At the Corner of Hope and Power

As I walk past this intersection in Providence, I often think about the coming juncture in women’s empowerment. Are we ready?

Providence, the New England town where I am now living, was founded by religious dissenters exiled by the very people America celebrates at Thanksgiving, the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The settlement’s name was chosen to acknowledge God’s providence in leading the banished group to a safe haven.

The Puritan “pilgrims” are often held up as icons of the American quest for religious freedom. In truth, they themselves were utterly intolerant of others, often violently so. The real credit for America’s principle of religious tolerance goes to those who, like the group that founded Providence and the Catholic immigrants who followed later, were brave enough to stand up to the powerful Puritan resistance to diversity.

Today, I wait in Providence to help with the arrival of my daughter’s newborn. I have rented a tiny apartment, with floors so old you can tell the boards were cut by hand. The streets around me have names like “Benefit” and “Friendship,” and the 18th century frame homes in the neighborhood have placards commemorating those who built them. I have noticed this stuff all the more because I don’t have a car, so I do all my errands on foot. My path frequently takes me through an intersection whose street signs always cause me to pause and reflect: the corner of Hope and Power.

These are two words we don’t normally pair. “Power” is a word that implies aggression and self-seeking, thus sits at cross-purposes with “hope,” a word more likely associated with rapprochement and selflessness. In recent weeks, however, I have been in circumstances where the need to assert power in order to realize hope has posed a puzzle for action. Rather than presenting as a crossroads for choice—one fork going toward ladylike, peaceable solutions versus another leading to a confrontational place full of harpies—“hope” and “power” have risen in the road as a place where difficult truths collide.

For instance, this contradiction was salient throughout a conference I attended in Istanbul this month. The “Power of Three” meeting was convened by a team of brilliant women at EY. The intention was to bring together women in corporations, government, and entrepreneurship (hence, “the power of three,” or Women3 as the branding folks have it), to explore the barriers to women’s advancement and generate a list of action steps to be taken as a group. It is a brave idea, and actually rather radical, coming from a global accounting firm: the very fact that a company of this stature leads the effort to help women find their power points to hope.

I have been working with the leaders of this team—Julie Teigland, Rebecca Hill, and Michelle Settecase—for the past six months or so, as they developed their concept and prepared research materials for the event. I can tell you that these women are smart and sincere and they are under no illusions about the challenge before us. I have been impressed.

The EY team put together a good library of materials about the global economy’s skills needs, as well as the gap being created when companies don’t help women rise in a way that reflects their abilities. (The regions covered by this project are marked by a surplus of skilled females but also resistance among employers to develop women into leaders. The skills gap this produces poses a real threat to the future of these nations’ economies, so it is in everyone’s best interest to break through the gridlock.)

Russia, Italy, and Turkey were the three places where EY did their research. Notice that in Italy and Russia, females are enrolled in university in substantially higher numbers than men (the black bar across the graph indicates equality with males). Yet, they are much less likely to be employed, which points to a waste of social resources. And they are even less likely to be in leadership positions in either business or government, a tragic loss of potential. Turkey shows the same pattern, except that the women are less likely to be educated and the drop off is more severe. I put the US in here just to make the point that paid maternity leave (which Americans alone on this graph do not have) is not the magic answer. I also plotted the 2006 data, the oldest the WEF has, and did not bother to show it because, in ten years, nothing much has changed in any of these countries.

The library of reports was distilled into a “pre-read” that mapped the problem for those coming to a series of initial gatherings held last spring in various European and Middle Eastern capitals. These first meetings provided a venue for women from the different sectors to come together and identify the barriers to women’s advancement that all had in common. Then, the EY team distilled those discussions into a survey instrument, which in turn was sent out to a large sample of men and women in the region.

The survey results were presented to the re-convening in Istanbul on November 12 and 13. That’s the meeting I attended. There were several interesting findings, but the most robust and striking was this: across all segments and both genders, two-thirds of those responding said that the main barrier to women’s advancement was not a lack of skill, but the attitudes of organizations and local cultures in which they worked.

