Avivah Wittenberg-Cox is a happy feminist in the middle of a lineage of powerful feminists. As a mother, wife, writer and citizen, she intents on gender balancing the power structures of countries, companies and couples, as well as the conversations to get us there. Some will say she is a bit obsessed!
Avivah was born in Canada in 1961, the year after the contraceptive pill that kicked off one of the biggest transitions in human history: a sharing of power between men and women — in the world, and at home. Born in Canada to a Holocaust-surviving, working mom (her father died when she was three-years-old), Avivah thought for the first decades of her life that the whole gender thing was ‘so over.’ Done. Obsolete. Her two older brothers and her saw proof of the all-powerfulness of women at home, every day. Her mother was a force of nature; a graceful, smiling testament to resilience.
Avivah awoke to these issues in her thirties, pregnant with her second child (a daughter), and living in Paris far from family. She started organising informal lunches with other professional women to figure out how to balance a life with work and children and everything else. This stab at a learning community / support group blossomed into what is now www.pwnglobal.net, a 30-city professional women’s network. A decade of serving as the President of this non-profit allowed Avivah to hear the stories of thousands of women across many different countries and their attempts to design new life forms through not-yet-adapted relationships, institutions and laws.
Avivah woke to the fact that far from the gender shift being over, it was just picking up speed. Now she sees how much gender balance (or its lack) affects every part of human existence: the political, the economic and the personal. Avivh told me she is fascinated by all of it.
After spending a decade working with women, Avivah spent the next decade working mostly with men. As CEO of 20-first, She works with corporate leaders and progressive companies to adapt to a more gender balanced century, talent pool and customer base. They work at reframing gender issues as a major economic opportunity for business, led by leaders and fuelled by facts. Avivah has written several best-selling books on this, including Seven Steps to Leading a Gender Balanced Business (Harvard Business Review) and WHY Women Mean Business (Wiley).
Avivah’s upcoming book, Late Love, is a much more personal, memoir-driven look at some of the consequences of shifting gender roles and expectations at home, and their impact on love in the latter half of lengthening lives. And on Avivah’s own life and family. She told me this is pushing her way beyond her comfort zone…
Being awe-strucked by Avivah’s amazing journey, I reached out to her and I’m glad to have her take time out of her busy schedule to give us an authentic and in depth insight to her story.
1. Humble Beginnings
Q: How did you get started and what or who inspired and empowered you to?
My mother. She taught me most everything. From my maternal language of French and love of France, a country I emigrated to age 20. As an academic and an intellectual, she taught me to argue for what you believe in, intelligently, and with well-crafted arguments and research. As a literature professor, she got me to love all things artistic — books and films and art and music, and we still discuss novels on our shared kindle as she hits her 92nd year. As a mother, she taught me how to raise independent, curious kids. But perhaps above all, simply having this adoring and adored mom survive what she did, raise me so completely, earn her own livelihood, without any family or history in her adopted country, so I never missed anything or anyone, gave me the unquestioned conviction that I could do anything I set my mind to. Anywhere. On my own. No sweat. So I did.
Q: What unique and creative strategies if any did you use when you were first getting started?
I was uniquely naïve I think. I didn’t know you could have a strategy. I certainly wasn’t familiar with the word. I just threw myself at life with genuine enthusiasm and very little planning. I didn’t see obstacles, so didn’t encounter many. I always felt a bit of a misfit, and got used early on to having an outsider status that served me well. I could observe systems and compare them. I loved to write, I loved tech and I loved people. The world welcomed those skills.
I landed in Paris as a very innocent 20-year old with a freshly minted degree in a relatively new field in 1981: computer science. I applied for jobs in the national newspaper, Le Monde, and had three job offers in a month. I got an early — and totally unexpected — introduction into global business, running around the world for L’Oreal designing computer systems. They were wild, frontier times, and I was lucky to meet a new need with some fresh skills.
Q: What mindset distinguished you from others who were doing the same thing? How did you develop it?
I think gender balance is one of the biggest transformations our race will experience in millennia. I think big picture about the moment we are in. Most historians and economists don’t deal much with gender issues. The human experiment of sharing power between men and women is a massive — and massively interesting — revolution. I think it is hugely underestimated in both its impact and potential. I see things pretty big picture. This gives me a certain context and patience to stay the course. It also gives me the conviction to push the issue to the very top of the strategic agenda.
I love numbers, people and words. And use all of them to argue the gender case. It’s hard to resist. Data, these days, is a girl’s best friend.
3. What is your definition of success?
Professionally: I have been privileged to focus on something I care about deeply. The world will balance and know peace when men and women share power equally. I have worked for a couple of decades at building gender balance: liberating men and their institutional constructs from the damaging straightjacket of traditional masculinity and women from the minimising stereotypes that hold them back, and allow both genders to partner into becoming fully human. Only then will countries, companies and couples truly thrive. That would be what I call a success.
Personally: Something to do, someone to love and something to hope for.
Q: What do you think is the main reason why some people face failure when going after their vision?
They use the word. I don’t. I don’t fail, I learn. Most entrepreneurs are the same. If something doesn’t work, it’s almost as interesting (sometimes more) than if it does. And I’m not after success. I’m just curious.
5. What is the best piece of advice you have received or came across and would like to share with everyone?
1. Start (your day, your week and your year) with what you care about most.
2. Weak links (people you know little) are often a lot more helpful to every major change you want to make than people you know well. Reach out. Way beyond your comfort zone.
3. Learn to listen well.
To view Avivah’s work and get in contact with her visit 20-first.com
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