Donlan, Vicki

Vicki DonlanVicki Donlan is the founder and former publisher of Women's Business Boston, controlled-circulation newspaper devoted to women in business in the Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island region, with 25,000 subscribers. The companion website is A regular guest on New England Cable News and a popular speaker at businesses and business networking organizations, Donlan is a founder of the Alliance of Women's Business and Professional Organizations. She believes in the power of women and the importance of their contributions to the business community. Her goal is to see a "new girls network" emerge where women support women without reservation.

Erik Hansen talks to Vicki about her book (with interviews contributed by Helen French Graves): Her Turn: Why It's Time for Women to Lead in America.

Book cover of Her Turn asks …

Why should women be leading?

VD: Let’s start with the fact that we are now 52 percent of the population in this country, 65 percent of the graduate students, and control 85 percent of the consumer purchasing power. We are in the majority of middle management in the workforce. The pipeline to leadership is there, and yet we have progressed very slowly in the last 20 years. We’re actually starting to spiral backwards.


VD: Yikes is right.

Why is it that women aren’t leading in America given the work of the feminists since the ’60s?

VD: Let me take you back a little further than that. One of the things the book does is give a good history of the women’s movement. Back in the early 1800s, women started the fight for the vote, for the opportunity to be independent from their husbands, to have representation for their taxation, to have freedom of religion, and for the opportunity to have a higher education.

It took until 1920, as you know, for women to gain the right to vote. Each time the women’s movement has progressed, something such as a war has gotten in the way or factions have separated. As women, we all have the same goal to move forward, but as we start the fight, we seem to split ourselves up so that it’s very difficult for our numbers to gain the power that we need to actually progress. In the case of the workforce, where we’re clearly the majority, if we wanted the power, you’d think we’d be able to just take it.

Right, just kill all the guys.

VD: But this isn’t really a guy thing. I asked a thousand women for their opinion on what’s holding women back. The responses fall into three categories. Number one, women hold themselves back. Number two, the “good old boys” network. Number three, the family leave policies in this country. Family leave policies are archaic in this country compared to 173 countries around the world. So, when you ask me why women aren’t leading in America, one of the reasons is that this country has not decided that the next generation, our children, should be our first priority. Women are penalized for having children.

Why are we so behind in the world on this issue?

VD: A study that was done by McGill University in March of 2007 looked at 177 countries around the world. So we’re not just talking about developed countries; we’re talking about some of the underdeveloped countries, too. They understand that if you want a full workforce, and you want to bring out the best ability in every citizen that you have, you must provide childcare. We do have children in this country. There wouldn’t be any reason to go to work or fight for democracy and freedom if we weren’t going to have another generation behind us.

Not only do we have children, we also have an elder issue in this country. For the most part, it’s been left to women to figure out how to manage those responsibilities. It’s not just a balancing act, it’s juggling.

I’ve noticed in my own family that the caretaking responsibilities fall to the women. And I read about a study just a couple of weeks ago in the New York Times that said men are getting happier while women are becoming less so. They use an example of how guys have a good time hanging out with their parents.

VD: I’m not surprised by that.

Because they spend their time together chatting or watching sports. Whereas women spend the time with their parents taking care of healthcare issues, scheduling, etc.—

VD: Women are the caretakers in this country. I think it’s very important, particularly for women, to understand what I call, “the problem with a new name.” Betty Friedan in 1963 in The Feminine Mystique defined “the problem that has no name” as women feeling a lack of fulfillment.

I’m defining the problem with a new name. The problem is that women have figured out how to be CEOs, run our own companies, get into the boardroom; we’ve figured out how to do just about any job a man can do. What we have been unsuccessful in doing is showing men how and allowing them to be the child rearers, the nurturers, and the homemakers. This country must get to the point where we allow in our society both men and women to feel comfortable at home or at work.

Gloria Steinem said it best, “Women will be equal outside the home when men are equal inside.”

Yes. In a traditional household, both the husband and the wife are working, yet the wife is still doing 90 percent of the housework.

