An activist all her life , Gloria Feldt is in a fight for leadership parity.
Not only did she head Planned Parenthood Federation of America as CEO for almost a decade, but she's also written a New York Times best-selling book on the subject of women’s empowerment. Recently, she founded nonprofit Take The Lead , with a mission of closing the gender gap and helping all women fulfill their leadership potential by 2025—all while overturning traditional definitions of power and leadership.
I had the chance to sit down with Gloria and hear her advice (for women and men!) on the biggest challenges we face in leadership today. Whether you’re looking to lead a team, advance in an organization, or change the world, you can’t afford to miss out on these insights.
How did Take the Lead get started?
I got really fascinated by women’s relationship with power. I have been an activist all my life, and I didn’t want to write another one of those books that tells women what’s wrong with us. We have enough of those.
Instead, I wanted to say: This is the situation, and here are some positive tips and tools you can use to be successful in the system as it is but also understand you can change it at the same time. That became No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power , which I thought, at the time, would be another book I wrote and I would move on to the next thing.
When I was making speeches about the book, people started asking me to do workshops. I started teaching a credit course called Women, Power, and Leadership, and, at one point, I was talking with a colleague about why women had been stalled at holding only 18% of the country’s top leadership positions. We decided it was time to do something bigger. If I just made speeches for the rest of my life, it would not move the dial. But we could ignite an entire movement to move the dial together.
We shopped around to see if we could get another organization to do it, but we couldn’t, so we just started a nonprofit organization ourselves. There are two unique features. One is that we’re addressing the issues of women's relationship with power in a very experiential way that gives women a new definition of power they’ll embrace; shifting the idea of power from “power over” to “power to do something good for the world.” The second is the movement-building skills—understanding how you change the system as well as yourself by working with others who share your concern.
Why are some industries and sectors so dominated by men? What do you think are the differences in motivations between men and women?
In 2008, I was asked by Elle to write an article on women running for office because it seemed that Hillary Clinton might have become our first female president. Everyone assumed this would be a moment of great change, opening the doors for women to become interested in politics and decide to run for office. But in reality, women were not running—they were about half as likely as men to even think about running for office. I began probing why, and the research suggested that women have less political ambition than men.
I believe there’s a more nuanced answer—I think it’s about intention, not ambition. If a woman sees an injustice or something that needs to be done for her child or her community, she will jump in and run for office. But a man will run for office simply for the power, because he wants to. You will rarely find a woman who does that.
The dynamic is the same in politics, business, public or civic service, and even personal relationships. It has a lot to do with
women’s relationship with power
and the concept of intentionality. Intentionality implies that you know you’re entitled and you own the world, and you’re going to set your stake in the ground and move it forward. And that’s really different from an ambition to achieve a particular goal.
We’ve talked a lot about empowering women and changing the conception of power. What sort of roles do men have in this movement?
That’s not only an excellent question, but I think that’s the next big conversation that has to be had. It does take two, and if we’re going to change a culture and transform leadership, we’re going to have to do this together. I don’t have the full answer to that question yet, but one observation is that the current generation of men wants many of the same things that younger women want. They are more likely to want to go to a flexible workplace with a more collaborative leadership culture. They are more likely to value the kinds of attributes that women bring to leadership, so I think younger men are already on board if they are invited to be, and that’s a good thing.
The second issue is that it is hard to change a culture while you live in it. And at the top, it’s not a very diverse group. There’s no evil intent on men’s part, but why should they step aside? Why should anybody? That’s why it’s up to women to be willing to keep moving through the doors, because you can’t expect anybody to step aside and invite you. But if we can encourage men at the top to not just mentor but sponsor women who have high capabilities, that could be a huge contribution. For example, Mary Barra, CEO of GM, was sponsored by her predecessor. She certainly has all the qualifications to make it on her own, but it helps a lot to have a powerful leader in your court.
How else do you think mentorship could be more effective? What is the best kind of mentorship?
It’s funny, I never had a formal mentor . But there were many people in my life who saw more in me than I saw in myself. They pushed me, they pulled me, they asked me to take on roles that I might have otherwise not taken on.
The first thing to realize is that you don’t necessarily have to have a mentor for a long time for it to be helpful. It might just be a short-term, “can you help me understand this situation so I can put myself in a better position in the organization?” kind of a conversation.
The second thing is that sponsorship is important. A mentor can support, advise, and help you think through issues, but a sponsor (who might be the same person if you’re lucky) is somebody who looks out for you and has your back. If he or she sees an opportunity to promote you, he or she will do that.
For instance, I have a colleague, and we both love each other’s work and mention it when we speak. We both get more speaking engagements as a result of mentioning each other. It’s not deliberate but just happens organically. That’s what guys have always done. One of the most frustrating things to me is if you look at an incompetent man and he gets fired, he’ll have another job within 10 minutes because his buddies will look out for him. They’ll find him another position. I’m not saying the same should be true for incompetent women, but women need to look out for each other and help each other out.
Who are your personal role models and why?
I’ve had several in the course of my life. I participated in a program that brought together leaders from a wide range of disciplines—from army generals, to corporate consultants, to nonprofit leaders, to scientists. I found it really helpful to learn from people who were leading across a wide range of disciplines and got many ideas this way. I learned so much from the man who started that program, Richard Farson, about the nature of leadership. He talked a lot about the paradoxes of leadership, and understanding things like the fact that people need boundaries and freedom. Everybody needs to have the freedom to do their jobs the best way, but also needs some specific guidelines and parameters.
Harlan Cleveland, who served under every president from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Jimmy Carter, also instilled in me ideas such as unwarranted optimism is warranted. In other words, all things are possible, and even when people think that something can’t be done, it can. Even though there are bad people out there, you can make good happen in the world.
I have to give due tribute to Margaret Sanger, founder of the American birth control movement, and her example of understanding the nature of power even when you have no power. Starting with having no money and with all the laws against you, you can still prevail over injustice. She started with no support and figured out how to make a transformational change in society for the better.
Do you have any parting words of wisdom?
I’d like to invite everyone to take a look at Take the Lead and our Close the Gap app . It helps you go through the thought process of what you want to achieve in the short term or long term and how to negotiate it, including equal pay, your next promotion, or your investment in a company you want to start. It’s very useful to get grounded in how you identify your goals and negotiate for what you want as you go along your path.
Mostly, I would say I feel very lucky that I took opportunities that were offered to me. So my advice is typically, “just say yes.” Be open to opportunities, and don’t play it safe. Keep your eyes open for them. And know that you have many choices—that you can always unchoose if it doesn’t work out, so don’t beat yourself up. There’s a long road ahead—I think I’m in my fifth career already so you’ve got a lot of opportunities ahead of you.
Photo of woman leader courtesy of Shutterstock .
TopicsInspiring Women , Syndication , Mentors , Q&A Interviews , Successful Entrepreneurs , Workforce180
Before joining The Muse, Sarah worked in social business innovation for Virgin Unite in London, strategy and innovation at Market Gravity, sustainability research in the Dominican Republic, and business development for a NYC startup. Wrapping up her time at Columbia University, she’s headed to McKinsey & Company after graduation. Say hi on Twitter @sarahlichang.More from this Author