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Rewriting the Script for Success

Kerry Healey at Boston Chamber of Commerce

Photo Credit: Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce

On October 26, I had the opportunity to address an incredible group of women at the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. We had a robust discussion about women, work-life balance, multi-generational work environments, and the evolving definition of success in our careers and our lives. I hope that this conversation serves as a starting point for a new dialogue about how both men and women can create equal and balanced lives and rewrite the script of success. Below, I am sharing the full prepared remarks.

Prepared remarks for Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce Women’s Network Breakfast, October 26, 2016:

Today I am going to talk a bit about work-life balance and the evolving concept of success.

Over the past 60 years, women have fought for and achieved so much – equality, respect, opportunities, and recognition in the workplace and beyond.

In many ways, we have achieved our goals. And we now have one of the loftiest remaining goals well within our reach. But Millennials are moving the goalposts.

I want to explore the concept that when you get what you aimed for, you sometimes see that perhaps you ought to have been aiming for something even higher.

I believe women today have the opportunity not only to fill any position previously reserved for men, but to radically reshape society’s concept of success and to create a truly equal and balanced life for both men and women.

To explain how I got to this conclusion, I would like to take a step back and trace our steps in the context of my own family – thinking about how the notion of feminism and success has evolved from my mother’s generation, to my daughter’s.

My mom is in the audience today. Before I begin, I want to say a special thank you to her. Her sacrifices and wisdom have allowed me to be here today and she continues to inspire me daily.

I grew up in the south in the 1960’s and 1970’s, in a traditional home, where the social upheaval of the era greatly washed over us as spectators, with my parents more interested in economic survival than social revolution.

My father, a WWII veteran and Army reservist, was often unemployed and ultimately had cardiac arrest and was disabled when he was younger than I am today.

In the 1960’s, after a long period of my father’s unemployment, my mother went back to college to become a public school teacher to provide the family with some economic stability. It was socially unacceptable and put more stress on the marriage, but she couldn’t just stand by and watch us sink. My mother was a deeply intelligent woman and fierce survivor. She had endured the Great Depression in rural Florida on a citrus farm and was the first woman in our family to attend college, at the age of 16. She had trained as an anthropologist and archaeologist, but ultimately she felt she had three career options: nurse, teacher, or perhaps, a secretary. Flight attendants were glamorous single women, and Mom was married and approaching 40. She chose teaching. Now, at 90, she often reminds me that I (and her students) are her only work product and legacy – so I’d better take full advantage of the opportunities available to me that were denied to her.

For my mother and many members of her generation, success for women meant being recognized as an equal in the halls of male power: the corporate board room, the news desk, the court room, the military, the state house, congress and the white house – all places she had never seen herself represented, and where women still struggle for parity and respect today.

When women had little or no access to the arenas of conventional success, women defined their own success differently than their husbands, fathers and brothers.

Part of this had to do with our biology – the stubborn fact that the awesome responsibility for bearing the next generation physically rests on us. A point which was glaringly obvious to both men and women, and which caused men often to view our biology as a disability hindering our success outside the home.

Along with childbearing came the primary moral responsibility for child-rearing, and with it, a range of tasks, skills and worries traditionally spared to men.

There was dignity, honor and excellence to be found in performing these tasks, and for many, a deep fulfillment in creating and supporting a family within the home. This sense of valuing women’s contribution to society outside the halls of power lay uneasily beside the reality of exclusion and the frustration of unused talents and unrealized dreams.

For my mother and for virtually every woman of my generation, understanding that there were places which were “off-limits” to me and other women made me frustrated and offended. I wanted to contribute to the fullest extent of my abilities to improve the condition of my community, my country and the world.

Like so many of you here today, that meant going where women weren’t welcome. For me, for years, I had measured my own success by how well I was able to skip past the obstacles that prevented my mother’s generation from entering the forbidden halls of power. I kept score.

My bio is filled with counting! I was the second woman to lead the Republican Party in Massachusetts (actually, I leave that off my resume in this state); I was the third woman to be lieutenant governor; I am the first woman to lead Babson College, a formerly all-male business school.

Being a first, a second, or even a third, gave me the hope that I, along with other women on parallel paths, were collectively prying open a chink in the dam that held power and influence back from 50% of the population and that soon the flow of women into such positions would be robust and irreversible.

Women of my generation assumed that the progress toward gender parity in the halls of power – corporate, government, academic – was inevitable and inexorable.

The excitement around Hillary Clinton’s candidacy for president is perhaps the apotheosis of this theory of steady gender progress: that the hardest part is prying the door open for the first time, breaking the glass ceiling, and then creating a small, well-marked trail for others to follow in the future.

The greatest frustration for me and for many women of my generation is no longer that women have no access to the halls of traditional male power, but rather that the number of women willing and able to widen that path toward equal representation in board rooms, government and even academia seems capped at around 20% or lower – across almost every field of endeavor traditionally led by men. Women comprise less than 20% of the United States Congress. We hold less than 5% of CEO positions in the Fortune 500. Even in K-12 education, the bastion of female opportunity which attracted my mother 50 years ago, 87% of school system superintendents are still male.

I used the term “willing” earlier deliberately – no one still doubts that women are able to perform any leadership role where men have traditionally dominated. And while there are certainly structural constraints to women’s participation and success in the workforce – selection bias, access to child care, maternity and paternity leave policies, access to capital – no one can seriously advance an argument that women are not able to lead. In fact, studies are showing that corporate teams with women perform better and women legislators are more productive and collaborative. But still, the numbers are incontrovertible. Women are not leading in equal numbers in the boardroom, in politics, or in the academy.

