The Ms. Q&A: Gloria Feldt Wants More Women Empowered and in Power

Gloria Feldt’s vision for the future is clear: more women in power, period.

It’s the mission defines Feldt’s career as the bestselling author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power, professor of “Women, Power and Leadership” at Arizona State University and cofounder and president of Take The Lead—an organization intent on preparing, developing, inspiring and otherwise propelling women to take their fair and equal share of leadership positions across all sectors by 2025.

Feldt been named one of “America’s Top 200 Women Leaders, Legends and Trailblazers” by Vanity Fair and was once Glamour’s “Woman of the Year,” but her own journey to power—and empowerment—had unexpected beginnings.

Feldt grew up in a small town in rural Texas; she was a teen mom and a high school dropout. But her own journey has made her certain that all women can claim their own seat at the table—once they surrender their learned resistance to embracing their own power.

That’s where Take The Lead’s 50 Women Can program comes in. The new initiative cultivates community among women leaders in difference sectors, bringing together cohorts of fearless and powerful women to help them forge pathways to parity together. 

Feldt talked to Ms. via email about the 50 Women Can program and the results she’s already seeing—and even handed down some advice for activists looking to leverage their voices to accelerate change.

Tell me about the 50 Women Can program you wrapped earlier this year for female journalists. What led you to launch the program, and what was it like in the rooms where it happened? Would love a glimpse into the experiences of these female journalists who participated.

Take The Lead’s 50 Women Can Change the World provides women with the intention and skills to achieve greater leadership roles and embrace their power to lead change in the culture of their professions. We’ve had programs or are planning programs for cohorts in journalism, finance, healthcare, nonprofit, media and entertainment and human resources. 

Take The Lead’s mission is to prepare, develop, inspire and propel women to take their fair and equal share of leadership positions across all sectors by 2025. That’s a tall order—and 70 to 150 years sooner than current projections. We developed the 50 Women Can Change the World program to fast-track cohorts of emerging leaders and women already in executive leadership roles to accelerate gender parity in leadership. 

Our 50 Women Can Change the World in Journalism program was an incredible experience. Many of these super-talented and ambitious women have felt isolated and seen opportunities in the field of traditional journalism contract. Women now make up almost two-thirds of journalism graduates, but they remain at one-third of newsroom leadership roles. 

The women benefited from virtual and in-person sessions, along with individualized coaching. The program’s curriculum, which I developed, focused on enabling them to elevate their career intentions, provided them with immediately usable tools and skills and required them to create individual and cohort Strategic Leadership Action Plans to activate what they learned.

Here are a few voices of women in the room.

Eva Pearlman, co-founder of Spaceship Media: “I just feel this incredible sense of gratitude for this program, for the structure of it, for the ways you’ve gotten us thinking, because there’s so much beauty and so much power and so much talent and so many ways to go about working on the problems in journalism…so I’m very thankful.”

Antonia Hylton, correspondent and producer at Vice News Tonight: “Now I have new words and dreams, and things that I’ve put on paper, I have an actual 10-step plan, of everything that’s in my grasp, resources I realized I already have at my disposal, and while I’ve been in this space of rethinking, what a blessing that has been, to know there are things I can do, people I can call now, many of them in this room, to take my career to its next phase.”

Claritza Jimenez, senior producer of Politico Live: “It’s been really reaffirming to see women still dreaming big, no matter what stage of their life they’re in and knowing they can always reinvent themselves and reinvent themselves and I think that’s so important.”

Jayati Vora, managing editor of The Investigative Fund: “It’s really rare to be able to step out and re-examine your life …to just take stock, to take that space for yourself is really rare, so thank you for making me do it.”

Tell me, too, about the 50 Women Can campaigns and programs you’re launching across sectors more broadly. What unites all of them? What makes them special and unique?

Many women’s leadership programs measure success by numbers reached. We’re different. We measure success by impact.

You can go to a big conference every day, get inspired, maybe learn one new thing. But that hasn’t been moving the dial toward parity for women fast enough for any of us to see it in our lifetimes. In fact, I think women spend way too much time and money going to puffy fluffy conferences that are like cotton candy—pretty but lacking in nutrition.

I realized that we can have a greater effect—go farther faster—by creating mutually supportive cohorts of women who are emerging leaders within an industry, providing high impact, immersive training and coaching. Each highly accomplished group practices the nine Leadership Power Tools—which hone leadership skills—and creates Strategic Leadership Action Plans with high intention goals. All that we provide and enable is unique and uniquely effective. And we don’t stop there. Once the program is complete, we measure progress in three- and six-month intervals. 

The power of the cohort is also inestimable. I see the women continuing to support, sponsor and elevate each other years after the program. Together, these highly intentional women can drive progress for all women in their sector. It’s really movement-building on a personal and organizational level to create sustainable change.

