Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Her Turn: Why It's Time For Women To Lead In America

If ever the modern woman needed a call to action, she has found one in Vicki Donlan's Her Turn: Why It's Time for Women to Lead in America. Donlan, the founder of Women's Business, a trade journal based in Boston, has put together a manifesto for why women should be in more leadership positions, and steps to take to make women's leadership a reality.

Breaking down the gap in women's leadership, Donlan unabashedly puts childcare as the top obstacle to women's leadership advancement. Because women are still perceived as the default parent/caretaker, they must struggle against preconceived notions that they will put children/family ahead of their careers. She speaks to the double standard that says a man who leaves early on Friday for a child's sports event is a "devoted dad," while a woman who does the same is seen as "uncommitted to her work." What is refreshing about this book, is that Donlan outlines not just the benefits to women by changing this perception, but also why changing the system benefits men.

Her Turn examines the lack of women's leadership systematically in business, law, academia, health care, and public service. The clear cut writing draws information from surveys, interviews, personal experience, and national data statistics to back up its arguments. Donlan draws comparisons between traditional male-dominated promotion systems, and the progressive, woman-friendly systems instituted by forward-thinking firms such as Deloitte and Touche. She notes the success of women owned businesses, and cites some of the best places to work--for both men and women.

However, I am still pondering two of the author's arguments that I feel weren't quite justified adequately. The first is the woman quota system. My personal philosophy of merit-based rewards doesn't sit well with the idea of quotas for women. Donlan cites the success that countries, such as Norway, have had with quotas for women on corporate and government boards and committees. But the success she dwells on is simply critical mass of women's representation. I wanted information on the results from these quotas.

The second issue I have is with the results of women's advancement programs in corporations. Donlan seems to fall into the rut of praising women as naturally more ethical than men, and therefore, a critical mass in business will result in less Enron-style debacles. I can't quite get on board with the "women are naturally good and men are naturally corrupt" argument. Donlan makes a good case for better working environments in women-friendly businesses, but I failed to see the impact on the business community.

The last section, on women in politics, is particularly stirring. As I finished reading it, I found myself musing over the idea of running for office myself. I think this is an excellent piece of writing that should be distributed to girls in middle school, so that they will be inspired to enter the political system earlier, because, as the book notes, women who run for office, particularly at the local level, are quite often elected.

Her Turn is an excellent follow-up read to Sheila Wellington's 2001 Be Your Own Mentor (reviewed here). It takes many of the ideas begun in the Catalyst book and projects them into action plans for 2008. There is a lot of food for discussion, especially between men and women. Donlan wisely directs her book at both genders, and by writing it as a business pitch, she has succeeded in escaping the pink cloud of "books for women."

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