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ROSENTHAL: Women still struggle for opportunities to lead

June 1, 2013
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RosenthalIn the early 1970s, when I was studying at Barnard College in New York City, I worked as a bartender.

One evening, while tending bar at the launch party for a new magazine, I stood chatting with a group of women when another woman joined us.

“I don’t think we’ve met,” she said. I introduced myself, then added, “I’m only the bartender.” To which Gloria Steinem, there to launch Ms. magazine, responded, “But you are also a person.”

I thought of that story when I read “Lean In,” the best-seller by Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg. When I met Steinem, women fought for basic opportunities. Today, they fight for opportunities to lead. Still, much of the fight is essentially the same.

My first reaction to “Lean In” was, “How dare you lay guilt on top of what women already carry.” Then, I realized Sandberg’s messages aren’t different from lessons I learned during my career.

For example, Sandberg says women must be ambitious. For me, this came naturally. My mother never got to go to college or have a career but she instilled in me the importance of having my own life. It never occurred to me that I might get married and never work again.

Then I had children and discovered another “calling.” By working part time when my children were young, I stayed connected to my industry and built my resume.

Sandberg also tells women to accept help. I agree. Anyone—female or male—who wants to succeed should have help.

My husband has always been a partner in the effort to make our home life as successful as our careers. Once he even came with me on a business trip to care for a nursing baby while I was in meetings. When the kids were small, we scrimped so we could pay someone to clean the house and help get meals on the table so when we got home, we could focus on the children.

No job is more important than raising children, but a mother’s work may also be essential to bearing the heavy cost of higher education, as it was in my case. If for that reason alone, mothers today cannot separate their role as nurturer at home from their role as provider in the workplace.

Certainly, the changes since the 1970s show progress—for women and men. Back then, only women worried about how to balance career and family. Today, men do, too. Think about it: In the 1970s, would we have heard a man decline to run for president because of the impact the race would have on his family? Not likely, but that’s exactly what Mitch Daniels did.

The problem is, despite our strides, stories like Mitch’s and, yes, mine are still rare.

In fact, as Sandberg points out, “In the United States, women have had 14 percent of the top corporate jobs and 17 percent of the board seats for 10 years.” In other words, we got to that level 10 years ago and stagnated—but not because women aren’t “leaning in.” They’re earning more graduate and undergraduate degrees, and they’re getting more lower-level jobs. Still, the top-level jobs are rare.

Why? Because, as much as women should “lean in,” our culture needs to meet them halfway. Only when women have equal opportunities, the flexibility they need in critical years, collaborative support and a fair shot at higher-paying jobs will they be able to fully share financial and family responsibilities at home.•

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Rosenthal is president and CEO of Conner Prairie Interactive History Park. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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  • wonderfully said
    Great perspective. I've found since reading Lean In that most women with careers and families have fascinating stories of how they've been able to do it. I'm beyond grateful to have a husband step out of the workforce for 3+ years to care for our children full time.

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