As a public speaker, I’m always looking for ways to engage my audience. One old trick–which I never use, precisely because it is so old–is to challenge executives and entrepreneurs to imagine their obituary in The New York Times. What impact did you have? What contribution did you make? What kind of life did you lead?
As it turns out, this audience-participation exercise requires a special act of imagination for women. Consider this amazing statistic, brought to you by a Web site called The NYTpicker, which pokes, prods, and otherwise critiques the world’s greatest newspaper. For the month of August, The New York Times ran 78 obituaries, but only six were of women. For 2010 as a whole, the Times has published 698 obituaries–and only 92 were of women.
What’s going on here? The question is especially vexing since the percentage of women in the paper’s 2010 obituaries is virtually identical to the percentage of women chronicled in Times obituaries back in 1990. “Are the world’s prominent women–the ones deserving of NYT obituaries–simply living forever?” the NYTpicker wonders. “In the last two decades, has there been zero growth in the number of notable women who’ve died? Does it stand to reason that no more women have worked their way into the limelight in the last twenty years than in the previous twenty?”
It’s always fun to challenge a powerful institution like The New York Times–especially when it is (ahem) dead wrong.
But the real issue, I’d submit, goes beyond a “gender gap” in the editorial offices of one newspaper. It speaks to basic questions of life, work, success, and how society (and all of us) measure those attributes.
For example, Who really matters? So much of how we continue to define impact (one reason to deserve a prominent obituary) involves people with high-profile positions in established organizations–big-time lawyers, Fortune 500 executives, investment bankers and money managers.
Yet in an age of huge problems and great flux, many of the people who have a real, game-changing impact are startup founders, social entrepreneurs, community activists, nonprofit leaders–the sorts of innovators to whom we pay plenty of attention today, but who have been flying under the radar for decades. I’d much rather read about the passing of a gifted educator, or a committed neighborhood leader, or a beloved nun, than yet another starched-shirt banker or lawyer. These unsung heroes and grassroots innovators don’t live forever–even if their ideas and impact do.
A related question is, What really matters? As a society and business culture, we still tend to equate money with success. If someone is rich, the thinking goes, he or she may or may not be a no-good SOB, but a fortune is evidence that someone is smart, or at least shrewd, and no doubt a success. Which helps to explain why so many wealthy males get The New York Times obituaries, while women who died with smaller bank accounts, but who may have led richer lives, don’t get the attention they deserve.
If we’ve learned anything from the boom-and-bust cycles over the last 20 years, it’s that money is a pretty empty (and fleeting) metric of success. I think back often to an interview we published in an early issue of Fast Company with the philosopher Jacob Needleman, a professor at San Francisco State University, who wrote a great book called Money and the Meaning of Life.
“What’s your definition of success?” we asked Needleman. His answer: “To be totally engaged with all my functions, all my faculties, all my capacities in life. To me that would be success. I grew up around the Yiddish language, and in Yiddish there are about 1,000 words that mean ‘fool.’ There’s only one word that means an authentic human being: mensch. My grandmother would say, ‘You’ve got to be a mensch,’ and that has to do with what we used to call character. To be successful means to have developed character.”
Maybe it’s time to pay more attention to the legacy of people with deep character than those with overflowing bank accounts. They may be harder to find (Forbes doesn’t publish a list of the World’s 400 Best People), but they may offer richer lessons about what it means to succeed.
So as I think about the bizarre gender gap in the obituary page of The New York Times, I worry less about what it says about the newspaper of record–and more about what it tells all of us about who deserves such recognition in the first place, and what their stories might suggest about a life well-lived.
Come to think of it, maybe that exercise I dismissed at the outset of this post isn’t such a bad idea. Imagine your obituary in the Times. What do you hope it will say?
Reprinted from Harvard Business Review