Why a Woman's Agenda Means More Than Her Gender

"I'm too male, too pale, and too stale." While this self-description would typically brand most middle-aged, white males as being out-of-touch with today's youthful, progressive and diverse society, it did nothing of the sort for a man who was recently honored by a leading feminist organization focused on these three very things. As Ernst & Young Global Chairman and CEO James S. Turley accepted the White House Project's 'Go Lead' award at its 10th Annual Epic Awards Gala earlier this month, he couldn't help but express his delight at being honored by an organization that celebrated his longtime dedication to supporting women leaders without regard to their gender... or to his.

And while there are individuals, like Jim (as he prefers to be called), who believe that women not only qualify, but also deserve to command leadership positions, there are still far too many who don't and, paradoxically, many of these are women themselves. "Women are more equipped than they think,' says Tiffany Dufu, president of The White House Project, "They are already leaders... they just don't know it yet."

Fortunately, the White House Project is aiming to change all that. With a mission to 'advance women's leadership in all communities and sectors, up to the U.S. presidency,' The White House Project has been devoting a decade's worth of work to increase female representation throughout American institutions, businesses and government. Primarily focused on leadership and campaign training, this organization has been connecting, coaching and educating an ever-expansive alumnae network of 14,000 nationwide, encouraging them to reach the highest leadership levels available. "We have to make sure women keep their eye on the prize," Dufu says.

But enabling women to keep their 'eye on the prize' is becoming increasingly difficult as those who aspire to be leaders are viewed under a microscopic lens for their level of attractiveness, blind-sided by a mainstream media that is more interested in knowing 'who they are wearing,' than learning about what they are capable of achieving.

Just look at the media backlash aimed at a couple of women who recently dared to set their sights on the winner's circle. Most notably, Hillary Clinton was criticized for appearing unfeminine by wearing 'unflattering, man-tailored pantsuits' that didn't hide her 'cankles.' And when President Obama nominated Solicitor General Elena Kagan to be on the Supreme Court, the media focused less on her qualifications and more on her affinity for wearing plaid and her 'dykey' haircut, wondering whether her appearance meant she was really into the ladies.

"That is why we have to focus on ones agenda, rather than just ones gender," said actor Geena Davis, as the 2012 host of the EPIC Awards. Her role as host was particularly apropos, having already served as a U.S. President, although only fictionally so. As President Mackenzie Allen in the 2005 ABC television series Commander in Chief, she ascended to the presidential role only after the sudden death of the sitting male president from a cerebral aneurysm. Yes, even in the land of make-believe, the writers of this show knew our country was not yet ready for a woman to be elected president the old-fashioned way. But even after trying to make the show more 'palatable' to American viewers, its story line was still not benign enough, ultimately ending up on the cutting room floor after just one season due to low viewer ratings.

The White House Project, however, is slowly getting this country ready, and they're starting from the ground up. Through its 'Vote, Run, Lead' program, which was designed to engage women in the political process as voters, activists and candidates through training, inspiration and networking, future candidates are being equipped with the skills to win office. After completing this program, 98% of the participants reported that they 'feel inspired to run for office as a result of the training,' and 94% reported an 'increased confidence in their ability to run.' "We need to bottle this for an entire generation of women," Dufu says, "and as early in girls' lives as possible."

And what better way to bottle this for young girls than by presenting it in colorfully-designed packages lining the shelves of their favorite toy stores. The "I Can Be... President" Barbie doll, which will be made available by Mattel this fall, is poised to give hope to young girls around the world that they can grow up to be president, too. Further, having thrown away her stand for the first time by being equipped with unique weighted wedge heels, she is now able to stand on her own two feet, straight and assured. Even more appealing, since Mattel has already answered the question of 'who she is wearing' (Note to the media: Her bright business suit was created by fashion designer Chris Benz, who has also dressed America's first lady Michelle Obama), the media can now join young girls around the world by focusing more on the important qualities required for a woman to become president, such as ambition, confidence, and courage, just to name a few. Let's just hope that in this pre-packaged candidate, 'cankles' are not included.

Lori Sokol, Ph.D., is founder and publisher of Work Life Matters magazine and author of the book, 'The New Agile Workplace and Workforce: The New Future of Work," published by Bonnier Corporation in 2011.

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