Unsettling the Dust

on February 6 | in Homepage, President's Essay | by

Jill HugnagelThis academic year, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, guest columnist Jill Hufnagel reminds us not only how far women have come, but also how much we still need to do to advance the conversations about women in the workplace and within the family and provide enhanced opportunities for the next generation.

—President Nancy Oliver Gray

On my way into work one morning, I heard a lyric from Dala’s “Good as Gold” that struck me as a provocative way of thinking about the challenges of making progress on the gender gap: “I won’t let the dust fall on my life.” I thought about where dust falls: on fixed surfaces, in the crevices we miss, over the places we never much get to. There’s something to the phrase dust settles that suggests complacency, the act of accepting less than we know we might deserve, aspire to, long for. And with that settling comes a set of blinders.

As I consider the data at the core of the gender gap—the not quite 77 cents to the male dollar American women earn; women’s paltry corporate foothold at a current total of 21 women CEOs in Fortune 500 companies; or the disparities in the male/female contribution to the unpaid work of the home front—I can’t help but wonder where we’ve let dust settle. I mean that “we” both individually and collectively, personally and professionally, because the dust around this gap is both in our systems, policies, and organizations and in our own minds, behaviors, and choices.

In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg encourages women to stand up, stand out, and lean in professionally. Many suggest that’s easy for her to say. Well-heeled women with nannies and sky-high incomes have freedoms few of the rest of us enjoy. Her tendency to lean into individual women rather than exerting similar systemic pressure may say something about her own blinders. Yet when we dismiss Sandberg’s voice, perhaps we are also undermining the very conversations we must have to make progress on these issues. Of all the ways Sandberg might have invested the currency of her influence, she chose to make it personal. And gendered. Whether or not we share Sandberg’s angle, she has been tremendously successful at energizing a deeply relevant conversation.

Our part in advancing this conversation includes learning to talk across factions. This means expanding our search for allies and letting go of some of what we’ve previously held dear and engaging with people whose ideas aren’t simply echoes of our own.  Serving a shared vision means having the capacity to hold steady when things get uncomfortable and the discipline to connect to our deeper purpose. Throughout, there will be losses. There always are. However, these losses will serve that greater good rather than self-preservation.

In a lecture last fall at Hollins, author and historian Stephanie Coontz advocated developing policies with the working woman in mind, policies acknowledging that for us all to survive and thrive we must be supported in our ability to navigate the demands of work, home, and community. This trifocal vision serves the good of all: men who would like to be more engaged in fatherhood, communities that need coed volunteers, and women who seek higher echelon posts. Coontz’s proposition acknowledges that we tend to mirror current culture in creating future policies, a tendency that reiterates gender imbalance from one generation to the next. As Coontz said, “This model isn’t about reverse sexism but about reversing sexism.”

During that lecture, what I heard across the auditorium was that familiar rhetoric recognizing “how far we’ve come.” I feel deep gratitude for those who’ve traveled down our path. At the same time, I wonder about the impact of that rhetoric on our tendency to settle into that backward vista rather than to find a way to continue to press on. Finding that way forward will mean cultivating allies, designing experiments, working beyond our authority. If there’s any truth to the belief that dust is made up primarily of dead skin cells, then we’ve all got a lot of skin in this game.

 Jill Hufnagel is associate director of the Batten Leadership Institute. A longer version of this essay appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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