On Women in Leadership and International Women’s Day with Entrepreneur, Philanthropist, and Trailblazer Liz Elting
Happy International Women’s Day! I know it’s strange to say “happy” anything in this moment — particularly at such a complex time for women in American history — but we’re going to need that kind of defiantly celebratory energy to create the change we so desperately need. International Women’s Day has increasingly taken on a ra-ra atmosphere over the past few years — a forceful pushback against continued assaults on equality — energized by the #MeToo movement and fueled by a political atmosphere that demanded widespread activism. That energy and enthusiasm is more vital now than ever. The pandemic has had an outsize effect on women — and while I know we’re all beyond exhausted at this point — women have borne the brunt of the challenges created and exacerbated by the pandemic. There is much work to be done, and what is International Women’s Day if not an opportunity to reflect on that work and recommit ourselves to the future.
With that in mind, I sat down with my longtime friend (and I mean long), entrepreneur, philanthropist, trailblazer, and Founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, Liz Elting.
Let me tell you a little about Liz.
Liz is — to understate it — a dynamo. She’s a true trailblazer in every sense of the word and an inspiration to myself and no doubt countless others. She co-founded a company out of an NYU dormitory that turned into the world’s largest provider of language solutions. A polyglot, one of the world’s richest self-made women, and a tireless advocate for women, Liz’s life and career has spanned continents. She now serves as Founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, which supports women entrepreneurs and, during these last twelve critical months, took on the mission of providing direct pandemic relief efforts to underserved communities, supporting healthcare equality, addressing food insecurity, and partnering with the American Heart Association to fund social entrepreneurs doing the on the ground work. We talked about this moment in history, where we’ve been, and what the future has in store.
Eric Yaverbaum: Hey, Liz! It’s wonderful to talk with you as always. I always love your insights and ideas, and at this historical inflection point, so many ideas that I once took for granted are up in the air. What do you think makes this moment so special?
Liz Elting: Well, exactly that.
Eric: How so?
Liz: You called this a “historical inflection point.” That is obviously true. The cultural and political conflicts and developments of the last, I don’t know, century or so are all boiling over at once. You see it everywhere. The world is changing all around us. That’s not just an inflection point; it’s a revolutionary moment. And we’re seeing that revolutionary spirit all around us in ways both wonderful and frightening. The Equality Act, too, is revolutionary, an effort to bring more and more marginalized Americans into the social and political community. We have multiple competing versions of not only interpretations of events, but the brute facts of them as well. We have our nation’s first woman vice president in Kamala Harris at a time in which men accused of abusing women are still able to remain in and gain power. We had the biggest protests in American history against racial violence last summer all while Black and Brown Americans are still losing their lives to it with horrifying regularity. We have, as a society, extended marriage rights to the LGBT community at the same time that we, again as a society, have placed a culture war target on the backs of the trans community. Social media has mobilized the best of us and the worst of us, giving women and marginalized communities space to share their experiences without mediation right alongside facilitating the spread of right-wing extremism and misogyny. Everything is up for grabs.
Eric: Right. The issues facing women, and the country as a whole, were already extensive, and the pandemic has only exacerbated them.
Liz: Yes, many of these problems aren’t new, we’ve been grappling with them throughout history. But the pandemic cracked wide open the systemic gaps that have held back women in the country. Women have suffered particular privations as a result of it — it’s quite literally set our progress back decades. Over two million women have effectively been forced out of the workforce, bringing our participation levels to the lowest they’ve been since Dukakis ran for president. That places an immense weight on women, because it leaves us in vulnerable positions and has a compounding impact on our collective future. Women without financial independence are, for example, less able to escape abusive partners. And once out of the workforce, women face far more hurdles returning to it and having to make concessions even when they do. Moreover, fewer women in positions to hire and promote also means exponentially fewer women getting hired and promoted. The loss of women’s jobs to the pandemic is going to have economic reverberations for decades to come, reducing lifetime earning potential and hampering generations of women’s progress. This impact cannot be overstated.
Eric: Let’s talk more about financial independence. You’re a big believer that women need to pursue it. That seems like common sense advice, but millions of women remain financially dependent on their partners. What keeps it out of reach?
Liz: Countless factors, lots of which can all be bundled together under the umbrella of casual, unconscious misogyny. I’ve written a lot, for example, about pregnancy discrimination, because I think that feeds disproportionately into women’s underemployment. A woman who is married with or without children or who simply discloses that they’re dating someone sees significant penalties applied to their chances at being hired, simply because many still hold archaic biases — conscious and unconscious — that they’re less likely to stick around or that the job won’t be their number-one priority. Now, I could speak volumes about the insistence on living for your work (which, as a cultural value, dates to postwar capitalism and the idealized Ward-and-June-Cleaver-style nuclear family), but suffice it to say, there is a model of the ideal professional worker that women have a harder time meeting because we carry so many presumed obligations regarding childcare and home management. For anyone who wasn’t convinced before, the pandemic made it painfully clear how even in households where both partners are working full time, it’s the woman who is expected to manage childcare, handle homeschooling, take care of the cleaning and cooking, and all those other household labors that many men have been able to take for granted (even when we’re the primary breadwinner).
Eric: You’re also a big believer in positivity. Tell me about what it means to you.
Liz: Thanks for bringing that up! As you know, and for those who do know me, I am a very positive person. It’s important for me to use my platform to draw attention to critical and complex issues (that often don’t have easy solutions), but I really don’t like dwelling on the bad. It’s not productive or helpful to grimly stare at problems you feel powerless to solve instead of working within your ambit to make the world better. That’s always my big priority: how can I help? What constructive efforts are within my reach that can make this a better place for the next generation of women? Positivity gets me up in the morning and motivates me to do my best, every day, as much as I can. We need hope, and while I want to make sure people are paying attention to the things we need to fix, I also want to make sure I’m spreading a message of hope and being clear that no matter how big the problem, together, we can solve it.
Eric: Finally, what do you think is on the horizon for women in this country?
Liz: I know we have the power to mold our own futures. Yes, there will always be forces arrayed against us; I don’t think there is any way we can reasonably expect all of the challenges before us to simply disappear, and I think dismantling structural sexism will take more than our lifetimes. But I also have unreserved, unyielding, unlimited faith in what women can achieve. I don’t like to prognosticate; I got out of that business a long time ago. There’s a ceiling to my insight and understanding because I, like everyone in history, am a particular person living in particular circumstances. There will certainly be, and already are, women who bring their genius and their insight to bear on the world in unexpected ways. I always like to point to Stacey Abrams in that respect; her fight for voting rights and registration has been hard and unglamorous but genuinely transformative. Our future’s key will be found in the grueling, tenacious, unrelenting hard work on the ground by women like Abrams. I like to remind myself that young women have been the primary driver of linguistic change throughout history. Young women, just hanging out and talking, introduce new ways of speaking that they then pass down to future generations. That’s the most potent kind of power we have: to shape the future in countless different ways.