Feminism evokes a different picture depending on the person.
For some it brings to mind burning bras or women being radical about their beliefs, while for others it simply means equality and acceptance of diversity.
“Quite honestly, you can shut people down when they feel it’s too radical because people don’t want to talk about it,” says Dawn Borgeest, senior vice president and chief corporate affairs officer for the United Way of Greater Rochester Inc. “It’s like, ‘Oh boy, here they go again; whoa, stand back.’”
“But conversely, if it becomes too much of the mainstream conversation then it almost reduces the kind of necessary tension you need to have the conversation.”
In today’s workforce, local female leaders have found the term feminism shows up in different ways.
“To me, feminism means equal rights and opportunities for women compared to men,” says Lynne Maquat, J. Lowell Orbison endowed chair and professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the University of Rochester. “It applies to the workplace, to the home and to our society in general. I am grateful to the many women and men who have worked so hard to achieve more fairness to women.”
Maquat, the 2014 Athena Award winner, notes that the situation has improved over time as families raise children with greater awareness of how women can be limited through prejudice and unfair treatment.
“However, we still have a way to go: this is a cultural problem (that) has yet to be expunged from our society today,” she adds.
Women make up 4.8 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, fill just over 100 seats in Congress out of 535 voting members, and, according to the Obama Administration, full-time working women earn roughly 77 percent of what their full-time male counterparts do.
“When you look at just the data we know, that generally women are still making less—70 cents on the dollar—so that’s a significant difference,” Borgeest says. “We know that women are still sorely underrepresented on corporate boards, they’re underrepresented in political offices, in CEO suites—it’s just interesting that while we have made enormous progress, there’s still quite a ways to go.”
Anna Lynch, managing partner of Underberg & Kessler LLP, says the economic equality should mean people get paid the same for doing the same jobs, or get the same rewards, regardless of sex or race.
Many women leaders came of age in an era where their mothers modeled workplace opportunities, and they say having a mother work outside the home greatly impacted their life paths.
“My mother was a doctor in the ’50s, so I grew up just expecting to be treated the same as everybody else,” Lynch says. “Sometimes that expectation was dashed, and sometimes it wasn’t reality, but since I’ve been at a place like Underberg & Kessler it’s never been a question.”
For Borgeest, feminism has evolved to bridge diversity of thought and persons, she says.
“I think from my perspective as I was coming up in my career feminism kind of stood out on its own,” she says. “I think it has probably melded and evolved into that bigger spectrum of diversity and inclusion—so how do we make sure that there’s that diversity of thought, style, gender, race that has an opportunity and a voice at the table, an opportunity to influence and weigh in on decisions.”
Maquat grew up during a time when feminists were described by some in derogatory terms.
“While somehow I knew—even when very young—that it was wrong to discriminate, the environment in which I grew was less tolerant,” she says. “In practice, I am and have always been a feminist. However, I don’t use that term to describe myself since I think the idea of being fair to people needs to extend beyond women.”
On the other hand, Jennifer Leonard, president and CEO of Rochester Area Community Foundation, calls herself a feminist.
“I have probably a fairly traditional definition of feminism,” says Leonard, the 2010 Athena Award winner. “I think in practice it means valuing women’s contributions, mentoring other women especially in the workplace, strengthening young women to become everything people can be and believing that there’s no reason for glass ceilings and that public policy is way behind on supporting today’s two-earner families.
“I believe that both men and women can be feminists. I have always lived as a feminist with all the responsibilities as well as the rights that that implies,” she adds.
Removed a few generations from the homemaker ideal of the past, today’s female leaders have experienced little if any inequality.
“I’ve been managing partner for over 10 years and the fact that I was a woman never came to my attention that that was an issue,” Lynch says.
“In previous jobs, I had older male attorneys who treated me differently because I was a woman. Out in the community, out in the world it’s still not equal. It is possible to be treated fairly no matter what, and I think everybody should be able to expect that,” she adds.
Jill Knittel, chief operating officer of Employee Relations Associates Inc., has always seen herself as having the same opportunity as a man.
“It’s just like me teaching my daughter that she can be whatever she wants; she doesn’t have to be a teacher, a nurse or a secretary,” she says.
Still, female leaders tend to stay away from the feminist label. The term can be dangerous, they say.
“I try not to label myself as anything,” Lynch says. “My goal here is to provide great legal services to all of our clients in an equal fashion with giving opportunities for all of our employees without having any labels whatsoever.”
Says Borgeest: “I can’t honestly say that I would look at myself and say I’m a feminist, but I definitely believe in the notion of diversity and equality. I wouldn’t put that label on me and I guess that’s part of the challenge. I do think it’s seen as a label that can be dangerous. I think it can shut critical doors that we need to have open to have the conversation.”
Feminism also has implications for a man’s world.
“I think it’s still relevant because we aren’t yet at 50/50 parity in anything,” she says. “For every woman who works that second shift in the home, there’s a man working overtime at his job to make that possible. So, we still need to free men to be everything they can be, including house husbands. (We need) to free women to be Fortune 500 CEOs, where they are still a significant minority.”
Pay inequality, however, is a reality. And women have traditionally not asked for raises like their male counterparts do. That fact came to the forefront this year when Microsoft Corp. CEO Satya Nadella remarked, “It’s not really about asking for a raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will give you the right raise. That might be one of the initial ‘super powers’ that, quite frankly, women (who) don’t ask for a raise have. It’s good karma. It will come back.” Though social media took Nadella to task for his inarticulate remarks, research shows men are four times more likely to negotiate raises than women.
“Being able to take those risks a little bit that being a woman they necessarily wouldn’t have taken if they weren’t as confident in themselves, so I think that that risk taking is probably the one piece that men are more apt to do than women,” Knittel says.
She believes feminism in the workplace is a matter of “really being true to yourself and true to who you are and true to what you expect of leaders whether they’re male or female.”
No matter what the word means to a leader, women often walk a fine line with the term feminism and its connotations. It is rejected or misunderstood by men and women alike.
“I think for me the most important part is that we just continue to make progress,” Borgeest says. “I think we’ve made enormous progress, but there’s still room to grow. It’s critical that particularly younger women … to keep their eye on that and push and prod and continue to evolve.”
Currently Rochester is at a point of opportunity for women, notes Patricia Malgieri, chief of staff at the Rochester City School District and the 2007 Athena Award winner.
“At some points I’ve thought how many of our leaders are women—we have a female county executive, a female mayor … we have a moment in time here where we have female leaders who are actually in positions to change policy to allow for more options for women, so that’s really exciting,” she says.
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