Gender Armageddon and the Broken Women's Movement

Lately, I've become obsessed with Girls, the new HBO series about women in their 20s. Not in a joyful way. In a worried, watching a car wreck kind of way.

Okay, I'll own it. The reason I'm mesmerized by the girls in Girls -- the hapless, aimless, tragic victims -- is because of guilt. We've let these young women down. We were tone deaf to their generation's needs and struggles, and failed to support and equip them with tools to thrive and succeed. Instead, we've allowed the media complex, with its 97% male top brass, to fill the void and define our young women and girls as sexualized, often victimized, objects. Today, 3 of 4 teen girls feel depressed, guilty and shameful.

The onslaught is hardly confined to young women and girls. Women are moving backwards by many measures and under siege from all directions -- a veritable gender Armageddon!

Just this month, Patti Hart (Yahoo) and Ina Drew (JP Morgan) 'stepped down' for the misdeeds of their male counterparts. The Cannes Film Festival brushed off criticism of it's all male line-up. Women's Professional Soccer folded. TIME wondered if we were mom enough. Men moved into jobs traditionally held by women, then leapfrogged us up the glass escalator into management. The Catholic Bishops announced an investigation of the Girl Scouts. Shall I continue?

Stating the obvious is not going to win me any popularity contests, but it needs to be said: the women's movement is officially broken! It's time for a new approach.

We must be realistic and turn the page. Women's advocacy can no longer afford it's almost singular focus on abortion rights. I can feel some of you steaming at me for daring to suggest this at a time when reproductive rights are under assault. I dutifully assure you, I understand.

But, here's the reality -- like it or hate it, the Second Wave has stayed at the punch bowl of abortion rights, while the party has moved down the block. Women in their 20s and 30s are not galvanized around the issue of abortion. Frankly, neither are many of us in Gen X. The intensity gap was recently noted by Nancy Keenan as she announced her retirement as President of NARAL: it's not your mother's women's movement anymore.

There's no use bemoaning this fact or wagging our fingers at younger women, I hope you lose your rights, then you'll understand how hard we had to fight. They're not spoiled or ungrateful -- it's just, respectfully, not their reality. Young women face a whole different set of stresses and concerns.

If you ask college women, they'll tell you they worry about sexism. They are keenly aware that gender will unfairly disadvantage them in the workforce. If you had asked me about 'sexism' back when I was in college, I would have assumed you were referring to a new position. The hopefulness of the women of my generation -- personified by the bold, assured, engaged women of Sex and the City -- is gone.

Let's take a moment to put things into perspective. Women have enjoyed the right to vote for less than a century. Women have worked outside of the home for less than half a century. What is it to be a women in the workplace is still undefined. Compare this to men who after centuries have established networks of connections and defined career paths to leadership (of which they hold 83% or more in most fields).

What's next? If the Second Wave was about choice, the next half century for women is about control. In control of ourselves and our finances (economically empowered). In positions of control as tomorrow's leaders.

Why is it so crucial to have women in leadership? Senator Kirsten Gillibrand said it most eloquently at a recent speech to Cornell Women: "If women made up 51 percent of Congress, we wouldn't be debating contraception right now. We'd be working on jobs."

Think about that for a moment. Imagine too how different our media messaging would be if more women were positions of control!

How do we get women into leadership positions? After all, there's no such thing as a traditional career path for women, many of whom are entering or re-entering the workforce in our 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s by choice or necessity (divorce, empty nest, family illness, spousal job loss). We can take a cue from the women of Sex and the City. True, the headline was sex; but the byline was a celebration of the possibilities of what women could do with the support of their girlfriends. This sisters, is where we start!

We must instill in our young women the importance of building their network of connections -- essentially a birthright for their male counterparts. In my two decades on Wall Street, almost every new job I got was because of peer connections. When I speak to college women, I encourage them to start right away: the women on your team, in your sorority, in your dorm. And consciously continue as you enter the workforce to constantly build and maintain your networks -- in a fun way, true to who you are -- over cocktails, facials, theater -- whatever commonality you enjoy.

On June 4th, The New Agenda will launch a new annual initiative, National Girlfriends' Networking Day. The objective is for women to think about the necessity of building connections and proactively planning career paths. The goal is to promote and cultivate tomorrow's leaders. Please get involved.

And if you're dismayed, take action! Serve as a role model (got an hour to help a mentee, go here). Help build a pipeline of women in every career field who, once in control, will shape and define what it is to be a women in the workplace. Re-engineer yourself to think of all women as your allies in the battle to end this gender Armageddon. In the words of 19th century pioneer journalist, Margaret Fuller: "If you have knowledge, let others light their candles in it."