Nervy Women of the Future

Liz Ryan

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I was in the car with my five-year-old and my seven-year-old. The very left-brain-dominant seven-year-old asked, “Are there actually vehicles that can travel into the future?" I thought for a minute, and said “You know, the thing about the future is, every single minute is the future compared to the minute before. So right now is the future compared to this morning. And tomorrow morning is the future, as we sit here now. So, you could say that this car is driving into the future, this very moment. "

The two kids sat and chewed on that for a minute as I turned into the supermarket parking lot. Then the five-year-old yelled out, “Mom, look! It's the grocery store of the future!"

Smart aleck kid. But the kid is right - this IS the future. I used to daydream, when I was their age, about the days we're living in now - it seemed so remote and inconceivable that I'd actually be alive in a different milennium, years that had no “19" on the front of them. How could it be? And here we are. I had no definite mental picture for these days, couldn't imagine being 40. All I saw in my mind's eye was a kind of rosy, pleasantly-colored place where grownups had a lot of fun and read interesting books all day.

When I was in eighth grade, women were pushing for an amendment to the U. S. Constitution, the Equal Rights Amendment. I was floored and discouraged when it didn't pass. But I never thought for a second that my chances - to do whatever I might want to do, as I got closer to adulthood - were limited by that setback. When I went out looking for my first post-waitress, post-babysitting job, the papers were full of ads for “Gal Fridays. " This seems laughably historical today. But at the time, a Gal Friday (as I understood it then) was a pivotal role in an office, the person who knows what's going on. This was a big improvement over the even more historical, stereotypical secretary job popularized on TV and in movies as a cute blonde thing in a short skirt, being chased around the desk by the boss.

A lot of the rhetoric back in the those days went something like this: You Women Are So Demanding. You Don't Know When to Stop Asking for Handouts. In the sixties, women wanted to be in the workforce, not marginally there as extra office help, or nurses or teachers (not that those aren't incredibly important roles), but as professionals of all kinds, and not just until we got married. And as the sixties turned into the seventies, that started to happen. Then we had the nerve to push for equal pay. Equal pay!?! How can you pay a woman like a man?, was the complaint, Companies will go broke. We haven't reached parity yet, but women's pay is getting better vis-à-vis men's pay, by a tiny bit every year. We were not satisfied, and we shouldn't have been. We want to be in management, we said. We want to be in traditionally male jobs like in the building trades, in technology and in manufacturing. We want to be surgeons, astronauts and senators.

Those changes began to happen, too. Then we said, We want to be entrepreneurs, and we want to have access to funding the way that male entrepreneurs do. Fighting words! For all the mythology built up around the go-go 90's and the dotcom era, there were plenty of rock-hard paradigms that didn't shift one little bit. Women got barely one percent of the venture capital dollars invested during the internet boom. But look - we didn't need those sources of funding to go on our own. Women are launching businesses at a rate never seen before, downturn be danged. And we still aren't satisfied.

Now we say, We should be in corporate leadership, we should be on corporate Boards of Directors. We make the vast majority of family purchasing decisions and our voices should be heard - we should have a say in the way that companies are run. We have requirements that aren't being met. We will blow whistles, we will complain, and we will take our business elsewhere. Nervy! Who do we think we are, half the population or something?!

Not content to have a couple of seats in government, not content have a couple of our own in high-profile corporate roles, now we want even more. We want companies to be managed in an ethical way, and we want to have meaning in our work. Meaning! We should be happy to have a job, for Pete's sakes! When will we be content? When will women stop complaining? Here's when:

When the picture of the future we dreamed up and colored in as children is the one we experience every day. When companies are citizens of the communities they operate in, and people in organizations are respected and their work is valued and their lives outside of work are viewed as high priority engagements. And when women are heard in government, in corporate leadership and in the circles where investment dollars move from hand to hand. We're not asking for that much, the way we see it. Just to be riding up in the front seat in that car going into the future.

Liz Ryan is a former Fortune 500 HR leader, a workplace expert and the founder of the global online network WorldWIT ( She writes the workplace column for Business Week online, her own Business Mom and Job Jungle blogs at, and speaks internationally on women in the workplace, work and life, and the post-millennial corporate lifestyle. Liz lives in Boulder, Colorado with her husband and five children.

If you're looking for advice or have questions related to your job, just ask Liz! You can email Liz at


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