This finding is important for a couple of reasons. First, it echoes the findings from three other recent, large-scale studies done in Europe. Studies by McKinsey, the European Institute for Gender Equality, and Opportunity Now all found that the problem is not that women lack the desire, confidence, or skill to rise in the ranks, as is often claimed, but that the on-the-ground resistance posed by traditional attitudes is acting like an armed roadblock. These studies specified a number of manifestations of resistance, from bullying to unnecessarily long hours to the lingering belief that women simply belong at home. The fact that all these studies are converging on the same conclusion does not undercut their value—on the contrary, the repeated replication only underscores the importance and veracity of this compelling finding.

Secondly, the emergence of this new insight—that it is “in group” resistance, not a female deficit, that holds women back—explains why the solutions envisioned by earlier reforms have reached a dead end. Of most concern for this gathering was that equal access to education has not been the “natural” road to equality people hoped, but instead has created a talent bottleneck such as the world economy has never seen—because the resistance to accepting women in the workplace keeps the numbers of skilled females from flowing through. A host of other solutions, like leadership training for females, is also now under question, because so many take a “let’s fix the women” approach, while leaving the root issue unaddressed.

The Istanbul meeting opened with a speech by Laura Liswood, Secretary General of the Council of Women World Leaders, that was wryly argued, but cut straight to the point. Brooking no excuses from weaker souls, Liswood recounted multiple studies and statistics illustrating the problem of prejudice among the unconverted. A European leader who sat with me on the panel that followed said plainly that “it is time to get pissed off.” Indeed, there were plenty of people pointing to the hard truth that power is being withheld.

Istanbul seemed a fitting place for the EY meeting. It has long been the crossroads between Europe and the Middle East, of course. But it is also one place in the world, I think, where tradition and modernity are both fully present. Here I am in the beautiful palace where the EY conference kicked off.

Yet whenever we turned to discussion, on the floor or in workshops, the lesson was lost on many. Three refrains were offered instead, all of which pointedly looked past the evidence. First was the idea that we need to work with men, recruit them as our partners. Now, no one there would have said that men can’t be important allies. But it was clear in the moment that this repeated suggestion arose from severe anxiety about the threat of male resistance, not a burning desire to collaborate. The second was related: we should get men to act as advocates. Again, not a bad idea in itself, but the tenor and frequency pointed to fear of acting on one’s own. The third idea repeated often was to propose some kind of training for women—despite the very clear message in the speeches, the pre-read, and the survey that the problem is not an education deficit. Thus, some present were falling back into the habit of blaming themselves—it’s too scary to accuse those who hold them back.

What we were seeing, I think, was that many women are crippled by the thought of actually confronting those who block the path. We all know that women who speak out against their own subordination are usually subject to pretty serious backlash. And it is in the nature of “in group” resistance that there will be a closing of ranks, a demonization of the interloper, and, finally a push to exclude. None of these behaviors is amenable to rational appeal because they emerge from a gut-felt fear of displacement. Like the Puritans in the American wilderness, the “in group” becomes convinced of its own unassailable righteousness, so intense is its horror of those who challenge the established order. It’s painful to contemplate what it will feel like to bear that kind of vicious public exclusion, even after years of tolerating the quiet, insidious kind. And what lies beyond that moment in which all eyes disapprove? Where does one go when banished?

Real leadership is a frightening prospect, it turns out. It means confronting the power of others in the vaguely imagined hope of finding your own.

Here is my table in Providence, set for Thanksgiving dinner. It may not be Martha Stewart, but I thought it was looked suitably “autumn in New England.”

Not that Istanbul was a bust. On the contrary, it was quite a success. There were enough people in each workshop who wanted to push toward action that the EY team assembled a good list of next steps. When these are made public, it will probably seem like we had an easy time of it. But, on the scene, you could see how much anxiety drags on action.

Back home in Providence, that street sign now hits me with new impact. Reaching toward hope often means challenging the power of others. So, choosing to reach may push you forever into a position of isolation and abandonment—exile into the wilderness. Safe haven may or may not be provided. Crossing through that intersection where hope confronts power is something none of us can do lightly. Whether and how you move through it depends, I guess, on the strength of your hope and the intransigence of the power that crosses you. Our own historic test may be how well we stand up to the fear of being alone in the forest.

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