Judy Hooker: Wanting more for women

Published: Sunday, March 31, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, March 27, 2013 at 11:36 p.m.

I am a feminist who participated in the women's movement in the 1960s and ‘70s. The movement was intended to help women win their rightful place in the workplace, but there was more.

It was about equality between the sexes — and choice, choice to work or be a stay-at-home mom, and choice of whether to end an unplanned pregnancy. Women and men made changes within their marriages and relationships then, but that seems to have become a non-issue.

The movement changed over time until now it is mostly about the workplace. The present issue is why the climb to the top of the corporate ladder has stalled for women and why female college grads are not moving upward as expected.

I believe women are hijacking their roles in life for love at too young an age. Young men and women both need those teens and even twenties to discover who they are before making lifelong commitments.

If you haven't heard of Sheryl Sandberg, you just aren't listening. She was featured in Time magazine recently for having written a book called "Lean In." "Lean In" is a metaphor for being more assertive in the workplace in order to move ahead. In some instances she also means it in a more literal context.

Sheryl is a confident Facebook executive who chose her husband using her lean-in philosophy. I applaud Sheryl for her courage in trying to bring women further along. To say Sheryl couldn't lead women because she is too wealthy is absurd. Women aren't always supportive of women who succeed.

While reading about Sheryl, I thought of my own daughter, who is a lean-in, self-assured feminist. She finished college before marrying, a promise to me. She is paid well in middle management (human resources) but wouldn't hesitate to move upward.

I asked her why women aren't moving up. She answered by explaining her criteria for hiring. "Many people have unrealistic expectations from their college degrees. They must have skills for the job they are applying for."

Then she explained about how the conflict increases with advancement and how one must be skilled at forging relationships outside their team. I asked her if she ever encountered upper-level male bosses who would systematically turn good women hires away. Her answer surprised me when she said, "Never."

Instead they worry about paying them enough to keep them. She did say that during a recession some women may be overqualified for jobs just as some men are.

Upper management may be an unrealistic goal for many women. The division of time being shared between home, work and family greatly differs among women. I question if even very smart women who have had gaps in their career are going to be courageous enough to stand toe-to-toe and lean in with their male bosses if they are, say, newly divorced and trying to support a family.

The risk in that situation is great. Perhaps if women did continue pushing upward, it would change over time. That might mean lifestyle changes like delaying marriage and family.

I started life with different expectations from Sheryl, so it is refreshing to hear a forceful young woman's point of view. Growing up, I only saw a few examples of women working outside the home as secretaries or cashiers. Women were expected to marry and obey. Without any wealth of their own, most complied.

Part of our job in the women's movement was to stir women to wake up to better possibilities. We took our own risk when we tried birth control that was new to the market. Later, we discovered it was six times stronger than the pill today and could cause cancer. Our expectation was that future women would use birth control pills to plan their lives. It surprises me that women and girls still have so many unintended pregnancies. That would seem the opposite of taking charge of one's life.

I am no expert, but I did raise a successful daughter and three sons. That experience taught me that the cradle more than the boardroom would be the place to start upward mobility for either sex. Shouldn't improved daycare again be central to any discussion on work and family issues in 2013?

From day one, girls need ideals that put them as the main player in their own lives. It is well known that girls with supportive fathers who don't engage in gender bias raise girls that are more successful. Girls need the freedom to dream big, make mistakes and start again just as boys are allowed to do. (Same rules.) They need a lot of love so they aren't needy, wanting a family too young.

If they have a loving, interested family and manage to make it through college age years without marriage or a child, I think they are on track for a better life in whatever field they choose because they are thinking and deciding for themselves.

It is uplifting to learn that couples are marrying later, but this trend isn't well understood. I hope it means the next generation of women are looking at the abuse and divorce rates and choosing education and career, delaying marriage and family. I hope they are wanting more from life. If that is true we are not so far behind the curve and not as stalled as it first seemed.

Cheryl and others have at least put the discussion on the table.

Judy Hooker lives in Alachua.

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