When it comes to leadership, Gloria Feldt (@GloriaFeldt) has done it all. She’s a best-selling author with five books to her name. She is co-founder of Take The Lead, an organization devoted to women’s leadership parity in all sectors by 2025. She was CEO and director of Planned Parenthood Federation of America during some of the reproductive rights movement’s most embattled years. She also raised three kids as a hard-working mom. All of which she accomplished after growing up in the deeply conservative culture of small-town West Texas.
For years, Feldt has focused on women’s leadership—and as we flip the calendar to 2022, her resolve is stronger than ever. I decided to find out more about her insights into women and power.
Carolyn Elerding: You’ve been a rigorous student and theorist of leadership for decades, learning through experience and building upon existing ideas and practices. What do women most need to understand about leadership in 2022?
Gloria Feldt: I learned much of what I know about leadership on the job with few role models! Ms. was a big help to me in those times as I struggled to find my voice and purpose.
We are in the midst of an unfinished revolution to be sure. The Equal Rights Amendment has not yet been enshrined in the Constitution. Reproductive rights are under siege. And the pandemic has set women’s economic advancement back by a decade, dealing especially harshly with women of color who held the preponderance of jobs most vulnerable to disruption.
Everyone has experienced grief and losses during the past two years. Exhaustion is setting in as Omicron sweeps through and so many Americans remain resistant to vaccinations—the very thing that could get us back to a semblance of normal the fastest.
And yet when it comes to the question of what women need to understand about leadership in 2022, the picture becomes much brighter.
Disruption is also rebirth. The best chance we’ll ever have to make systemic changes in how our institutions operate. They must become more open to flexible work and family leave if they want to recruit and retain female workers during this “Great resignation” time, for example.
It’s also our opportunity to redefine power in a way that enables women to know our power and embrace it with authenticity, confidence and joy. We shift from the idea of power as oppressive power over to generative power to—to innovate, create, make life better. And that in turn frees us to elevate our intentions (“intentioning,” as I call it, to signal an active verb) for leadership. It requires us to ask, “The power to do what? What is my purpose?”
I don’t use the word “empower” when I talk about women. In the research on which I based my books and Take The Lead’s leadership programs, I found to my surprise that we already have substantial power, but we often don’t realize it and as a result don’t use it. We’ve been rightly focused on opening doors and changing laws, and helping women break through those glass ceilings.
Now, thanks to feminist activism, we’ve done those things. And it turns out that companies with more women in leadership are more profitable. Women are earning 57 percent of college degrees so we are prepared for the knowledge economy. We have the power of the purse, making decisions for the family’s purchases 80 percent of the time. We have the power of timing as organizations can’t afford to lose female talent. And we have the power of justice—equality is the right thing to do.
But we must also understand that power unused is power useless. That’s where intention comes into play.
Elerding: You just mentioned a word you’ve coined: “intentioning.” In your newest book, Intentioning: Sex, Power, Pandemics, and How Women Will Take the Lead for (Everyone’s) Good, you show how the ways women are socialized to think about power often prevent us from accessing our greatest strengths. In light of this, what is intentioning, and why is it so important?
Feldt: Gender is a social construct. Neither women nor men are inherently better leaders. But we become socialized to have certain characteristics that are defined as gendered.
For example, girls are more often spoken to in terms of how they look and behave toward others. Boys get more encouragement to be physically strong and are expected to be noisy and messy. There are pink aisles and blue aisles in stores signifying what toys are appropriate for boys versus girls. I remember how I yearned for Lincoln Logs but was never given any because they were coded “boys.” Thank goodness now there are Goldieblox building toys especially designed to engage girls in the joys of building things!
But you get the idea. We become what our culture tells us we are.
Now here’s the amazing consequence of that socialization. Women can take advantage of it to accelerate their leadership journeys. It is so significant and so rarely recognized that I created the “Lead Like a Woman” framework and one of the “9 Leadership Intentioning Tools” to operationalize it. Tool #8 is: “Unpack Implicit Bias and Turn Its Effects on Its Head—you can make its effects your superpowers.”
Haven’t we seen that countries with female leaders have managed the pandemic more effectively? And why is it that companies with more women in their leadership are more profitable, more philanthropic, and more flexible? Because we’ve had to be more empathetic and better able to read the room as a survival mechanism. Because we were socialized to be more risk averse which helps avert rash, ego-driven decisions.
That’s why in Intentioning, I tell stories of women who have used specific tools and techniques to attain their fair share of leadership positions across all sectors of society. Women must be at the vanguard of reimagining and reconstructing a vibrant and sustainable future for us all. Leading like a woman using the Leadership Intentioning Tools can make people of all genders better leaders.
The system I’ve laid out in Intentioning provides specific steps for building this kind of leadership, such as how to work with and be long-term change, how to build your best leadership habits and filter out derailers or ‘power demons,’ how to turn your obstacles into assets, and use your ambition as fuel to achieve your intentions.
Why is it that companies with more women in their leadership are more profitable, more philanthropic, and more flexible? Because we’ve had to be more empathetic and better able to read the room as a survival mechanism.
Elerding: In your book you also argue that there were really two pandemics in 2020 that irreversibly altered our daily lives: COVID-19 and racial injustice. You assert that, despite devastating losses and hardship, the current moment offers unprecedented opportunities for change.
What does this mean for women’s leadership?
Feldt: Racism, sexism, homophobia, antisemitism, transphobia and all such culturally defined ways to stratify human beings are fundamentally joined at the head. They are sourced from fear. The dominant groups in a society create these divisions and use them to retain their power. They fear losing power because they don’t understand that the power is an infinite resource. They operate from a scarcity framework.
For the same reason, we must not let ourselves be divided. Gender justice will only succeed if it is intersectional and inclusive of all genders. And racial justice will only succeed if builds the largest possible movement by being inclusive of gender and other marginalized groups.
Instead of wringing our hands about the (very real, I acknowledge) patriarchal white supremacy that spews its toxic “power over” to divide us in order to control us, let’s put our full energy into building the real majority coalition that is diverse and represents the future.
White feminists (all genders) must use their unearned power to help build power and leadership across racial and cultural groups that have less privilege. Often that means passing the mic or giving up the stage regardless of how much time we’ve put into the work. It can be as simple as refusing to join all-white panels or as significant as sponsoring women of color into the C-Suite. It can and should include listening and having candid conversations that may be uncomfortable for some but are necessary to racial healing.
The important message I want to impart is that we can do this. In my experience as an activist, one of the hardest things is to shift our focus from battling negative power reactively to embracing our positive power to implement change proactively and set our own agenda in a disciplined way. To be thermostats setting the temperature instead of thermometers that simply measure it. To know when we have won and accept the responsibility of taking it the next step forward: onward to full justice and equality.
And isn’t that the embodiment of feminism?