Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to the United States Congress in 1968, once said: “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”
This piece of advice inspired women across the U.S. who have been historically edged out of board rooms, executive meetings, and other ‘rooms-where-it-happens’ to demand a voice and seek positions of influence. “No” was no longer an acceptable answer.
Today, “No” is still not an acceptable answer. But while we were trying so hard to squeeze in a spot at the table, to turn these no’s into yes’s — we may have been missing the point. The idea isn’t to just win a seat at the table but to build our own tables. As women continue to make great strides toward equality, both in society and in the corporate world, we shouldn’t just keep asking for inclusion. Our goal should be to blaze our own trails, to start our own businesses, to create our own opportunities to make a difference, to build our own tables — and remind other women they have the power to do so too.
In many ways, this simple yet powerful philosophy has been a guiding principle in both my personal and professional life. And it has served me and many other women I know incredibly well over the years.
When I decided to play football professionally in 1999, many thought I was joking. Most people had never heard of professional women football players and it seemed predetermined long-ago that there wasn’t a space for women in the sport. But rather than just accepting this, my team and I created the first Women’s Professional Football League in the United States. We built our own table, and we changed the way people perceived women in contact sports.
The challenges my team faced along the way have taught me a lot about the importance of carving your own path when doors appear to be closed. I also realized that if a group of angry linebackers couldn’t stop me from getting to the end zone, no so-called glass ceiling could ever stop me from achieving whatever career goals I set for myself. This is why, when I decided to pursue a career in law, I didn’t just try to land a job at a prestigious law firm – I built my own award-winning practice.
Over time, as my proverbial table expanded, more women and men joined in to hear what I had to say. I’ve been invited to serve on Boards of Directors for several organizations I care deeply about, including the Girl Choir of South Florida, the World AIDS Museum, and the Children’s Diagnostic and Treatment Center. I’ve also been given the honor to serve my community as the Vice Mayor of Oakland Park, Florida.
Throughout it all, I’ve witnessed something truly inspiring: every day, more and more amazing women across our nation are taking charge, starting their own businesses, and making their voices heard loud and clear.
Today, women-owned businesses make up a staggering 42 percent of all businesses in the United States, according to the most recent State of Women-Owned Businesses Report by American Express. This is an amazing accomplishment, considering that women-owned businesses accounted for just 5 percent in 1972. Over the last five years alone, female entrepreneurship has increased by 21 percent. This year, the number of Fortune 500 women CEOs rose to 38, the highest it has ever been.
But women aren’t just embracing entrepreneurship and excelling in the corporate world, they are also making great strides in education and in governance roles.
The 2018 Congressional elections saw the single largest number of women elected to the U.S. Congress in our nation’s history, making up nearly a quarter of legislators. Additionally, the percentage of female state legislators has risen from 4.5 percent in 1971 to 24% in 2015.
Women have also repeatedly led the way in total college applicants and graduation rates since the 1990s. In fact, last year women tied men in the total number of the college-educated workforce, with numbers expected to rise.
These numbers serve as a testament to the fact that we as women are beginning to recognize our ability to not only earn a seat at someone else’s table, but to create entirely new spaces that are more equitable for ourselves and for others. We are realizing and actualizing our true potential.
Of course, there is still much more work left to be done. Despite increased representation in the government and business sectors, a substantial pay gap still exists, where even high-achieving women earn 81 cents for every dollar earned by men. And the total number of women as CEOs and on company boards still remains unacceptably low, with only 20% of company boards including women according to global non-profit Catalyst.
Effecting change is never easy, but it is worth it. And the only way we can continue this momentum is by working together and believing in our own potential. While there may be more seats for women at the table than ever before, we should never stop building our own tables in our quest for true equality, both in society and in the corporate world.
About the author
Jane Bolin is a successful attorney, entrepreneur, and current Vice Mayor of Oakland Park, Florida. She was recently appointed as the first-ever female Chair of the Global Governance Committee for the Entrepreneurs’ Organization, a global non-profit organization dedicated to helping entrepreneurs achieve greater business success.