Women’s ability and strength to lead, to take charge, and move up the ladder at work has been a much discussed issue since Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer, wrote her book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.
Ms. Sandberg’s book laments the dearth of women as visible leaders in the workplace. She wants to inspire women to emerge and become more ambitious in the roles they can play, and to assertively and aggressively reach for new goals while continuing the fight for equality so daringly and visibly begun by the women’s movement in the early 70s.
Among the many responses to Sandberg’s book that I hear in the workplace, are, “Why do women need so much help, so much instruction and support, to move into leadership positions? Leaders just plain lead! No lessons! Maybe they really just plain can’t or don’t want to!”
And then we see Texas State Senator Wendy Davis stand up and deliver a 13-hour filibuster in a hostile environment, killing a bill to close women’s clinics throughout Texas – and doing it singlehandedly! It reminds us that leadership, courage, strength, and a fighting spirit are all there – all part of women’s abilities. (It’s the lioness that hunts and kills and takes care of the cubs while the lion takes a nap…) So why is there still so much difficulty around how women are perceived – and how they feel about themselves – with regard to the issues of leadership and authority?
I’d like to talk about how come women who surely can and have led – judging by all the famous female pioneers and iconoclasts in our history – are still having a such a hard time being seen and recognized in the workplace today.
Let’s start by just looking at the commonly accepted adjectives that define leadership in the workplace: strong, assertive, aggressive, commanding, decisive, powerful, dominant, take-charge. Do these automatically call forth a woman’s “image” in our society?
What adjectives does a woman’s image call up, from time immemorial? Pretty, feminine, charming, well-dressed, soft-spoken, sexy, nurturing, care-taking, supportive, understanding, emotional.
What comes to mind even when you think of the words Masculine and Feminine? Don’t they still bring forth deeply ingrained stereotypes that surely don’t reflect women’s new 21st century accomplishments as leaders or even men’s newly minted, expressive roles as nurturing, care-giving dads?
So let’s take an atavistic look back at where all this came from – a look at the intrinsic qualities we all carry forward from when our species started – in order to see what expectations we always had about each other and ourselves. And please consider how those characteristics that defined us through the centuries still affect us today.
I’ll paint the picture, in simple primary colors, of what roles were carved out for us given our physical makeup. Roles were created based on where we were most needed and suited. Men, who had the larger shoulder girdles and bigger muscles, had to leave the cave and become the providers – the ones who could kill the dangerous game, pull the plows, and build the shelters. So they learned about the outside world and what it took to survive and make things happen.
And women? Being the “birthers,” they needed to stay indoors, to tend to their offspring, to wait and hope with other women that their men would come home to the communal cave. And to learn nothing about the kind of survival the world “out there” demanded, let alone how to take command and “make it happen.” They passively accepted the events that happened and just carried on.
Millennia came and went but the roles stayed essentially the same, because the basic needs didn’t change. Moving into recorded history, it’s little wonder that the visible male roles that implied strength and courage should make men the leaders, as governing bodies began to be formed. After all, the women’s experience was so much smaller and more limited. Even with their strengths and talents, they were essentially invisible, not public.
But, from their earliest cave days, what did women get good at? Relating to others, nurturing, listening, sharing, and working together with other women whose lives were so similar and who shared common problems. Sure, some women always emerged as leaders in the group – keeping peace, solving problems, being courageous or wise or outgoing – but they all learned to find friends they could count on and talk with, who understood them, and would respond when needed.
So we have men in the outside world, who needed to learn to be soloists, to compete for position – skill or power – to visibly continue as heads of families or societies and forge ahead, successfully or not. And that lasted till the last two generations began to rethink their roles and make up their own rules about what they would and should do.
And women? Over the centuries women’s roles depended on men. Their lives and futures needed a man to select them and bestow upon them the title of legitimate, recognizable woman – qualified as desirable, as wife, mother, caretaker and visible prize. Otherwise they were the leftovers, the maiden aunts, the teachers, librarians, and governesses that had failed in the earlier competition for men to give them their key roles.
And who believed in these predictable assignments, in the implied descriptions of what to expect – even demand – from men and women? We all did!
To this day little boys are asked to “be strong and take it like a man” and little girls are admired for being “so sweet, graceful, and pretty” (and I know there are enlightened parents whose parenting is much broader, but it’s still the general attitude).
So here we are now, with women breaking out of their traditional roles in visible numbers. Little wonder at the reception we’re getting from men – no, not all, of course, but enough to create the general unease that still causes them to turn laws and expectations against us.
What is this unease about? “Well, if women change their roles, what is now demanded of us?” men are asking.
And women are saying, “Move over, we’ll play in your yard too, now.” Unnerved and challenged – since it’s an old habit to keep the roles clear – men still imagine us women as the decorative, softer, more compliant nurturers. But bosses? Ugh. This invasion not only challenges them to move over and adjust but to also rethink their roles. It makes men wonder, “Who will I be now? What role does this create for me? And hmmm… what else might I like to do?”
Now consider how much it challenges women. They still need to fight the ingrained traditions, not only in their quest for some new turf but also against their own feelings, that genetic, physical draw to still be both a traditional nurturer and homemaker.
What about younger women, those who now have so many opportunities carved out by the women’s movement? They still need to learn the how-tos, the skills and techniques for moving into leadership and feeling like they belong there. Let’s not forget that their role models in that exalted leaders’ territory are still relatively few.
It’s not second nature to all women to roar to the front. It depends on personal drive, desire, background, and intention, as well as courage and feeling legitimate as they stride forth. So they need to learn some new approaches to withstanding the hostility and disbelief, to becoming dexterous and comfortable as leaders, and how to create a new space for fulfilling themselves in the world. Women kicking over a millennia of role demarcations is a tough assignment. The stereotypical slots they’re climbing out of cause deep, internal, personal battles to be fought across the board – and in the boardroom.
Can woman do this? Hah! Just look at Wendy Davis, for one. And we can now also do the hard “outside” physical jobs since no strength and big muscles are required to run our newly formed techie world, just brainpower, creativity, and the ability to relate to people as a perceptive executive. And we’ve always been great at that.