“It occurred to me when I was thirteen and wearing white gloves and Mary Janes and going to dancing school, that no one should have to dance backwards all their lives.” – Jill Ruckelshaus
BY KRISTY JANSEN
In honor of International Women’s Day, March 8, 2020, I’ve been thinking about some of the latest trends in equality and in the status of women. Remarkably, even though many are astounded that there still is not a viable leading female candidate for the upcoming presidential election, I find that there is optimism and a bright future ahead. Yes, there are many hurdles to be overcome, but I am heartened and here is why.
On a recent Monday, the landmark guilty verdict in the Harvey Weinstein case made international headlines. Summers and I were at an off-campus planning session for The Optimist Daily that morning, and when I mentioned my personal reaction to the news, each of us ended up sharing stories we had never talked about before. Our own #MeToo encounters came spilling out in a cleansing moment of revelation. What was particularly interesting about our conversation was not that we both had #MeToo moments, but also that I shared the story of a male friend of mine who also had his own equally traumatic experience. Summers and I discussed how we had both felt that the people in a power position had made us feel unable to control the outcomes of our destiny and the resulting shame and pain that followed. When I added in my friend’s experience, we both paused at the revelation, we are all in this together. Men and women both face circumstances of power, manipulation, and live with a fear of vulnerability. While women largely have been the victims of sexism, there is a partner in this dance to healing, and it’s definitely men.
Being caught in a compromising or sexually threatening situation is an appalling common experience for many women. It happens in the workplace, and it happens in social situations, and it’s just one of the many signs of the ongoing sexism in American culture. The Weinstein verdict stood out because it is one of the first times in recent history that a powerful man was taken down by the testimony of women. For many, this was a watershed moment that signals a shift in how seriously our society listens to a woman’s voice.
I agree, but also reserve some judgment, as the shift away from idealizing “woman” as passive helpmeet or objectified trophy vs. “man” as proactive master of his own universe is woefully incomplete. We are still in the midst of a culture that subordinates the feminine and prioritizes the masculine, to the detriment of both genders.
It’s no surprise if one thinks about it. My own mother was raised in a world that demanded she play a secondary role, and despite her own intelligence, her father laid out her professional choices as nurse, teacher or secretary. Being a wife was never in question. She chose nurse, and married a man she helped become an MD. Then the women’s movement happened, and gender roles started to shift. But real change takes time.
Girls born since 1965, have been told that we can “be anything we want to be” – scientist, doctor, professor, soldier, lawyer – and often how smart and capable we are, but often receive mixed messages, especially if we were raised by women brought up in a different era. We’ve been told what to do, but not shown how to do it. The behavior being modeled by our mothers, and our fathers, aunts, uncles, our friends and teachers, and the ubiquitous television and song lyrics we grew up with, told a different story.
Role models are one of the most significant sources of inspiration noted by many of our world’s most impactful leaders. There is a dramatic gap in role models for the new model of balanced partnership between men and women, working together and leading an era of collaboration, respect, and opportunity.
Perhaps this has started to shift, as I do see more and more examples of respect and friendship across the genders, and more and more individuals are calling into question the entire value stream embodied in gender. But the tensions in the wider culture around this transformation of what it means to be female or male, and the recent acknowledgment of transgender as a valid human experience underscore how difficult it is for us to change our thinking about what formed our inner selves.
Here are just a few of the messages I received growing up, mostly subtle, but sometimes not: It’s important to be pretty. It’s important to be gentle. Calm, thoughtful, friendly, quiet, small, easy-going, you get more bees with honey than vinegar, don’t be pushy. Don’t be bossy. Don’t be loud. Don’t be crass. Don’t swear – it’s not ladylike. Don’t walk too sexy. Don’t wear THAT outfit – you might give boys the wrong idea. Don’t be a prude, no one likes a buzz-kill. Don’t act like you’re too special. Don’t act like you’re too smart. Don’t ask too many questions. Don’t question my knowledge – I’m the expert. Just smile and look pretty. Take good notes. Be helpful. You can help the family run smoothly.
Boys get it too – though in different ways and different messages. Don’t look weak. Don’t act too excited. Don’t cry. Be brave. Be strong. Be invulnerable. Invincible. Impenetrable. Imperceptible. You are a rock. You are a rock star. You have the smooth visage of a statue. Hold it in, don’t be a pussy. Don’t be a girl. Don’t ask for help – figure it out. I’m sure there are more, but since I did not grow up male, I have no idea!
In this last century world, which though declining is still vibrant in the minds of many people still living today, girls are meant to be helpers, nurturers, and good to look at, not self-directed or full of agency and purpose. Boys, on the other hand, are meant to be the drivers, providers, the ones doing the looking, not vulnerable or too dependent on others. This leaves women grasping for a sense of personal power, but at ease connecting with others, and men who feel fine asking for what they want, but also emotionally isolated, seeking connection through sex as the only socially sanctioned mode of deep relating.
