Just an hour before the start of Time magazine Washington Correspondent Jay Newton-Small’s lecture “Are Women Changing the Way Institutions Are Run?” the news broke that Hillary Clinton had secured the Democratic presidential nomination, the first woman ever—in either party—to make it that far.
The timing was fortuitous, the standing-room-only crowd at the Goethe-Institut Los Angeles was primed to hear Newton-Small’s findings on how women change institutions—be they public or private—when they are in charge.
Clinton’s ascent illustrates a main theme of Newton-Small’s new book Broad Influence: How Women Are Changing the Way America Works, and her historic accomplishment Monday night resonated throughout the evening. Newton-Small told the audience that when Clinton was asked how her gender would affect her approach to governing, she said that she understood the importance of bringing women into the workforce and retaining them much more than her male counterparts.
Newton-Small’s findings bear this idea out—that it takes a critical mass of women in power to create pathways for more women to become powerful. Women “CEOs, when they do reach those levels, bring in more women,” she told the audience. An organization with just 20 percent women, but a significant portion of them in influential, executive level positions, will be more beneficial to achieving true parity than an organization with 30 percent or more women in lower-ranking jobs.
“I loved discovering the idea of critical mass, because parity to me had been this pie-in-the-sky notion,” said Newton-Small. “It really delighted me this idea that we could make a difference at just 20 to 30 percent.”
Women leaders aren’t just good for advancing the careers of other women, Newton-Small said, they are good for business and good for society. She cited a range of examples, from corporate boards with at least 30 percent women being more profitable, to women senators passing 75 percent of the legislation in the infamously gridlocked 2012 session, to women police officers being far less likely to use excessive force, to show that there can be tangible benefits to more female participation in the workforce and government.
The problem, which Clinton and many others can attest to, is the difficulty women face in reaching and retaining those crucial leadership roles. In the military, the U.S. Navy is on its way to 25 percent of a given ship’s crew being women. In the film industry, a measly four percent of Hollywood’s movies are directed by women. And in Silicon Valley, just 3 percent of venture capital funding went to women-headed companies last year.
“Women are perceived to have a certain skill set,” said Newton-Small. For instance, they are seen as being better at consensus-building and reaching “win-win scenarios.” But our notions of the requirements of executives are still distinctly male. “Decisions are made, they’re win-loss scenarios, they’re zero-sum games, and it takes forcefulness to make those decisions,” Newton-Small said. She added, “women face a capability test that men almost never face,” especially when the duties in question belong to the Commander-in-Chief.
While on the surface Clinton’s capability is not unduly questioned during her second bid for the presidency, “she still faces a different kind of sexism that I didn’t anticipate,” Newton-Small said. “She’s kind of forced to play a mom role.”
While Bernie Sanders, her opponent for the Democratic nominee known for drawing massive crowds to his stump speeches, can “yell for 40 minutes” and leave an audience inspired, Clinton cannot do the same and maintain the crucial, elusive likability required of women. “Everyone’s like ‘oh my god, why is mom yelling at me? She’s shrill!’”
Clinton also displays one of the hallmarks of women leaders—being risk averse—at a time when voters appear to be clamoring for the type of sweeping reforms espoused by Sanders. “People don’t really question it. It’s a dream, it’s a goal, it’s a revolution,” said Newton-Small.
But it’s breaking the glass ceilings of these hugely influential offices that will have the most impact.
Still, because women make up a slim majority of voters, it may actually be easier for Clinton to become president than for a qualified woman to become head of a Fortune 500 company. “The private sector is almost all white men promoting women, they have the power in their hands,” said Newton-Small, noting that progress has stalled over the last decade in the percentages of women represented in corporate boards and executive suites. It’s hard to get accurate figures of women executives and their pay in the U.S., Newton-Small said, because the reporting is almost entirely voluntary.
To truly promote women in the workforce and in leadership, three things need to happen, according to Newton-Small: a government-led, public-private partnership, organized tracking and sharing of key data, and, finally—and this one had many women in the audience murmuring in agreement—affordable childcare.
The problem of access to adequate childcare re-surfaced during the question and answer period, when a man who identified himself as an emeritus professor of medicine suggested that women’s representation in fields like medicine and law would occur “inevitably” based on the high number of female students he observed. “Well, yes and no,” said Newton-Small, acknowledging that in many degree fields (except, crucially, STEM) women have achieved graduation parity. “The reason why I say it will take government action and it won’t happen naturally is because, to be frank, we don’t have childcare.”
Many women either drop out of the workforce altogether, self-select into lower paying but more stable careers, or experience setbacks that equate to losing seven years of their career when they have children, Newton-Small said. The countries that are leading the world in gender parity, mostly in Scandinavia except for a few outliers, offer government-subsidized childcare.
Still, Newton-Small said she’s hopeful that she’ll see gender parity in her lifetime due to a combination of a massive demographic shift that will necessitate more women involvement in the workforce to maintain the U.S. economy and the rise of millennial workers, who grew up expecting equality. Another challenge, brought up by an audience member, is ensuring the parity being sought for women reaches women of color and women of all sexual orientations as well. Newton-Small concurred, observing: “I can write a whole second book about it.”
*Photos by Jake Fabricius.