture, that they don’t want to stay in it and ultimately leave.
Yet, if you’re willing to put up with it, you can succeed. You can be Carly Fiorina. But you maybe pay a huge price, where the company is your life, where you have to be tougher than everyone. And in that case, generally speaking, you aren’t married, or you have a partner who is full-time support for the family.
Signs of Progress for Women
GBN: Are there any bright spots in terms of women’s leadership?
Ramsey: We do see growing numbers of women in leadership in companies and in their own companies, of course. We see increasing numbers of women in leadership, everywhere. Colleges are one of the best examples. Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Pennsylvania, Duke, and the smaller liberal arts colleges like Brown and Swarthmore and Wellesley are among the many institutions that have or recently had women presidents.
Separate but Equal
That’s real visibility. But when you take a look at the numbers of women with tenure or heading departments, the numbers are disappointing, despite the fact that increasing numbers of women are getting Ph.D.s and master’s degrees. In biology, there are more women getting Ph.D.s than men. In other words, it’s still a battle for women.
GBN: You also explored two alternative scenarios in your book: “The Golden Age of Equality” and “Separate but Equal and Fine, Thanks.” Have you seen aspects of those play out?
Ramsey: I think “Separate but Equal and Fine, Thanks” is doing quite well today in America. It goes back to the fact that women are not talking about gender issues anymore; it’s like, okay, I give up; we’re not going to talk about women. At the same time, more women than men are graduating from law school and almost equal numbers are entering medical school.
Imagine this: A woman who owns her own business gets up in the morning. She drives her daughter to the best school she can possibly arrange. On her way to work, she stops at a woman-owned cleaner and then has a quick meeting with a woman-owned realty firm about the possibility of buying a new house. At work she calls her bookkeeper, a woman-owned small business, and at the end of the day she meets with the company’s lawyer, a woman, to go over some contracts. Plausible? These are the choices women are making which are allowing women-owned businesses to grow.
Women are also seeking out women-owned businesses and places where they can work that understand that they may have to cancel an appointment because they’ve got to take care of an elderly parent or a sick child. It’s not going to be, “Well, she never shows up;” it’s going to be an understanding that that’s life, it happens.
“If you ever believed there were two different kinds of leadership—top-down being male and inclusive being female—you could say that women’s leadership has won. Just look at how corporations are now talking about leadership training and the importance of teams.
I’m not sure that ever was completely true, though.”
What’s different now is that there are trained women available in every profession. Women know they’re just as good as the men. They know the women around them. They know they’re smart. So, women don’t have any doubts. When I was working in the Senate, I had a wood carving on my desk that said, “A woman has to be twice as good as a man to be considered equal. Fortunately, that’s not too difficult.” Well, it was called sexist, which it probably was. But, there’s an understanding, an informal understanding among women, about the capability of other women.
What’s Locked In for Women?
GBN: So, what do you think is totally locked in for the next 20 years with respect to women and women’s roles, status, and opportunities?
Ramsey: What I’m absolutely sure of is that women know that education is the way up and out. If you have that credential, and ideally more credentials than anyone else or the men around you, you have to be taken seriously. So, the numbers of women pursuing college and post-graduate degrees is not happenstance; it’s a conscious move that’s not going away.
Women today also understand that they will probably have to make their own way financially. The Pew Charitable Trust recently released its figures on the top life priorities for men and women between the ages of 18 and 25 and 65 percent of women said being successful in their career.
I think that’s tied to the realization that who can’t count on a husband to support you and your family forever. If you have a husband, he may go away or his job may go away. And so you have to be educated and be able to move through a diverse economy. That’s a given, as is the fact that the workplace is going to change. I think women understand that. They don’t know exactly how it will change, but they do know that if they don’t want to be locked into a set-wage job in which they can’t advance they have to have an education. And the economics of the world are going to change enough that they need to have flexibility.
GBN: So what is uncertain? If you met an oracle and you could ask her any three questions and get an answer, with perfect clarity, about what the future will be like in 2030, what would you want to know?
Ramsey: My questions would be big ones. First, I would want to know, is the nation state going to survive? It’s only as old as Bismarck! We’ve been increasingly leaking into tribalism—from within countries to gated communities— and growing into internationalism at the same time. Many of the nation states, especially in the Middle East and Africa, have borders that were drawn at the end of World Wars I and II. Increasingly, those are permeable borders, with movement of commerce, people, and ideas.
The second question is whether we will have a major military confrontation that throws the world into chaos, as it did in World War I and World War II. With scenarios you look for early indicators, and I worry about the conflicts between the Philippines and Japan and around international waterways, including routes in and out of China. And who would have thought that we’d have pirates in 2012?
The third one, which most everyone would ask, is are we going to have a major international economic collapse? It’s not possible to think about your family’s future without thinking about what’s going on in the world.