The challenge is to transcend the fixed gender imperatives and find a different way of relating. For both genders, reconnecting to one’s agency and making friends with one’s vulnerability are essential for human thriving.
Empowerment – The Missing Piece
In the last four decades, women everywhere have continued to prove themselves in academia, business and politics creating more opportunities for themselves with their success. More women are getting bachelor’s degrees than men, which has been the norm each year since 1982. Many colleges and universities around the country now have more women enrolled than men, leading to more females in STEM and business-related professions. And as we are getting a better education, women are getting more opportunities professionally, especially in the business world. Since 1972, the number of women-led businesses has increased by 3000% and they are growing at a faster rate than businesses led by men. In 2016, female-led businesses grew at 2.8% on average, double the growth rate of male-led businesses.
But despite rising participation rates overall, women still lag in leadership roles in business and government – there’s a missing piece that’s harder to see – an internal sense of agency. The sense that “I can and I will.”
Gail Straub, co-founder and executive director of the Empowerment Institute, and a leader in women’s empowerment worldwide explains that this sense of agency or self-efficacy is often the missing piece to achievement. The IMAGINE program that she developed to help women heal from violence, build strong lives and contribute to their community in substantial ways has proven the power of specific re-training in how her trainees think about themselves in the world, by using her empowerment methodology, enabling traditional investments in outer resources such as education or microfinance to be more effective. The training increases the participants’ self-knowledge so they can discover what’s important to them and translate this knowledge into a compelling vision, identify and transform the limiting beliefs that inevitably arise when creating something new, and adopt an actionable growth strategy to attain their goals.
But learning empowerment skills can be a powerful change in the lives for anyone. In a study conducted with Female Energy Entrepreneurs in Kenya, empowerment training led to more than doubling or sales – for both men and women – than a comparable entrepreneur skills training. In addition, participants who received the empowerment intervention were significantly more likely to remain committed to their growing business over time, and nearly three times as likely to be higher sellers. In this study, women outsold men by a margin of nearly 3 to 1. The training, which for some participants is the first time they envision themselves as masters of their own future, and that they realize they have a choice to make in relation to how they relate to the world.
The Game-Changing Value of Difference
In her 1994 memoir Living a Political Life, about being a trailblazing politician who happened to be a woman, Madeline Kunin, Vermont’s first and so far only female Governor wrote, “Women need to be able to see ourselves as individuals capable of creating change. That is what political and economic power is all about: having a voice, being able to shape the future. Women’s absence from decision making positions has deprived the country of a necessary perspective.” This observation is only just beginning to be proven in politics, where women are still not fully represented, partly because the ideal politician in our inner minds still has white skin and male parts. But as more and more women run for high office, this assumption is also changing.
Perhaps the best place to observe how much difference having women in the room can change the outcome, is in science, where women researchers have brought unique ideas and new ways of seeing that are making us all smarter.
Jill Tartar, a groundbreaking astronomer and former director of the Search for Intelligent Life (SETI) Institute, was the only woman taking classes when she graduated from Cornell University in 1965. Her career is a testament to the power of bringing different perspectives into the room, asking different questions and thereby find previously unimaginable results.
In describing how far her field has come since she was first starting her quixotic search for evidence of intelligent life in the stars, Tartar points to both the recent discoveries of exoplanets, planets beyond our own solar system, and the even more unexpected discovery of extremophiles, creatures who live in environments that used to be thought completely sterile, like the bacteria thriving in the radioactive waters of a nuclear cooling reactor or the anaerobic tubeworms living in the heat of an undersea volcano.
“We need to stop projecting what we think onto what we don’t yet know. So. we were totally wrong.” she says in a recent interview with Krista Tippett, “And now, extremophiles and exoplanets suggest there’s just a huge amount of potentially habitable environments out there.” She goes on to comment that currently, the best of the best of the researchers in the new field of astrobiology happen to be women, perhaps due to the outside the box thinking that comes from having a unique perspective.
Celebrating Strength and Connection
As women have joined the upper echelons of diverse academic fields, the difference of perspective has broadened the understanding of whats going on again and again. Like several of her fellow primatologists in the 1960s and 1970s, one of my graduate school mentors Shirley Strum revolutionized the understanding of baboon society, and the related inferences this held for humanity. Before she began her observational research into the savannah baboons of Kenya in the 1970s, male aggression and hierarchical dominance as the prime organizational strategy in baboon society was taken as a given.
Like Hobbs’s assumption of that man’s life in nature is “nasty, brutish and short”, earlier observations of baboon society prioritized the violence and competition in how this nonhuman primate society was organized. When Strum arrived to study these baboons, however, what stood out to her were the complex relationships and constantly shifting alliances between various baboon individuals. Baboon society it turns out is organized around friendship just as foundationally as it is around alpha males. This insight, supported by decades of careful observational science, helped call into question long-held assumptions about the way humans evolved. We are not designed primarily for violence and domination. We are built to socialize.
