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The Gender Tipping Point . . . just an election away?

September 25, 2007


American women came a long, long way in the 20th Century.  Today, they are traveling on superhighways paved with opportunity.  Yet, the door to the Oval Office has remained as off-limits to women candidates as the Augusta National Golf Club. 

None would admit it.  But I’d bet my 401K that Clinton’s rivals for the presidential brass ring are counting on gender as one thing they have on Hillary that she can’t change.  But what if the long-held assumption -- that Americans “’just aren’t ready” to elect a woman president -- is no longer true?  

As Clinton continues her steady ascent in the polls, the question is begging to be posed:  Is the most influential nation in the world just one election away from the gender tipping point and a new paradigm for selecting leaders?
I sat down at a football game recently next to a woman who was raving about her high school freshman daughter, a hockey player, who is already being scouted for a college scholarship.   As a pre-Title IX girl who played tackle football with the neighborhood boys but never had a real team to play on, the changes in attitudes about male and female capabilities and behavior have been astonishing. Today, many men are as comfortable whipping up a gourmet meal and pushing a stroller as women are running companies and serving in the military. 

There are presently twelve women heads of state in the world, (http://www.geocities.com/capitolHill/Lobby/4642/, including in Germany, Chile, Liberia and Ireland.  Not to mention England’s Margaret Thatcher and India’s Indira Gandhi.  Could it be that our nation, which likes to think of itself as the most progressive in the world, is also ready to make the leap across the ultimate leadership gender gap?

A politically active lawyer friend recently mentioned to me how frequently people ask, when discussing Senator Clinton, “Yes, there’s no question that she’s qualified.  But is she electable?”  My friend confided, “In all my years in politics, I have never heard that question asked about a front runner before.” 

At some point, inevitably, the gender lens through which ambitious women, no matter how accomplished, are still viewed will be shattered.  The question is:  How close are we? 

Recently, I have been interviewing three generations of unconventional women for a book I am writing.  Women who know what it’s like to be “the only woman in the room,” whether it was an operating room, a court room, a corporate board room or a sports locker room.  

Today, there is a critical mass, millions, of such American women, ranging in age from early 50’s into their 60's and beyond.   And nearly all have husbands, fathers, brothers, sons, mentors, bosses, partners and colleagues whose attitudes about leadership capabilities have been influenced by the women they live and work with.   

As our world becomes flatter and more connected, the human differences we encounter every day multiply.  The old ways of taking the measure of people are no longer relevant.  How close are we to evaluating one another primarily on the basis of abilities, skills, education and ethics?  How many of us are finally ready to  shed the gender, racial and cultural filters that continue to limit and waste human potential?  

Whether it is the Senator from New York or another American woman who will cross the ultimate leadership threshold isn't the point.  It's the tipping point that matters.  When will our nation get there?  How long will we wait before tapping the deepest potential of all of our citizens?  Will that historical leap be part of our legacy?  Or will we leave it for braver generations?    


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