VD: I blame women who are trying to do it all, and have not, along with society, adopted the attitude that our children are not just a woman’s responsibility, but they’re a man’s responsibility, too. I know that more and more books are coming out right now about stay-at-home dads. We have several interviews in the book with women who have husbands who stay at home. They’re very successful in their own right but they’ve decided they want to be home. They enjoy the opportunity to be with their children and watch them grow. That’s not to say their wives don’t. It’s a choice.

What is the point of fighting for freedom in this country if we don’t give people the choice of being career dads, career moms, stay-at-home dads, or stay-at-home moms? It’s not a contest. We all have our jobs to do. We should be supporting each other in getting the job done.

You say that at the present rate, or at least before things started going backwards, it was going to take 47 years for women to reach equality in American corporations, or 73 years for them to gain equality in boardrooms.

VD: Women are finding that they get to their most productive time just as they hit their most reproductive time. Therefore, they don’t want to get pushed off the track. I don’t mean that to sound as if there’s some big old bad man there pushing them off the track. It’s society, it’s our culture, it’s our corporations.

The good news, however, is that the large accounting firms are getting it. Let me explain why. Ernst & Young, Deloitte, PricewaterhouseCoopers, they recruit both men and women at the college age. They recruit a man and a woman at the same time and pay them equally. For the next five years they invest in them with mentoring programs, education, and the opportunity to sit for the CPA exam, which takes a long time and usually requires a Masters degree. Five years in, ideally both that young woman and young man get their CPA certification.

Think of the investment from the perspective of the accounting firm. Now, both the woman and man get married. And both have children. It’s a huge mistake for the accounting firm to not figure out how to retain that woman. They’ve made a large investment; we’re talking several hundred thousand dollars. They can’t simply let that woman go and say, “Thanks for your time.” They’ve instituted flex-time, part-time, time off, and work from home. They allow both men and women to do these things, and they’re very vocal and visible in their opportunities. I have a lot of interviews in the book with people from the accounting world who say this has made a huge difference to them.

I recently interviewed Sylvia Ann Hewlett who’s written Off-Ramps and On-Ramps. It seems that the guys always benefit without needing to ask for anything. They enjoy it once it’s available. It’s like they’re waiting for women to make these advances for them.

VD: Again, that leads me back to our government. It’s hard for most people to understand that in this country, in 2007, there is no guaranteed paid leave for maternity. Now, some companies may choose to pay a person, but there’s no guarantee. It boggles the mind. That’s clearly unfair to women. We wouldn’t have a next generation if women didn’t have children at some point in their lives.

As in the movie Children of Men.

VD: No question about it. When you compare that statistic to the rest of the world, with some countries actually giving up to a year, or even two years, leave for a new child, whether from a birth or an adoption, you realize that we have a long way to go.

The countries who offer that length of leave are just so far ahead.

VD: I don’t want to focus only on corporate America because, as you know, the book explores law, medicine, higher education, nonprofits, and politics. Despite the differences in the industries, the situation for women is the same. In higher education, for example, as female professors reach their most reproductive time, they’re also reaching tenure time.

You do note that while you’re out talking to college-aged people, often the men are asking questions about staying at home and work-life balance issues, because they’re already considering it. In fact, that was voiced by Penelope Trunk, author of Brazen Careerist. She has great issues with Sylvia Ann Hewlett and some of the studies she mentions. Penelope thinks that Baby Boomer women were crazy trying to be just like men—

VD: I don’t agree with that at all.

She also noted that Generations X and Y have a whole different mentality about work.

VD: Let me give you the perspective that I have, because I do speak on college campuses. During the Q&A periods after my speeches, it is the men who say to me, “Help me understand how I am going to balance my work and my family.” Now, let me tell you why I believe they see it that way. Because when they look around the room, they see the women who are going to be in their lives, the choices they will have for a spouse. And they realize that these women are educated, ambitious, and have every intention of having careers of their own.

Being smart young men, they say to themselves, “I want to get married, have a family, and I understand my wife wants to work too. Do you, Vicki, know how to help us do that?” Because they’re no longer looking at that prospective wife, saying, “Well this is wonderful, you’re getting educated, but of course as soon as we get married, you’re going to stay home and make babies.”