Sociologist Nicholas Christakis, best known in popular culture for his research on the role of social contagion obesity, is on a quest to reshuffle how we understand what makes humans work. “For too long,” Christakis writes, “the scientific community has been overly focused on the dark side of our biological heritage: our capacity for tribalism, violence, selfishness, and cruelty. The bright side has been denied the attention it deserves.” His latest book, Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society prioritizes innate human characteristics of love, friendship, cooperation, teaching and individuality as just as essential to how humans evolved and how we organize ourselves as competition. He explains that we don’t just need to look at recent historical and cultural forces to get an account of a good life, for if anything these are a thin veneer atop eons of evolutionary pressures that have built humans for positive social cooperation. Nor, he argues, should we become too caught up in the negative characteristics of our natures – which are clearly present, and disturbing, but need not be determinate.
He points out that in traditional media, and in the dominant academic narratives, we tend to take the negative traits more seriously and downplay our natural positive sociability. Much like past interpretations of nonhuman primates focused on the competition, violence, and ruptures in human societies over time, modern narratives have tended to overlook that most human interaction is positive. The very fact that we take this for granted belies the foundational nature of love, friendship, cooperation, charitability, and education in forming human society. He argues that the benefits of a connected life must have outweighed the costs for humans to have evolved as a social species. The social characteristics in human nature are far more essential to the makeup of humanity that we typically appreciate.
In reflecting on the variety of ways his paper on the social contagion of obesity was covered by the media, he pointed out that in the United States, the headlines were about how our friends might make us fat, while in the United Kingdom and Europe, the headline tended to ask, “Are you making your friends fat?” Clearly, different media ecospheres have different takeaways and the shift in where we place our agency matters. The main point he stresses is that by making a personal shift – whether by changing our diet and exercise habits or by being intentionally kinder and more gregarious – we each have a significant influence on our social networks. This is often missed when we are caught up in our own egocentric perspective, focused primarily on how the world is acting upon us, and forgetting that we too have the ability to act upon the world.
The Dance of Change
I recently met an inspiring young woman, Sandy Blair, an airforce veteran and founder of Operation WEBS (which stands for Women Empowered Build Strong), a nonprofit dedicated to helping women veterans make a successful transition to civilian life, largely by providing safe affordable housing to those experiencing homelessness. She is creating a community of tiny houses on wheels on a ranch in Santa Maria, CA, that also grows organic foods and gives residents a new start. Operation WEBS also provides immediate housing placement for veteran women, while the long-term community is being built. The mission is to help women veterans rebuild their lives through empowerment, camaraderie, and community support away from the distractions of day to day life. Blair is a dynamic person, full of drive and energy, and came to this latest mission through her own struggles. I’m writing about her because she embodies the transcendence of personal limitation into personal empowerment. Blair is sharing her wisdom with the women who she works with at Operation WEBS. One experience she shared illustrates the cathartic power of letting go of old beliefs
One woman came out to the ranch, and she had never used any power tools before, but the first thing I gave her was a chainsaw, a 26-inch chainsaw. I taught her how to start it, and took her to this rotted tree that was 60’ tall, and showed her how to cut into that tree. She downed the tree, and when it came down, you could literally see her just shatter, just like that tree. And her layers of impossibility just broke off her and she wept, literally fell to the ground on her knees and wept. All I could do was hold her… Of course, take the chainsaw from her first… but then I held her for like two minutes until she released all that pain. She really had a very empowering experience that brought her back to the ranch again and again to do it on her own. Knowing that she could down that tree, made her feel that she could do anything.
Blair went on to muse on her theory that the vibration of the chainsaw was perhaps the key to unlocking this woman’s embodied pain and helping her unhook from unconscious fears of not being able, and her previously unspoken feeling of powerlessness. I’ve had similar experiences through my practice of yoga and martial arts, where a movement or a pose that I had KNOWN I could not do is suddenly and surprisingly accomplished, and with that handstand or board break, an emotional blockage also dissolves and I begin to sob. There is something about movement, whether novel or deeply vibrational, that can help us transcend ourselves, our fears, our self-doubt, our limitations and dance into a different world. Newly trusting that we have no idea what we are capable of.
Leonard Cohen’s lyrics popped into my head as I wrote the final draft of this piece, apropos to end with another dancing metaphor, calling in the universal hunger for safe harbor in love, he croons…
Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic till I’m gathered safely in
Touch me with your naked hand or touch me with your glove
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love
Perhaps its time for a rebalanced dance, forward and together, for a renewed celebration of just how human we are.
Kristy Jansen is Chief Content Officer at the Optimist Daily, produces a weekly radio show, Solutions News and serves as Chief of Staff at TOD’s publishing partner, the World Business Academy. Her passions include conscious mass media, socially responsible entrepreneurialism, intentional communities, regenerative economies, smart science fiction and, of course, the positive power of rational optimism.