There’s so much instability, so much tension and dependence on economics, and so much military preparedness and abundant arms all over the world. Things are so complex—as you know, in complexity theory, one thing happens, and the whole ball of wax, the whole card game can come down. And when it comes down, it can happen quickly, and it can happen with equal complexity.
The Future of Women’s Leadership
GBN: With such big uncertainties and challenges ahead, what are the implications for women’s leadership?
Ramsey: One of the interesting things for women in leadership is that women have learned to live in two worlds: the women’s world and the men’s world. Men aren’t as flexible. A woman can walk into a room of all men and know what to do because she’s done it all of her life. A man walks into a room of all women, and you know, he kind of hesitates at the doorway.
“When you think about the future—which will be complex and uncertain—women leaders need to look up from their desks, from their to-do lists.”
And so that raises the question: Are there differences between the way men and women lead? If you ever believed there were two different kinds of leadership—top-down being male and inclusive being female—you could say that women’s leadership has won. Just look at how corporations are now talking about leadership training and the importance of teams.
I’m not sure that ever was completely true, though. A few years ago I did a very interesting project for a company that manufactured products. They had a very inclusive diversity policy and, as a result, a huge number of women were at top levels in all of their departments. Although all of the current department heads were male, many were close to retirement and, across the company, the people coming up were women.
The question they asked me to look at was: Do women and men design differently? Because all their top designers had been men, would they make the same products in the future under women? I interviewed 20 people, from museum designers to software designers, and was struck by the fact that everyone said, “Oh, no, we design the same.” That was the report I wrote.
But something bothered me. I went back and re-read all of the interviews. Then I wrote the company a letter, saying, “I missed something. Women and men don’t design differently, but they work differently. And that will change your design department.” The male designers talked to the client, drew the answer, and gave it to the client and said, “Here’s the answer.” And if the client said, “I don’t really like this,” they’d say, “Then, get another designer.”
Women would work with the client all the time, from the very beginning: “Are you sure you like this? Have you thought about this? Let’s get together and go over this one more time.” They didn’t fall back on “But I’m the designer.” It wasn’t so much that leadership would change but that the work would change. It’s interesting that I missed it the first time.
When you think about the future—which will be complex and uncertain—women leaders need to look up from their desks, from their to-do lists. They need to look around and be more inclusive about the questions. We all try to narrow down what we need to know, so that we can answer it or act on it. But leaders also need to need to look more broadly and to engage diverse perspectives. That’s what will show you the early indicators of change so you can be proactive or, at least, better prepared to respond.
GBN: Is there anything you could imagine happening that would set back the progress of women?
That’s really hard when you’re thinking about meeting payroll, designing the next product, hiring to fill a slot, picking up the kids, dropping off the dry cleaning, and taking care of your elderly father. But it’s a critical ingredient of leadership.
Ramsey: I think there’s one possibility. Science and the age of reason have been the foundation of the development of Western culture. You hypothesize, experiment, prove—or try again—and repeat and refine. And that has also enabled us to think about how societies are ordered.
If that were to come undone, if we had a breakdown in the acceptance of reason as a way to structure society, we’d be in trouble. And I see early indicators of that all the time: people who take the Bible or the Quran, written centuries ago, at face value; the debates about evolution; the existence, much less the causes, of climate change.
Unfortunately, it is also possible that we could have a cataclysmic event: a major war or abrupt climate change, as predicted by Dr. William Calvin at University of Washington 15 years ago. Those would be huge setbacks not just for women but also for the civilization.
The Rise of Women Entrepreneurs
GBN: You have consulted extensively with women entrepreneurs and you have also run your own small business for many years. Do you think women are going to be increasingly likely to move in this direction for economic, personal, and creative reasons versus going to major companies?
Ramsey: I rarely meet a woman entrepreneur who didn’t think about how to scale up, how to grow the business. Sure, some of us want to keep the enterprise small, often because we are doing several other things as well or are retired and mostly looking for something interesting to do. But what I see now is more women wanting, and having the courage, to build businesses that scale.
On the other hand, one of the great gifts of being in a large company or organization is that you have so many different minds and experiences available to you. Not everyone can go to business school, but you can learn a lot about business by joining a company and observing, learning, and ideally, finding a mentor. Countless numbers of women in small business have come out of big businesses. For many people education is the way up and out. Similarly, working for a major organization is a way up and out. And the credibility of working for a major company or organization can be very important on your resume.
The Power of Networks
GBN: What is the biggest positive change you have seen in women’s status and leadership in the last two decades?