Those days are long gone. But our corporations haven’t caught up with it. Our law firms, our higher education system, and our medical institutions haven’t figured out how this family policy is going to work. Men are tired of the 80- to 100-hour work week as well.

This generation of young men coming along may help to create that change. They’re asking the right questions.

VD: But what I worry about, Erik, is that, while this generation is changing things, as you said, China, India, and Brazil have a much more progressive attitude toward family leave, and they are starting to move ahead of this country. For a long time, America has sat on the reputation that we’re the best, the brightest, and the strongest. That’s wonderful to talk about, but we’d better be paying attention. If we’re the best and brightest, why are 65 percent of our graduate students not getting to the top jobs? I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait 30 years for that to happen, or 70 years for women to get into the boardroom. It will be too late for America.

As I try to emphasize to people, the boards in those boardrooms are making decisions for shareholders. Sixty percent of the wealth in America by 2010 will be held by women. Where is their wealth? It’s in mutual funds, stocks and bonds. Those folks in the boardroom are making decisions as to where that wealth goes and how it grows. So why aren’t women controlling what happens to their wealth?

Absolutely. You interviewed Tom for your book. He’s been talking about this issue for over 10 years now. Marti Barletta, another of our Cool Friends, wrote PrimeTime Women, which addresses this as well. Clearly Boomer women are going to be a massively wealthy and powerful cohort.

VD: It’s sad to look at the situation with Hillary Clinton. I asked a thousand women, “Will you vote for a woman for President?” The responses were all, “Well, if she is this and if she is that, and if she meets all my high standards.” For 218 years we’ve been voting for men, and I quite honestly don’t know one of them that reaches my high standards. We should be ready to say, “It’s time to give a woman a try.” It’s time we have an equality of women and men in all of our political positions, including the Supreme Court. Congress is only 16 percent women. I shudder to think that with nine Supreme Court Justices, and only one female, we have issues coming up very soon that are going to have a major effect on this country.

It’s a massive imbalance. But you note that women who’ve reached positions of power are not great at mentoring other women, developing replacements, or bringing more women into the situation.

VD: That’s accurate. There are a couple of interviews in the book from men who will tell you exactly that. Men who will ask the women on the board, “Do you have any suggestions of women we can bring on?” And for some reason the women say, “You don’t want me to be biased do you? If I tell you I want a woman, you’re going to think I choose women because they’re women.” Well, men have been choosing men because they’re men since the time the world began. Yes, women need to be biased. Women need to promote women. They need to hire women. They need to refer women.

You need a covert affirmative action pact—

VD: Every minority group in our history has supported their own in order to achieve their power. The problem is that women aren’t the minority; we’re the majority and we haven’t figured out how to use our power. But it’s there for the taking. We have to work together. For the first time in our history, we have someone who’s running for President who not only has experience, but certainly has the qualifications. Of course, the main qualification in this country is the ability to raise the kind of money that a politician needs to get elected.

But what about the fact that she’s married to a man who was formerly a President?

VD: I hear that a lot, and the political pundits like to say, “We’ve had two Bushes; we don’t want two Clintons.” I’ve been married for 35 years, and let me tell you, my husband and I are probably as opposite as night and day with our leadership styles. I’m not suggesting that there’s a right or wrong; we’re just very, very different. And my belief is that Hillary Clinton really asks very little from Bill Clinton other than his support, something which I think every woman and man needs from their spouse to be successful.

I think it’s great. You realize that for all of the past Presidents, their wives obviously were de facto members of their Cabinet.

VD: Of course they were. The more research I did on Eleanor Roosevelt, the more I realized that she was the powerhouse in the White House while her husband was President. She was an amazing woman. She did an awful lot of acting on behalf of the President. Very little of that is ever discussed. As we all know, he was very sick during that last term. If you look into the history, she traveled the world for him, she met with leaders. She was the ambassador for this country and with more than a handshake and a nice smile. So this isn’t something new; it’s just something new now that we have 24/7 news. They have to talk about something.

