When I graduated from Barnard College over a decade ago, my class was not treated to the uplifting feminist message we had come to expect from our feminist professors. Joyce Purnick, the first woman Metro editor at the Times, contradicted the feminist-era message that women could have it all and be the equals of men when she stated that women with children simply could not compete with women who did not have children and, of course, with men.
Essentially, she told us to have children or have a career. We couldn’t have both.
Last year Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, chided Barnard graduates not to “leave before you leave.” As soon as women decided to have children, she observed, they checked out and stopped trying. She exhorted the next generation of women to hang in there and not give up the fight, despite the male-dominated culture.
But her pep talk was remarkably empty in light of the facts. Many years after the feminist revolution, women occupy few positions of power. The numbers are discouraging: women make up just 12 percent of governors, 2 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, 6 percent of top earners, 8 percent of top leadership positions, and 16 percent of board directors and corporate officers (although the newly sworn-in U.S. Congress is the most diverse in history, with 20 female senators). Similar statistics apply to academics, religion and other top professions.
Neither of the Barnard commencement speakers addressed the problem as well as Anne-Marie Slaughter, professor and member of the Obama administration under Hillary Clinton. Slaughter argued that the problem is very simple — women can’t have it all. In a world created by men, where people are “time macho,” competing to log the most hours in the office, and where spending time with one’s family is seen as a weakness, there is no reason that women should strive for equality with men.
The rules of the game are not fair to women — we have known this for years. We need to take charge of the culture, but not by becoming like men. We need to set our own rules.
Which is why I was not surprised to learn that women are starting their own businesses at two times the rate of men. I started studioE9 because I wanted to choose the kind of work I would do, and when and where I would do it. I knew I wanted to have a family, and I had already seen firsthand how little having a family mattered to the corporate world. I came to the conclusion that in our society, structured for men by men, that if you are working for someone else, you are making them rich and making yourself time-poor. Women need to put themselves in a position to change the attitudes about where people work and what value family plays in people’s lives, and there is no better way to do this than starting one’s own business.
I recently started another brand, Maiden Nation, because I want to do as Sheryl Sandberg suggested in her Barnard commencement speech: be part of a cultural change where women are in charge of their own lives, setting their own rules for themselves and for other women.
When we start our own businesses — and this goes for men and women — we work in the way we want, on the schedule we want, but more importantly, we determine what is fair for us and for those who work for us. We can decide, for instance, that flexible work schedules matter more than time macho. We can decide that working remotely can improve productivity, creativity and loyalty. We can decide how and where we will work best, and what kind of products women need and want.
It is time we stopped asking to be part of the game, and started our own game with our own rules instead.
A version of this post originally appeared on the author’s blog.
With degrees in Anthropology from Columbia University and Design from Parsons, Elizabeth Schaeffer Brown represents a brand development vanguard uniting global, technological, and social concerns. She has introduced leading international brands, like Sony Ericsson, into the North American market. Additionally, Elizabeth has founded many sustainable branding initiatives including Choose Haiti and launched this Fall, Maiden Nation.
The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only nonprofit organization comprised of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, the YEC recently launched #StartupLab, a free virtual mentorship program that helps millions of entrepreneurs start and grow businesses via live video chats, an expert content library and email lessons.