Notebook

August 29, 2013 7:48 pm

Role models who reach for the stars

A pioneering aviator and a certain Omaha grandmother have the right stuff to inspire women, writes Emily Steel
Marissa Mayer©Getty

The glamorous shots of Marissa Mayer in the September issue of Vogue have kicked off the latest round in the debate on women “leaning in” and leaning out at work. It is a conversation – spanning everything from the lack of women in leadership roles to the pay gap and parenthood – that has sparked and simmered and sparked again in the past year. Can women have it all or not? What is all, anyway?

I have been mulling over these questions as I prepare for the trip to my grandmother’s 95th birthday party in Omaha at the weekend. Tucked into my bag alongside a copy of Vogue – in which the Yahoo chief executive lounges backwards on a lawn chair in a curve-hugging dress and stilettos – is Beryl Markham’s 1942 memoir, West with the Night.

A few years ago, my grandmother sent me the pioneering aviator’s autobiography, which Ernest Hemingway deemed “bloody wonderful”. It chronicles her adventures growing up motherless in Kenya, scouting elephants as a bush pilot and flying solo east to west across the Atlantic – the first woman to do so. But that is not the point. Her story is powerful. It is a portrait of a courageous, resilient, vibrant adventurer who disregarded the rigid gender roles of her time. She did not simply lean in, she soared.

My courageous, resilient, vibrant grandmother was 24 when the book was published. Born in small-town Iowa in 1918, she attended university in Omaha then moved to Washington to work at the Red Cross. These were the days of Rosie the Riveter, when women went to work while the men fought the war. They had won the right to vote nearly two decades earlier but it was long before Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique ignited a new wave of feminism or Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, the Facebook chief operating officer’s 2013 manifesto for working women.

Tales of strong-willed women such as Markham were pillars of strength for my grandmother as she married, moved to Minnesota farmland, gave birth to seven sons and two daughters and mourned the death of her husband when her ninth baby was just months old. She moved her children to Omaha, blocks away from investor Warren Buffett’s modest home. She fed, clothed, educated and nurtured her family on her teacher’s salary, Social Security cheques and farm rental income.

The tragedies in her life are epic. She lost a son in a fire that burnt the family house to the ground, and three of her adult children to cancer. Her eldest son died after he fell out of a tree he was trimming. My brother, her grandson, passed away about four years ago.

She did not simply lean in: she had to do that to survive. She persevered and found reasons to smile. Poetry. Trips to Ireland. Sending texts – complete with heart-shaped emoticons – from her iPhone. One glass of beer and a small bowl of potato chips every day at 5pm.

As a 29-year-old woman, I have paid rapt attention to the debate on women and work. I do not have children but hope to some day. I am exhilarated by my job and believe in journalism’s ideals. At the same time, my peers talk of struggles negotiating promotions and pay rises.

banx cartoon

What disappointed me about Ms Mayer’s Vogue spread was not so much the glamour treatment as the way she presents herself as naive. “I didn’t set out to be at the top of technology companies,” she is quoted saying. “I’m just geeky and shy and I like to code.” In contrast, Ms Sandberg has set about inspiring women to embrace ambition and share their stories with her book and non-profit organisation. The Lean In campaign has its flaws but we need the stories it provides. We need specific details, as one colleague just told me, mentioning a tip from her mother about never being the first person to set the number in a salary negotiation and waiting 10 seconds before saying anything on the offer.

Women in the US make $0.77 for every dollar a man makes, while a survey from Elle magazine with the Center for American Progress shows only a fifth of men agree they would be paid less if they were female. A visit to 100percentmen, a Tumblr blog about “corners of the world where women have yet to tread”, shows that political and corporate arenas remain male-dominated.

These stories – whether about pioneering aviators, my grandmother or women chief executives – are what my peers and future generations will turn to when shaping their lives and society. “We fly, but we have not ‘conquered’ the air,” Markham wrote in her memoir. Indeed, we are flying. We just have farther – and higher – to go.

emily.steel@ft.com

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