Dr. Peggy Drexler, who is a former gender scholar at Stanford, is one of the smartest women with whom I’ve had the pleasure to work. She writes on a variety of incredibly important topics, from workplace difficulties to single and two-mother parenting, and she manages to do it in a way that is both captivating and informative. She is a published author, a regular contributor at Huffington Post, and was recently published in The Wall Street Journal.
Her headlines are often provocative (see: Women Might Not Be the Best Bosses… But They’re Not the Greatest Employees Either) and the content is always worth the click.
Here’s what Dr. Drexler has to say about feminism, queen bees and women who inspire her.
Do you identify as a “feminist”? What does that word mean to you?
I identify as a feminist in that I strongly support things like a woman’s right to choose what’s right for her body and her health, equal opportunities for women in education and employment, and equal pay for equal work. I believe in gender equality.
How do you think women’s issues have evolved in the last 40 years?
Immeasurably. Honestly, that’s a tough question to answer in a short space. Obviously, the women’s movement has made great, great strides in creating a world where many young girls grow up without once stopping to consider the possibility that they can’t do something a boy can do. We have women in the top levels of corporate America and U.S. politics, self-made female billionaires, women who decide to stay home to raise a family. At the same time while, yes, women are Fortune 500 CEOs, they’re only 2 percent of them. With just 16.8 percent of the House of Representatives being made up of women, women’s legislative representation ranks 78th in the world, tied with Turkmenistan.
What steps do you think women can take to be more supportive of each other?
I think women can be more supportive of one another in numerous ways. One is in the workplace, where studies show that most women feel undermined by another woman at some point in their career. I do think that women as a whole could be more generous with their time and emotional support of other women coming up. I recently wrote about the increase in the numbers of ‘queen bees’ in the workplace, women who aim to undermine or push aside their female employees out of insecurity, competitiveness, or some inherent unwillingness to help out other women. As more women rise to positions of power in the workplace, this phenomenon is growing, and not shrinking. It should be the other way around.
Do you think this “Queen Bee” phenomenon was born out of women adapting to the idea that there can be only one woman at the top?
In many ways, yes. Though women in power are growing, the numbers are still small, as I’ve noted. There is an insecurity created within the male-dominated corporate culture that successful women are the exception and not the rule. That there are relatively few of them seems to be taken as further proof to this fact. The explosion over Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In is an indication of how far we are from coming to terms with female leadership.
What advice would you give someone who is currently dealing with a “Queen Bee” situation?
The first would be to really consider whether this is in fact a Queen Bee you’ve encountered. Some who are called a Queen Bee are simply tough and demanding on other women, who expect them to be supportive and nurturing. It’s a perceived gender betrayal. But if you’re sure, my best quick advice is to be as communicative and clear with her as possible, to write everything down, and to do your job as best you can. Don’t give her any reason to believe she’s right about you.
What do you think is the most important characteristic for a woman to be successful in the workplace?
Women have it tough in the workplace. In order for women to succeed, they have to be different, extraordinary, and not too emotional. But in order for them to be respected by their employees, it seems these women also need to be relatable, likable, and “just like everyone else.” When they’re not, there’s major backlash. Ultimately, I think that women need to be true to themselves. It’s true that women generally have to work harder than men to achieve the same level of success. And so I’d say dedication and tenacity are of utmost importance. But I also think it’s important for women to not lose sight of what’s important to them. The most successful women tend to be the ones who place emphasis on some sort of work/ life balance, and not the ones who devote themselves exclusively to their jobs.
What women have inspired you in the past?
Many of the women I interviewed for my book, Raising Boys Without Men, about divorced, widowed, single-by-choice mothers and lesbian couples who raise boys in a world that still seems to tell us that boys need their father in order to grow up to be “real men.” These were women who displayed universal, unflagging strength and love and a dedication to raising their boys to become the very best they could be. I have also very much admired many of the women I interviewed for my book Our Fathers, Ourselves, about the ways in which the father/daughter relationship impacts women well into adulthood. Many of these women faced adversities growing up, but rather than view them as roadblocks instead saw such adversities as challenges to overcome. As a whole, they were thoughtful, self-reflective and took responsibility for their own lives without blaming others or their circumstances. They were can-do kind of women who would not allow themselves to feel or be victimized by anyone.
Who is a modern day feminist you admire?
Hillary Clinton is probably the most important modern day feminist, and one I greatly admire. As Secretary of State, she was well attuned to the needs of women at home and around the world. She worked hard to create programs that helped promote gender equality, and was crucial in motivating more women to vote. She proved herself not just as a highly effective female leader, but a highly effective leader— period. I also greatly admire Sonia Sotomayor, the model of a self-made woman. From her childhood growing up in the Bronx, the daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants and an alcoholic father, as she wrote in her memoir, she went on to Princeton, Yale, and, of course, the Supreme Court.
Do you have any suggested reading for someone wanting to learn more about the women’s movement?
I always find myself recommending Susan Faludi’s Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women and Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich. Vivian Gornick’s memoir, Fierce Attachments, is a powerful story of all we inherit as women.
But so many interesting works of fiction also champion feminism, in some way, everything from Pride and Prejudice and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, to Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook and Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go Bernadette? And, of course, Judith Krantz’s Scruples.
Fiction is a great, often more widely relatable, way to learn more about the women’s movement.