Big Think Interview With Elizabeth Debold

A conversation with the Senior Editor of EnlightenNext magazine.
  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Question: Are women more or less sad than they were four decades ago?

Elizabeth Debold: This new study that's been done, that has shown that women are less happy than they have been since the '70's, that at the start of the women's movement, women appeared to be happier than they're reporting now. Now, there are a lot of different ways to think about what that means and what that's about. It could be that women were too locked into being good women, than to say that they were unhappy, I mean, that could be part of it. Could be just great honesty on women's part.

But I think that if you look at what's happened over the last, almost 40 years, women's role, which is a role that women have been, has given women dignity, that women have been known for, have been identified with, which is being caretakers, being the ones who kind of hold the hearth together, that hold the heart of culture, has become optional. It's not something that you have to do anymore. We hope that women's roles will be valued more, but those traditional roles are still not seen as the most valuable part of culture. And so it's the thing by which we've known ourselves, by which we've understood how to be in the world, has been made not so necessary. Yet the world of work is still very much structured as if it's for men who have wives at home, who are taking care of the kids.

So we're in a very funny place. We're at a point of real transition in the culture. And I think that a large part of women's unhappiness has to do with not feeling where they're supposed to be. And I think the thing is that there isn't a supposed to be anymore a place that is going to be safe for women- that we can find and where we can be secure. If you think about what makes a lot of women around the world happy or would make them happy, would be safety, security. In many ways, that world is gone. Particularly for post modern in the west.

So what new do we have that would be as fulfilling and, you know, be able to tap something very deep in us that allows us to make a contribution? That question really hasn't been answered yet. And I think because of that, that at a deep level, women, because what this study pointed to, is that it's actually women all over the globe are reporting less happiness. And I think that's because women around the world can look and see options when they don't have any, and that is a source of unhappiness and those of us who do have options say, "But I don't know what to do." "I don't know what I can do that will really make my life meaningful and give me a deeper purpose for being here," because all the traditional ones don't really hold our hearts and our passions and our creativity any longer.

Question: What is the next step for women?

Elizabeth Debold: Will women end up taking on sort of the male role that work is our identity? A lot of women have done that. And a lot of those women are asking the same question, what's the purpose? What's the point of doing this? Is this really creating the world that I want?

I think that the next step for women is going to be really interrogating really, inquiring into the question of purpose. What are we doing here? What is it, what can we build together? What can we create together? How can we come together to be a force in culture? I was talking to someone today who is a very well respected convener of large processes, you know, like the kinds of things that have been done, like at the UN. And I said something about women needing to find a deeper authority in themselves and finding a deeper purpose from that authority. And he said, "Yes, because women give up." And I think that a lot of businesses at this point see that investing in women is difficult, because women often leave. It's like, "Why would I train someone for seven years and then have her split?" And women are saying, "Why do I want to be there when I don't really feel that it's making a difference?"

So I think that there's going to be a new and energized conversation about what are we doing here? What world are we creating? And I think that's something that women need to begin to do together, but not in a way like it was done in the '70's, where it was, we're doing this together and because we're victimized by men, but we're doing this together because there are structures in ourselves that keep us from being able to be the kinds of agents of change that we need to be in order to create the world that we want.

Question: Are men struggling with the same dilemma?

Elizabeth Debold: I think men have a need for purpose and I think if you look at younger men and, you know, you look at men in their 20's, 30's, sort of the Gen X and Gen Y generations, I think part of what is going on there, is they're saying "What's the point?" "Are you kidding me?" "I'm going to work for 20 years in this business and get what for it? It's like, and they do things around the world that I don't feel that I can be behind. Forget about it.

