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By Elizabeth Schaeffer Brown

When I graduated from Barnard College (Columbia University’s Women’s College ) over a decade ago, my class was not treated to the uplifting feminist message we had come to expect from our feminist professors.  Joyce Purnick, the first woman metro editor at the Times, contradicted the feminist-era message that women could have it all and be the equals of men when she stated that women with children simply could not compete with women who did not have children and, of course, with men.  Essentially, she told us to have children or have a career. We couldn’t have both.

Last year Sheryl Sander, the Facebook’s COO, chided Barnard graduates not to “leave before you leave.”  As soon as women decided to have children, she observed, they checked out and stopped trying.  She exhorted the next generation of women to hang in there and not give up the fight despite the male-dominated culture, but her pep talk was remarkably empty in light of the facts. Many years after the feminist revolution, women occupy so few positions of power.  The numbers are discouraging: women make up 17 percent of United States Senators, 16.8 percent of the House of Representatives, 12 percent of governors, 2 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, 6 percent of top earners, 8 percent of top leadership positions, and 16 percent of board directors and corporate officers. The same statistics apply to academics, religion and other top professions.

Neither of the Barnard commencement speakers addressed the problem as well as Anne-Marie Slaughter, professor and member of the Obama administration under Hillary Clinton.  She says the problem is very simple: women can’t have it all and they shouldn’t want to because men make all the rules. In a world created by men, where people are “time macho,” competing to log the most hours in the office, and where spending time with one’s family is seen as a weakness, there is no reason that women should strive for equality with men.  The rules of the game are not fair to women—we have known this for years.  We need to take charge of the culture, but not by becoming like men. We need to set our own rules.

I was not surprised to learn that women are currently starting their own businesses at two times the rate of men.  I have started my own businesses because I wanted to choose the kind of work I would do and when and where I would do it. I knew I wanted to have a family, and I had already seen first hand how little having a family mattered to the corporate world. I came to the conclusion that in our society, a society structured by men for men, if you are working for someone else, you are making them rich and making yourself time poor.  Women need to put themselves in a position to change the attitudes about where people work and what value family plays in people’s lives, and there is no better way to do this than starting one’s own business. 

I am started Maiden Nation with Willa Shalit and Juliana Um because I wanted to do as Sheryl Sander suggested in her Barnard commencement speech and be part of a cultural change where women are in charge of their own lives, setting their own rules for themselves and for other women.  By starting our own businesses, we work in the way we want, on the schedule we want, but more importantly we determine what is fair for us and for those who work for us. We can decide, for instance, that flexible work schedules matter more than time macho.  We can decide that working remotely can improve productivity, creativity and loyalty.  We can decide how and where women will work best and what kind of products women need and want.  It is time we stopped asking to be part of the game and started our own game with our own rules.