Lady Business: Scandinavian gender utopias and International Women’s Day lip-service

Lady Business
March 14, 2019
Hello and welcome to Lady Business, a weekly newsletter about women, the business world, and all the ways they overlap. You can sign up for Lady Business and read previous issues here. This is the sixty-first issue, published March 14, 2019.

‘Science Girls’

“I think I have the best life ever,” she reflects. “I do music on the side, but I don’t have to put myself and my kids through the life of a musician.”
That’s from my second feature in the March/April issue of Inc., a profile of Christina Lampe-Onnerud, a Swedish scientist and American serial entrepreneur who’s spent decades trying to build better batteries for the computers and cars and residential grids that we all depend on:

Created in the late 1970s, lithium-ion batteries are providing energy for much more recent innovations, like smartphones, laptops, Teslas, smart homes, and green buildings. Our very way of life, not to mention our businesses, is increasingly dependent on battery power and storage with every passing recharge.

So the companies that can figure out how to boost power stand to turbocharge their own fortunes. The global lithium-ion battery market is nearing $60 billion, according to Global Market Insights, and demand for rechargeable batteries will grow as industries from personal electronics to automaking become increasingly reliant on their power.

It was one of the more technical (well, non-financial technical) features I’ve written in my career, and boy was the fact-checking process complicated. (Anodes and ions and cathodes, oh my!)But one of the things that drew me to the story, beyond the obvious importance of the technology it’s about, was the opportunity to profile an accomplished scientist of the sort rarely seen in the business press: a woman who’s an MIT-trained inorganic chemistry PhD; a would-be opera singer who still names her products and her conference rooms after musical terms; a mother who’s married to her high school sweetheart-turned-chief-technology-officer; and a woman who clearly cares about fashion and her feminine style, who generally wore skirts and jewelry and cute shoes to every interview (even when she was recovering from a leg she had broken while skiing with her family).

To my surprise, Lampe-Onnerud told me, she actually found this last part of her scientist identity easier to express in the United States than in her native Sweden:

After getting her PhD in inorganic chemistry at Sweden’s Uppsala University … Lampe-Onnerud was invited to do a post-doctoral fellowship at MIT. She fell in love with both the university and the country: “What a cool environment,” she raves, calling MIT much more welcoming than the sometimes “conformist society” she left behind in Sweden: “I like dresses and I like earrings and I have longer hair than most science girls” in Sweden, “so growing up, I heard it all the time.”
I tend to think of the Scandinavian countries as gender utopia, or certainly closer to it than the United States; Sweden consistently ranks as one of the top countries in the world for gender equality. But, as has regularly been pointed out, sometimes it’s easier to achieve equality for all citizens when your country is fairly homogenous and there’s that pressure to conform.Which doesn’t mean that the United States will displace Sweden anytime soon as a gender paradise! Or that we don’t still have a tremendous amount to improve. But too often there are so many reasons to get depressed about the landscape for women in science here. So it was heartening to hear that, at least for some accomplished women scientists, this country also has some things to admire.

Lady Bits:

Book Stuff: Thanks to Bobbi Rebell for naming Startup Money Made Easy one of her favorite books for March! Thanks also to PayPal, and to Bizzabo and Convene, for giving out copies of my book at events I moderated last week for International Women’s Day, and to the terrific speakers and attendees and organizers of those panels.–That said, I have … mixed … feelings on International Women’s Day. (Congratulations, ladies, we get one day! One!) On the one hand, obviously I participated in some (thoughtful and well-organized and not isolated) events to mark the day, and obviously this newsletter is in favor of sustained focus on gender issues. But that “sustained” is crucial. I also regularly see a lot of companies and groups that don’t do any meaningful work to support diversity and inclusion using IWD to check the “yay ladies!” lip-service box:

–“When she visited Fargo, N.D., in January, a sold-out crowd of nearly 4,000 women bested the previous record turnout for a chamber of commerce-hosted event, set when Shaquille O’Neal spoke there in 2017.” Semi-related to my book (we share a publisher), this is a good profile of bestselling author/lifestyle guru/marketing impresario Rachel Hollis.

–I can’t get over the lack of TV-critic coverage of Secret City, the best thriller about an ethical lady journalist out there. (Ha, because there’s so much competition for that title.) Maybe it’s the Australian setting and rather obscure-to-Americans political landscape for the show? But seriously, the six-episode second season dropped last week on Netflix and features:
–a tense, bingeable story
–a nuanced critique of American foreign policy and drone warfare in the Middle East
–an AOC-style populist lady politician who’s both brash and principled
a story led by women soldiers and politicians and media hounds and spies, surrounded by a supporting cast of tall, gorgeous men
–and that aforementioned ethical lady journalist, played by the always-awesome Anna Torv, who spends this season navigating the other side of the revolving door while still managing to be a good person and a fearless investigator.  Fingers crossed for a season three!

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