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Women in Business: How Far Have We Really Come Since "The Feminine Mystique"?

Since The Feminine Mystique, women have made huge strides. But are women business owners offered the same opportunities as their male counterparts?
March 11, 2013

Last month marked the 50th anniversary of The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan’s revolutionary entreaty to women to cast off the shackles of what she called “the problem that has no name” that kept American women “from growing to their full human capacities.”

Today, it’s hard to understand how anyone could object to Freidan’s message that “women are people, no more no less, and therefore demand our human right to participate in the mainstream of society, to equal opportunity to earn and be trained and have our own voice in the big decisions of our destiny.”

Many think the birth of feminism was about the sexual revolution, but the heart of what Friedan argued for was economic empowerment. She bemoaned the fact that American women were imprisoned in their roles as housewives and weren’t pursuing career opportunities.

A Brief History

In her introduction to the 50th anniversary edition of The Feminine Mystique, Gail Collins, an op-ed writer for The New York Times and the first woman editorial page editor for the Times, wrote that Friedan was obsessed with women getting jobs. The book, she writes, “is a very specific cry of rage about the way intelligent, well-educated women were kept out of the mainstream of American professional life.”

The numbers were certainly something to be angry about. At the end of the 1950s, the average age women got married “had dropped to 20,” and the proportion of women attending college in comparison with men had dropped from 47 percent in 1920 to 35 percent in 1958. In 1963, women earned 59 percent of what men did, and just 11.7 percent of primary household earners were women.

Post-Feminine Mystique, the numbers improved. Women comprise nearly half of the U.S. workforce (47 percent). They’re getting married later (average age 27) and are more likely to graduate from college than men. Women now earn 77 percent of what men do, and 41.4 percent are primary household earners.

Women's Progress: What Do Experts Think?

Did The Feminine Mystique help set off the boom in women’s business ownership? Kristen Gwinn-Becker, CEO of HistoryIT, and Debra Michals, a professor at Merrimack College, are working on the March 21 launch of the National Women’s History Museum’s online exhibit, The History of Women’s Entrepreneurship. They think The Feminine Mystique was pivotal in paving the way for women’s economic empowerment: “The book … enabled Friedan to take very important actions for the broader history of women’s rights, most notably, co-founding the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966, which single-handedly fought … for gender equality in the workplace.”

Amy Millman, president of Springboard Enterprises, which helps women entrepreneurs obtain funding, agrees. “I think of Friedan's book as one of a series of inflection points that has led us to where we are today—‘on the peak of all possibilities.'” But, she adds, “It's remarkable how long it takes to change behavior.”

How to Find Programs that Can Help Women Business Owners Get Ahead  

Geri Stengel, president of Ventureneer, echoes that: “Changing people’s behavior takes time. Fifty years ago it may have been hard to imagine that 29 percent of all businesses would be women-owned. Until recently, women entrepreneurs tended to be in female ghetto industries, [but today] they’re slowly diversifying into other industries such as technology.”

Yet technology is where women face the 21st century version of The Feminine Mystique. As much progress as women entrepreneurs have made, we’re still underrepresented in the tech space. But Lauren Flanagan, CEO of SCIO and managing director of BELLE Capital USA, thinks that’s about to change. “While in the past there were fewer women getting STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Math], business and advanced degrees, women are now getting the majority of advanced degrees.”

But that doesn’t necessarily translate into leadership roles in business. In Bloomberg Businessweek, academic researcher Vivek Wadhwa noted the “gender and racial disparities in Silicon Valley,” pointing out that although “women earn more than 50 percent of all bachelor’s and master’s degrees and nearly half of all doctorate-level degrees,” they “start only 3 percent of technology companies and are almost absent on management teams, outside of legal and marketing positions.”

Gary Whitehill, entrepreneur-in-residence at Startup Weekend, thinks the problem stems from “having few, if any, relatable tech role models for young females. Pink clothes, Barbies and tiaras are what is accepted and expected, not the mechanically inclined 7-year-old girl who wants to build robots and change the world.”

How One Woman Entrepreneur is Trying to Create New Opportunities for Girls

And then there’s the issue of money. Hedy Ratner founded the nation’s first Women’s Business Development Center 27 years ago and has since helped 65,000 women start and scale their businesses. Ratner is, to put it mildly, frustrated her organization still exists. “I thought the WBDC would be out of business long ago," she says. "The issues we were founded to address are the same damn issues women are facing today. We’re fighting an uphill battle we shouldn’t have to fight anymore.”

According to Flanagan, women-led companies still receive less than 10 percent of early stage angel and venture capital. Wadhwa blames the “arrogant young brats” who are getting venture capital funding for “silly social media apps.” His own research shows 33 percent of female tech entrepreneurs faced “dismissive attitudes” from their colleagues, and 15 percent had their abilities questioned.

Ingrid Vandervelt, a serial entrepreneur and the entrepreneur-in residence at Dell (as well as the curator of the Dell innovators Credit Fund), agrees that women in technology “face unique challenges that men in the industry don't encounter.” Vandervelt recounts one of her early money-raising experiences when “one of my male advisors pulled me aside and said, ‘Ingrid, you don’t look like, act like or sound like any of the entrepreneurs or CEOs these investors are used to funding. You are going to have a difficult, if not impossible, time getting the funding you need.’”

Women Still Battling for VC Funding and Respect

Instead of giving up, Vandervelt decided to show that “what investors are really looking for is exceptional talent that can turn their investment into money, regardless of age, race, sex, background or otherwise.” Eventually she got funded. 

While Gwinn-Becker and Michals agree that “women are playing catch-up,” they cite an “increasing visibility of women in technology” and the many new initiatives emphasizing STEM education for girls as a “positive sign.”

Cindy Bates, vice president of U.S. SMB at Microsoft, cites Microsoft research showing the impact of gender diversity: “There’s a 34 percent higher ROI when women are in leadership positions [in tech companies].”

What You Can Learn About Customer Service from Women Business Owners 

But despite the progress women have made since Friedan encouraged us to get out of the house and into the office, there’s still a lot of unfinished business. As Stephanie Coontz, a professor at Evergreen College and author of A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s, points out in The New York Times, “Women are still paid less than men at every level and in every job category. They are less likely than men to hold jobs that offer flexibility or family-friendly benefits. When they become mothers, they face more scrutiny and prejudice on the job than fathers do.”

As Friedan very presciently noted in The Feminine Mystique, “It is time to stop giving lip service to the idea that there are no battles left to be fought for women in America, that women’s rights have already been won.”

But there is hope that American women will never again suffer from “the problem that has no name.” As Friedan wrote in 1997, “It’s awesome to consider how women have changed the very possibilities of our lives and are changing the values of every part of our society since we broke through The Feminine Mystique only two generations ago.”

How do you feel about the progress women have made?

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