Now, we're talking about young people at the leading edge of culture, we're not talking the vast swath of folks who are living in a more traditional context. We're talking about people whose lives have been blown open by the last 40 years and who have grown and come of age in a world where, hey, you pick your life, you know, you choose what you want to do. And in that context, there's a real, I think a lot of young men feel confronted by, "Well, what can I do that would make a difference? Or that would matter anyway?" I think this is true for many young men and young women. And I think men of the older generation, boomer men, are more part of the system and have been part of the system and find more of a sense of congruence with “I'm making this happen, the world, my business, it's my project, I'm making this happen, and I find meaning in that. And I’m a master of my own universe and I'm creating something in the world and I'm proud of that.” And I think younger people feel less able to kind of enter and engage with. And don't want to come in at the bottom. Which may be a misguided notion, but the sense of purpose for all of us is becoming only more and more urgent.

Question: When it comes to women, what has sex become?

Elizabeth Debold: I think recreational sex has been something that's been around for quite some time and certainly has been exploded into popular culture with the '60's generation. Sex has become more and more commoditized. I read an article recently about prostitution being a new, like lucrative life choice for young women. I think the new Freakonomics book was mentioning that.

Women's sexuality-- everybody knows that, all you have to do is look around you, you know, and you can see that. What's fascinating is in this context where women are very much sexualized and commoditized in the marketplace, that young women are remarkably percentage wise non-orgasmic. And I find that absolutely fascinating. That the same young women who are strutting their stuff and acting super confident in relationship to their sexuality, are often not having or experiencing pleasure in sex, at least not at the orgasm level. And I think that that shows that there's a real disjunct between what it is that young women want and need in order to be really, stay really connected with themselves, and sort of where the culture has been going.

So will there be some kind of push back in relation to that? I don't know. But I think that women need to start having a conversation about this and I think young women need to start having a conversation about this.

Question: What do women want?

Elizabeth Debold: What do women want? I think if you have to ask the question, which women? Who are we talking about? Because I think that for most women on this planet, what they want is security, a safe place to be able to raise their children, a way to ensure that their children's lives are in some ways better than their own. These are classic things that women have wanted for, probably for millennia.

But if you're asking it of someone who watches Big Think, who are typically more progressive, you know, educated, post modern women, what do we want? I think what we want is the capacity to really make a difference and to have a deeper connection with an authenticate source of power, with a deeper way of being that allows us to have a kind of confidence that is very rare in women. I think we want dignity, respect, and those things are home come by for us women. If you look at, maybe look at the landscape of billboards and advertisements and television shows, you don't see a lot of women with dignity. That's not a characteristic of woman in popular culture at this point.

So I think that there are deep things that women are looking for, a new role in culture. A new way to be able to be active and engaged co-creators of culture. And that's not been our role ever. And I think that women are hungry to be able to do that and the thing is, we often give up, long before we ever even really start to make any headway or we give up very, too easily on that dream of making a difference and having a deeper purpose and authenticity in authority.

Question: Why are women known for backing down?

Elizabeth Debold: I think that because we're very conflict avoidant. I think that when the going gets tough and creative friction starts and you're not sure where things are going to go, I think that we women often want to control things and that's not the way to create something new, or we withdraw. In many ways, we withdraw from the edge of a creative process with other people. We're afraid of the conflict, so it's like, okay, everyone be quiet now. Or no, we're going to do it some other way, or I'm out of here.

And I think that because of having a role as kind of an equal partner and real co-creator in culture is still, to a great extent, optional. That, too, is optional. The being a wife and mother is now optional, but also having work in the world and engaging as a creator in culture is also optional. So whenever things get tough, you can back out. And I think that they're very, very deep reasons why a kind of backing away and self protection is almost an instinctive reaction in women, to things when they get charged and when they get tough. And to be able to be in touch with a deeper creative impulse that allows you to really engage and allows you to engage creatively and with that kind of creativity that you don't know where it's going to go, you don't know what's going to happen next, you're not sure whether or not the room's going to explode, someone's going to get upset, you don't know what's going to happen. To be able to really drive from that place in yourself, that's not a place that women are accustomed to coming from. And as a result, we often opt out, give up, and back down.

Recorded on November 2, 2009