Ramsey: The networking of women across national borders is an extraordinary difference. I’ll give you an example. The first UN Conference on Women took place in Mexico City in 1975 and was a disaster. Western women had basically determined what the final outcome would be. At the very last meeting, a bunch of Cuban women dressed in military uniforms with guns, jumped up on the stage and said, “This is an imperialist document,” and the place came undone.
Well, women had no way of communicating with each other then. But by the time the second conference occurred in Copenhagen in 1980, we had fax machines, which enabled us to prepare in advance and involve more people. But this time the meeting was alternately disrupted by the Palestinian and Israeli delegations, both of which wanted to silence the other contingent. By the next meeting, in Nairobi in 1985, we had the early versions of email. Documents had been sent around and revised in advance and the meeting actually went fairly well.
The final conference was in Beijing in 1995. The Chinese really wanted to get an Olympic berth and figured that hosting this women’s conference would be a good move—and pretty easy. What they didn’t notice was that no other country in the hemisphere had volunteered: “Whoa, Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem; feminists from around the world; the Palestinians and the Israelis; the militant Cubans? No way!”
“The brainpower of women and their growing dominance in education are going to force companies to understand what women need.”
So China volunteered. Everything was great until they got all the visa applications. They realized that it wasn’t just about the “U.N. Meeting;” there were thousands of women from NGOs who also wanted to come. Women who would want to talk about birth control and freedom and human rights! So they started denying visas.
But by then, everything was electronic, and everyone around the world organized, putting pressure on the Chinese government. They finally agreed on admitting 3,000 NGO women. And cleverly, they located the official congress in Beijing and put the rest of us from the NGOs about 35 miles away in tents on a former farm. It rained constantly and the site quickly became such a muddy swamp that they had to build wooden sidewalks. At the far reaches of the NGO camp, they also set up one tiny tent where you could email, making it almost impossible to communicate out.
All 3,000 of us were supposed to commute back and forth to the meeting on buses. But guess what? They didn’t run enough buses. So you would get to a workshop and the leader didn’t show up. So someone else would just stand up and run it. And there were police everywhere. It was almost a compliment.
Anyway, enough electronic mail got out that the women who were at the official congress decided they had to come out and visit the women who were at the unofficial congress. What had happened was that over those 20 years, women had built networks and learned how to use technology to work together. And so the agenda shifted. The African women who came to Beijing said, “We have to talk about the girl child.” And the whole issue about genital mutilation that had simmered for 20 years was suddenly on the international agenda. For the Chinese, the whole experience was a nightmare.
So networks of women and women’s leadership have now developed at every single level across the globe. It used to be that women met internationally only as Methodist churchwomen or through the African AME church. Now, they meet over absolutely everything, and it’s facilitated by technology. And women have used that to advance other women as well as themselves.
Toward Family-Friendly Policies
GBN: The recent piece by Anne-Marie Slaughter “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” in The Atlantic, has launched yet another debate on women- and family-friendly policies and expectations. Are we making any progress there?
I met a few years back with an architect who was designing a major research facility in Southern California. He said, “I’ve done all the interviews, and we have to have a daycare center.” And the president of the company said, “What are you talking about? We don’t need a daycare center.” And he said, “Would you please look at the people who are going to work here?” They were about 60 percent women—top Ph.D. graduates in biology. They had finished their doctorates and had just started or planned to start families. And they wanted daycare.
Ramsey: What we may see developing is that women’s talent is so good and so profoundly noticed, that in order to get women to come into your company, you’re going to have to have to have policies and benefits that are specifically attractive to them.
So in order to get those top women, they had to change the design of the research center to build a daycare center. That’s true for most big biotech companies. They want to attract those women and they want to keep those women. So they’re hoping to build loyalty to the company.
The Importance of Mentoring
In order to get the best and the brightest, you’re going to have to make changes and understand that it isn’t just women who have to fit into a man’s world. The brainpower of women and their growing dominance in education are going to force companies to understand what women need.
GBN: Any advice for Leadership California as it thinks about the programs and services it might develop to create the leaders of the future?
Ramsey: The advice I just gave my granddaughters who are graduating from college was, find a mentor. When you get your first job, look for a mentor. Don’t be afraid to ask. And keep asking. I don’t care where you are as a leader—there’s always someone who knows more than you know. And there’s always someone who is willing to help you. It may not be a woman; it may be a man. In many places it has to be, because there are only men in your orbit.
How do we as leaders help other women learn to reach out for leadership advice and training? It often starts with a mentor who will help with what you need to know, not just intellectually but in terms of the processes and politics you need to navigate to advance.
There are some great models, like MentorNet, which does mentoring for tech women. They actually do a lot of their mentoring on e-mail.
My other recommendation would be to look around at other programs that train women leaders—for public service, for corporate advancement, etc. Rutgers has a non-partisan program for women candidates. Yale has a program for women leaders. There’s lot’s out there to learn.