Did you say in your book that women are more ethical than men?

VD: It’s not that I believe women are more ethical. I will say that one of women’s greatest weaknesses is probably our greatest strength. We are incredibly hard on each other. We ask all the questions. Men are more easygoing. If you’ve ever been in a group of women, you’ll recognize this: Nobody gives one woman the opportunity to lead the way without asking a whole lot of questions.

So when I say that I think we would have a different ethical level, particularly in corporate America, if there were more women involved, I mean that what women are best at is asking questions. Women ask questions over and over again. It drives men nuts. Women tend to ask the detailed questions; they want to know the answers.

Now, on the other hand, if we booted all the men out of corporate America, and we had all women there, quite honestly I think they’d be just as corrupt as what we have right now. I think it’s best to have diversity and different points of view.

I reference a study done at UMass Dartmouth where a group of men and women in marketing were given six ethical scenarios. In four out of six scenarios, the men and women had different points of view. The point is not that women are more ethical. The fact is that if you ask both groups the same question, they’re going to come up with different answers. That means if both groups are in the same room and they have to make a decision, they’ll look at it from more different perspectives than if one group wasn’t in the room.

That echoes something Marti Barletta said about buying stuff. I’m not equating buying stuff with leadership; it’s about gathering information. Whereas a guy may think a product is good enough because it has three features he’s looking for, Marti says a woman wants the whole package to be what she wants.

VD: And she’s going to ask questions to make sure that she understands all the features. You can see this with financial services at the big brokerage houses. They’re trying to come up with marketing materials for women. They dumb it down so that it appears they’re going after two-year-olds rather than women. They understand that women need to understand their financing and their investments in much more detail than men do. Not because they’re stupid, but because it’s their nature.

I want to know when I go to bed at night exactly where my money is. My husband, he’s comfortable with an overall picture. That’s not to say one is better or right. It certain equates to the way we make purchases. Retailers are finally figuring that out.

Slowly. You say this book is for men and women. You seem to imply that other books about women’s leadership are not for both genders.

VD: No, I think that most books on women’s leadership tend to be written for women’s eyes. They compare the styles of the genders or how we differ.

This book is very different. It’s about the American picture of where the women’s movement has been. I don’t think women know that any better than men, especially young women. I was with a 30-year-old woman just yesterday, and asked her when women gained the right to vote. She didn’t have a clue.

Some of what is in the book are things that I thought were second nature to all of us. We learned it in high school, or even in grammar school. The reason this book is more for men is this idea of how we need to change our organizations. Women working for it, requiring and asking for family leave, or understanding that our next generation is important won’t make it happen. These are things that men and women need to work on together to make a change in America, so that Americans stay strong around the world. And that’s going to have to happen across all companies throughout our country.

We continually see the wage gap portrayed as if it only affects women. This book clearly shows how the wage gap doesn’t affect just women; it affects men. Today, in this country, both the woman and the man in a couple have to be working in order to put food on the table for their families. If women are not being paid fairly, then the men in their lives are not getting a fair shake, either.

There’s actually a fairly high percentage of households where the woman is the main breadwinner.

VD: Right. And she may be making more money than he is, but compared to the men in her role, she’s making, at best, 77 cents on the dollar. So it’s critically important that men understand this as well.

The men who really understand it are the men who have daughters. They understand that their daughters should have the ability to be anything they want to be. They want them to be connected, to understand how to get into corporate America, or to get to the top of a law firm where they can be managing partner. They want the sky to be the limit.

So every family in the world needs to have a daughter.

VD: Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

Sylvia Hewlett mentioned an executive who had a daughter late in life. His whole attitude about work and flex time changed. And he started living it, which was the best part. The rest of the people in the company he was running could then live it too, because it wasn’t just another executive paying lip service to an idea.

VD: That’s what makes a difference. Little by little, if these voices join collectively and we’re all working together, we can create a tremendous change. My feeling is that this country needs that kind of change if we’re going to stay strong around the world.

Vicki, thank you very much for your time.

VD: Thank you, Erik.

Email: vicki (at) –