By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)
A Special Election Day Message from Marie Wilson: “There are 107 reasons for you to vote. Why 107 reasons? This Tuesday, November 2nd, 107 alumnae of The White House Project’s signature political trainings will be on the ballot and running for political office.”
“The first job I applied for was at DuPont. I took a test, and the results came back saying I was a candidate for management. They didn’t hire me because as they said, ‘you’ll just get pregnant and have a child.’ This was 1962,” said Marie Wilson, Founder and President of The White House Project.
Wilson, one of the honorary “Founding Mothers” of the Ms. Foundation and co-founder of Take Our Daughters to Work Day, has been advocating for women in leadership ever since.
“If you’re going to be a leader,” she said, “don’t rush to change yourself. The world is still mixed about ambitious women. You need people who will encourage you to dream big – and the world is often discouraging. You need a tough skin that is porous – slough off the critics, but listen.”
A Career of Service
Wilson studied philosophy and religion at Vanderbilt University and began working in civil rights in the 1960s. “Working in the civil rights movement, through a very political church, gave me a wonderful opportunity to see how advocacy and political change are both necessary to make important social progress – something that eventually led to my current work at The White House Project to advance women into leadership.”
She continued, “I understood the disempowerment of racism, but it took me a while to see that women of all races needed power. I got my first shot at it through lobbying for AAUW on reproductive choice, child care and environmental issues at the Iowa state legislature. Then later, through a newly minted position, building what became one of the largest divisions of women’s programming at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.”
She continued, “We built one of the largest divisions in the US to help more women enter and move up in the paid work force, and eventually to help integrate women into mostly male management teams. We went at this through changing the way individual women and men behaved – with mixed results. Then I read Rosabeth Beth Moss Kanter’s book Men and Women of the Corporation, where Kanter showed that structural issues, numbers (how many people in the leadership group are “like you”), the distribution of power, and opportunity, were key to how people behaved in these large organizations”
“To this day, I believe numbers, critical mass, is key to how it becomes normal for women to lead alongside men and put the focus on the organization’s agenda, not gender. I spent a couple of years working for an association of bankers where I put some of this learning into practice, and on the side ran a successful race against eleven men for an at-large seat on the Des Moines City Council,” she explained.
“One day I got a call from a friend daring me to apply for the executive director position at the Ms. Foundation for Women; the only national organization that came to places like Des Moines. I was intrigued and wrangled an interview that went well, because, as I learned, when you’re not really looking for a job you’re ‘irresistible.'”
Wilson got the job – and decided to take it. But it wasn’t exactly what she expected. “I must have really wanted to take the job; because I ignored the reality… they had no money. By the time I had moved to New York with my youngest son, they had moved the foundation into two little rooms. I had turned my life over – left a political office and a promising future in higher office.”
“Then I thought, ‘What would my mother do?’ So I went out and bought clothes!” she said with a laugh. She explained, “Really, people give money to organizations where people look like they are thriving.” This was 1985, and Wilson led the Ms. Foundation for 20 years.
At the foundation Wilson began to build the strategy that that had drawn her there, microenterprise; a strategy widely excepted now, but at the time, Wilson and her team had to help change the guidelines of major foundations who only funded women under “poverty” not “business development.” They also had to invent a way that institutional and individual funders could fund together and learn about this new income generating strategy. “We invented what was possibly the first donor collaborative,” she said.
One of her proudest achievements was founding Take Our Daughters to Work Day at Ms. “It was the first time I understood how important it was to give people something they could do about a large issue that needed to change,” she said. “I also found that the conflict involved in the program was important to keeping it alive: It caused people to ask questions not only about girls but about the issues that boys were facing.”
She concluded, “Finally, though, our core competency of funding women who were making amazing innovations in social policies dealing with health care, living wages and violence, I realized that until women moved beyond advocacy to sitting side by side at the power tables with men, things wouldn’t change.”
Founding the White House Project
Wilson continued, “After almost twenty years, I left the Ms. Foundation to dedicate the third act of my work life wholly to women’s leadership. At the time the US was 47th in the world in women’s political participation. Now we are 74th.”
She continued, “When I saw the numbers of women in leadership, I was stunned. I had no idea it was as bad as it was. People really thought (and still think) that women occupy at least half the leadership positions in the U.S.”
The White House Project was created to advance women’s leadership across sectors, and works “at the nexus of business, politics and media.”
She explained, “Kathleen Hall Jamieson, then the Dean of Public Policy and Communications at Annenberg, told me that we had to change the conversation about women’s leadership to succeed, to change the perception of women as leaders.”
“We tackle this through training, and have now trained ten thousand women across five regions to lead in their communities and especially to run for office. Tomorrow 107 women trained by The White House Project will run in various states across the US.”
“You can’t be what you can’t see,” Wilson said, “and through film, media, and popular culture we attempt to show women as leaders.”
She continued, “Finally, we have a Corporate Council, who insisted that we quantify the numbers of women in leadership and with their encouragement of our corporate council, we recently benchmarked women’s leadership across ten sectors of American culture and found that on average, women are only 18% of the leadership in these sectors.”
“The final survey, Benchmarking Women’s Leadership, is filled with recommendations about how to change this percentage – flexible schedules, sponsorship, recruitment and retention strategies, but looping around to where I began, I don’t think anything short of what the civil rights movement did – move from advocacy to accountability, and establish targets for the numbers of women in leadership will really get us there – that and a national comprehensive child care policy,” she said, the mother of
five children herself.
“I’m really interested in the whole business of how we get to the numbers we need without quotas,” Wilson explained. “And just as other countries have forged ahead of us with quotas in politics, now, led by Norway, others are following suit and mandating the 40% mark for the numbers of women on their publicly traded boards. We will see the effects the new research on diversity promises as other countries innovate and profit. We will be left in the dust.”
Women are Transformational Leaders
Wilson believes that women are sorely needed as leaders in the new economy. “We need to look long term at the issues of business’s relationship to society, beyond quarterly profits – both for the health of our people and our communities.”
She continued, “But there is anxiety about what the future holds. And women have lots of experience in toughing it out. The climate calls for the skills women have. “There are calls for transformational skills – being able to move, to shift. Women have been able to shift careers forever. Women have had to be adaptive leaders to survive.”
Advice for Women Leaders
“As much as possible, do what you love.” She continued, “and if you want a relationship, find a relationship that will support you – that will mutually support both of your ambitions.”
“It’s important to be optimistic,” she said. “If you’re a hopeful person, everybody will bring you their despair. Despair – I eat that stuff for breakfast!” she joked.
She continued, “In all of my life, I’ve been interested in young women and how they are moving in life and work. Their energy is contagious! I really enjoy helping young women understand they have the power to make something happen and opening doors for them. I have an enormous privilege that way. It’s one of the things that gives me pleasure,” she said.
She continued, “My mother says that she wishes she hadn’t taught me to serve,” she
joked, “because she says, ‘I’d be rich.'”
“But I am rich – in a way that really matters.”