Several years ago, Sheryl Sandberg created a national debate around women’s responsibilities for this gender gap with her controversial book, “Lean In.” ‎ I was invited to one of the first “Lean In” circles organized in Boston by some leading business women – perhaps people in this room – I was asked join them because they wondered if there were lessons I had learned from recruiting women to electoral politics which might apply to business as well.

It was a very distinguished group of women, including a partner at a leading law firm who had sacrificed enormously to become the first woman partner at her firm. She was furious that younger women associates seemed uninterested in making similar sacrifices to keep the narrow gate which she had built with all-nighters and tough skin, open.

The millennial associates at her firm talked about issues like work-life balance and wanted a flexible schedule on Fridays for yoga. ‎ Her anger was visceral and completely understandable. In her mind, she hadn’t sacrificed her personal life and endured unspeakable slights and harassment so that the next generation of women associates could work less and take yoga. The exchange stuck with me. After much reflection, I would say that is exactly the right outcome for the next generation of associates. And this conversation launched a personal journey for me to try to understand what gender equity might mean for my daughter’s generation and how we, the trailblazers, the firsts, seconds and thirds, can better align our efforts to advance women with a modern conception of non-gendered success.

Here’s the idea: women have always viewed success to encompass both traditionally male and traditionally female spheres of accomplishment. Thus, the end goal for feminism is not to occupy spaces once held by men, but rather to redefine success–everyone’s success–on our own terms, so that balanced lives are viewed as the archetype for true success.

Early feminists were consumed (and from a practical standpoint, all working women are consumed) with the challenge of “having it all”: career, family, community involvement, personal health and spiritual fulfillment. We talk of juggling, choosing, balancing. No one actually does it well and that leads most women to feel like a failure in one or more areas of their lives. In reality, women wanted access to “power” but had no interest in foregoing the fulfillment and accomplishments which had always been open to them. The phrase “having it all” made us sound greedy but in truth it was simply an early attempt to articulate that many women do not feel that simply moving into positions of power traditionally occupied by men is sufficient to lead a fulfilling and meaningful life.

And that is what the young female associate was trying to convey to her senior partner mentor: not that she was disrespectful of the older woman’s sacrifices, or unwilling to work as hard as her mentor, but rather that we, the older generation, should gage our success by the degree to which we have re-cast society’s ideal of success not to be exemplified by the standards passed down to us by generations of male leaders – who, incidentally, had the support of women at home – but on our own terms, in a new era of non-gendered norms of success.

In short, women may not want or respect the same emblems of success as men did in prior generations, or alternatively, women may want a broader range of things than men have traditionally wanted, even in the workplace.

We are in the process of re-aligning definitions of success to accommodate the broader demands which women not only bear, but embrace, not only in the workforce, but in life. The same is true in politics: research is now clearly showing that women are more productive, more collaborative, are perceived to be more honest and trusted, and work harder as elected officials than the average male officeholder. The notion that women are “only” interested in so-called “women’s issues” – education, healthcare, social issues – is falling away to reveal that, in truth, women are interested in everything – the economy, peace, public safety, the environment, and yes, education, healthcare, poverty, domestic violence and sexual assault.

This explains why women file more bills and can find more common ground with their colleagues across the aisle – they often have a broader range of policy interests than their male counterparts. Women simply have better odds of finding common ground because they cover more ground.

I’m not suggesting that we should accept or be unconcerned with the hardened gender gaps we see in corporate America or American elected government. I’m suggesting that the next generation of women will want to rewrite the script of success to incorporate broader metrics for family, wellness, fairness and social responsibility.

I was recently at an event where the founder of Fortunes Most Powerful Women rankings bemoaned what she saw as a dearth of young women striving to become Fortune 100 CEO’s. She was almost shouted off stage for trying to impose such a narrow and male-centric view of business success on the next generation of women entrepreneurs – many of whom are deeply ambitious but have no interest in rising up through the ranks of a large existing corporation.

They, I think wisely, see more opportunity in creating something entirely new and disruptive, companies with explicit corporate values, flexible benefits, flatter structures and more opportunities to acknowledge and fulfill a broader scope of life’s responsibilities than corporate America has yet to accommodate.

Large corporations and law firms will have to adapt to compete in this new environment. This, not technology, is the great disruption coming to traditional businesses in the US. Millennials–both women and men–will vote with their feet and relocate to ventures that more closely reflect their conceptions of success and social purpose. Ultimately, rewriting the rules of corporate success to embrace women’s broader scope of life will open the door for both men and women to enjoy more balanced and fulfilling lives and, hopefully, our children’s generation will – both men and women – aspire to “have it all.”

I’ll leave you with two examples of truly modern families‎ who I’ve encountered recently who give me hope that all the sacrifices of women of previous generations were well worth it:

One successful young lawyer from San Francisco, newly married, in her early thirties, recently made the choice to move, with her husband, an IT programmer, home‎ to a small town in MA to be closer to her family before they had children. He works remotely, she works in the community as a mediator, and their new baby can spend time with both her parents, her grandparents and great grandparents. Their family life is at once deeply traditional, but also entirely modern.

I also recently spoke with a top corporate executive who decided to leave work as an in-house executive and consult from home so that he could spend more time with his young adopted daughter and to support his wife taking a promotion to a more demanding job.

These families have found what, I think, most people of any generation would want: a true balance of career fulfillment, commitment to family and community and respect for the importance of each of these in all of our lives.

As the president of Babson College, I see young people, men and women from around the world, re-writing the script of success every day. We have a lot to learn from them.

Women of my generation ought to be proud that our hard work and sacrifices have paved the way for our daughters’ generation to create their own definitions of success. Women now have the power to live their lives fully, on their own terms, and that’s just what we had hoped for.