What’s really fun right now is that the various cohorts want to know the other cohorts. So, we’re experimenting with ways to enable them to communicate and share strategies to leverage the impact exponentially.

You’re a former Planned Parenthood CEO, advisor to the ERA coalition and a prolific writer and author on myriad feminist causes. Why did you kick off these 50 Women Can programs with media, entertainment and journalism focuses? How do you think media parity, and trainings and programs like this, connect to the larger fight for women’s equality and gender parity?

Everything I have ever done has sprung from my passion for social justice. And I am a very practical person. I don’t just want to talk about gender parity and social justice—I want to foster real results.

I realized that as important as reproductive rights are, if women don’t get equality in power, leadership positions and pay, we’ll keep fighting the same old battles over and over. I think achieving gender equality in leadership is today’s most important women’s movement.

The first 50 Women program was for emerging female leaders in nonprofits and we have done three of those cohorts now. We’ve also done one for women in healthcare and have two more on the drawing board. Those are two fields where women are 75 to 80 percent of the employees and 20 to 30 percent of the top leadership positions, especially of the larger organizations in their sector. In planning stages are finance, law and tech. We’re determined to change that.

Every sector is important. The curriculum applies to and can be customized to any sector. That said, the reason for focusing on media, entertainment and journalism is that whoever decides what stories will be told, who will tell them and through whose lens shapes the entire culture. Therefore, we believe that achieving gender parity in these fields will have outsized positive influence on how people think and act on the social and economic issues that are especially relevant to women.

What have some of the participants in 50 Women Can gone on to do? What do the reverberations of the program show us about the power of this kind of model?

Many of the women in the 50 Women Can Change the World program have been inspired to pursue promotions or raises, think more strategically about their careers and put their names out there, and have forged deep, lasting connections with other cohort members.

The power and impact of individual learning and the cohort are very clear. For example, one participant reported that she used the 50 Women Can planning process and coaching to create a pitch for a leadership position – an important first step in her career growth. Another shared an exciting new role at a major broadcast network. And yet another made sure her team got credit for the work they did for network news coverage of Hurricane Florence by speaking to HR management. 

There are many more stories like this. Overall, the women have shared how enthusiastic they are about all they took away from the program, how they’re already putting it into action and their victories.

The program has made a difference in women’s professional lives. For example, Valerie Brown Grant, who attended one of my first workshops, said: “A year ago at your workshop I set my personal action plan goal to become a vice president at my firm. I used the Use What You’ve Got Power Tool to differentiate myself and demonstrate my value to the company. Today, I was informed I am being promoted to vice president.” 

And Anne Parmley, SVP at Pearson and a Take The Lead executive leadership program graduate, said: “The Take The Lead programs provide a safe and supportive environment for women climbing in their careers to have thoughtful and productive conversations about where they are and where they are going in their leadership journeys. You walk away with a plan and intent to take yourself to the next level, professionally and personally.” 

These are such natural extensions of your work around women’s leadership—you’re the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power, and you teach “Women, Power and Leadership” at ASU. And it comes at a time when women’s voices seem as powerful as ever—in the midst of #MeToo and the powerful Women’s March movement.

What can the feminists reading this do right now to start stepping into their own power, and leveraging it to advance equality?

This is the moment we have been building to for centuries, you could say, but certainly for the last two centuries. I want everyone reading this to know you have the power in your hands right this minute to achieve gender parity in position and pay, in law and in daily life. For good: our own good, the good of the world and forever.

This is a rare strategic inflection moment when the justice case and the business case converge. But such moments pass quickly if we fail to take them “at the flood” as Shakespeare or perhaps his sister said. Power unused is power useless.

This is not a time to congratulate ourselves. It is the time to press forward with eyes on the overarching goal of full equality for all women. All humans, for that matter.

Go win elections. Give money or time to candidates you support or run yourself. Start companies that build wealth at the Apple level or run them. Raise feminist kids. Give to social justice causes. Invest in women-led businesses and buy from companies with female-friendly policies. Find the cure for cancer, solve climate change. Do one small thing every day to help another woman succeed. Use your power to lead men and women together to a healthier, more just world. Nobody has to do everything, but everybody can do something.

And know that when you go forth to change the world, some people won’t like you. There will be pushback, sometimes violent. Don’t let it deter you. Listen to your own clarion call. Ignore the naysayers. You are doing the most important work for the future of humanity. That to me is what feminism is all about.

About

Carmen Rios is the Managing Digital Editor at Ms. and has spent over a decade raising hell in feminist media. Her work has been published by outlets like the Atlantic's CityLab, BuzzFeed, ElixHER, Feministing, Girlboss, Mic, MEL and Everyday Feminism; and she also spent six years writing and editing for Autostraddle, was a founding blogger and activist with the SPARK Movement and was the inaugural managing editor of THE LINE Campaign blog. Carmen is additionally a co-founder of Webby-nominated Argot Magazine.