If you look up the top ten female innovators, how likely is it that you’ll recognize their names? Marie Curie, sure. Perhaps Shirley Jackson. And maybe you know about Rosalind Franklin, whose work showed that DNA was in fact arranged in a double helix. But Grace Hopper, who is responsible for computer programming? Or Ann Tsukamoto, who first isolated stem cells in 1991? I’m not trying to point fingers. I didn’t know most of the names, and I’ve been innovating for my entire career.
What wows me is that these women pursued their interests and curiosity, knowing, in all likelihood, that there would be no reward. They continued down their paths, unsure they would ever get any credit. They weren’t doing it for the big prize in the end, but because of their own passion and drive, regardless of outcome; their passion superseded any potential for public recognition.
This has been on my mind as we experience a sea change with how women—in particular, older women—are perceived. You have Nancy Pelosi, the only woman who to be speaker of the House, and now one of the oldest. The most diverse freshman Congress of all time. Susan Zirinsky, the first woman to run CBS News. And Glenn Close getting teary about her Golden Globe for The Wife.
Close told the crowd, “…women, we’re nurturers, that’s what’s expected of us. We have our children, our husbands if we’re lucky enough, our partners, whoever, but we have to find personal fulfillment, we have to follow our dreams.”
As a mother of three, I can attest to the fact that we’re built to think about the collective, not the self. The tendency is to care for your family, look out for your young, so you can’t help but take that kind of thinking toward the work that you’re doing. Of course, there are always exceptions, but on the whole, the nurturing quality in women make them very different decision-makers than their male counterparts.
Why is this something we should be paying attention to now? Because, according to this article in the New York Times, “There are more women over 50 in this country today than at any other point in history, according to data from the United States Census Bureau. Those women are healthier, are working longer and have more income than previous generations.”
Like me, these women are in the workforce, and they’re pursuing their passions, whether in politics, science or film. They are part of what I call the New Life Curve; as a result of increased longevity, these women have more productive years ahead of them. So, what can we expect in the years to come? More barriers broken, more passions pursued, and because of the way women are socialized, more benefits for society as a whole.
Perhaps this sounds overly exuberant. According to a PEW Research Center study released last year on women and leadership, less than 10% of Fortune 500 companies are run by women. And while more women have been running for political office, particularly since 1992, they comprise less than 30% of the Senate, the House, and state legislatures. Less than 20% of our country’s governors are women, while 30% of university presidents are women.
We all know that there is work to be done. But I want to focus on the gains being made, and the drive to make them. Throughout history, many women have weaved around the obstacle course in order to follow their dreams, not because of any accolades that awaited but simply because they wanted to create. That is laudable, and something to celebrate.