Wendy Davis vs. “Lean In” – Do Women Need Help to Lead?

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.

Please be sure to like my Facebook page, follow me on Twitter, and join my LinkedIn network.

Advertisements

The Travyon Martin Case and the Media

Let me begin by telling you that I’m a long-time jury consultant who’s studied and interviewed juries, worked on many cases and written three books about what makes jurors listen and how they decide. Because of this, I’ve spent a lot of time over the years as a commentator on the media discussing famous cases (including the whole O.J. Simpson case live on daily TV) and analyzing how jurors would see the developments in the case, what the issues are for lay people in these cases, what they believe and understand and so on.

So I’ve been watching the Trayvon Martin case and how it has advanced with a practiced eye. And although I’m pleased to see that it has now finally moved into the courts and the judicial system, where it belongs, I shake my head about how it got it there and what’s happening to the original intentions of how American law is supposed to be practiced.

You’ve probably heard the phrase “to be tried by a jury of their peers,” yes? When our system of laws was formed, “a jury of their peers” was indeed possible and made lots of sense. It meant that not only would most people in any town know the accused and his family but that the jurors thus chosen (though I must decry the fact that it was then only men who were asked to serve… ) all lived in the same environment, understood the efforts of life in that place and shared a number of the common burdens as well as benefits they lived with. They were part of one community and would therefore understand the problems people faced as well as share conclusions about what was a mutually beneficial way to live together and what was out of bounds. And they did utilize the laws of the land as they were created and given.

Well, we have surely grown from those days. Juries today don’t often reflect or share the lives of those accused and may have come to vastly different conclusions about how life should be lived in their community. But I’ll tell you something that is very encouraging. Jurors generally take their work very seriously and really do want to do a good job. And, by and large, the jury system of 12 lay people listening, discussing and deciding is still the best way to bring justice to the analysis and conclusion of any case compared with the other narrow possibilities — a single judge or a panel of three judges or a military tribunal deciding on civilian cases. It’s what has worked for us Americans since we began and speaks of the same intrinsic faith in us as human beings that democracy and voting itself represents.

So what’s happened to that old idealistic system as our country has morphed into a 24-hour news-hungry electronic loudspeaker-with-pictures that rushes to bring us every detail of any event in our daily lives as soon as it happens?

Trial law insists that only the facts and evidence presented in court, during the trial, as sworn testimony heard equally by the jury and all concerned and allowed by the judge according to the rules can be used to analyze and decide on a fair and just verdict. And how is this jury chosen? What is the big goal? To find people who are questioned by the lawyers and/or the judge to be sure they do not have prior knowledge of or prejudice about the case so they can hear what will be said and shown with an open mind… That they haven’t already made up their minds until they hear the evidence.

And what have we got now in the Trayvon Martin case? What hope of finding an open-minded jury of his peers to judge the defendant as we have absorbed the media frenzy for over a month?

We must look at the two sides of this effort — the powerful role the media played to spread the news and get a defendant to even stand trial. But at the same time what evidence was being discovered and described and shown in infinite detail by this same media process? To everyone in this country and beyond? And now that we’re here, what effect has all this information — untested, unexamined from both sides as prescribed by law — had on our hopes of proceeding with a fair trial as prescribed by law? So along with our instant access to everything media wants to send us, I’m ruminating about what basic principles and carefully nurtured systems of our democracy are maybe falling by the wayside?

SO WHAT IS IT ABOUT SARAH PALIN

What’s happened to us in today’s techno-driven time that has changed  how we now choose political leaders?

Take the Sarah Palin story. Think about it. It’s really quite an amazing tale.

Ambitious beauty queen from Nowhere, Alaska. Lives the typical life we’re all familiar with – shoots game from a helicopter, pulls in fish nets in freezing waters, looks out her kitchen window on moose and bears, becomes Governor of a state. Just another American housewife. Did you ever hear of her before last year? I didn’t. Feel her force as an American leader? Uh uh.

So how come she explodes on the national scene in one shot – POW- a candidate for Vice-President of these United States? And continues to stay so visible, even when she lost? Becomes a TV pundit on politics when she flunked the nationally- broadcast current events quiz in Katie Couric’s class. And needs to use crib notes to remind herself of what she believes in.

How come? What happened? We’ve all heard and seen the ridicule. But she’s still here! Why the staying power? What’s she got that still makes her such a viable commodity?

It’s because she’s come in looking so different from your basic politician. It’s because she has none of the usual qualifications we expect that makes some people think she’s come to save them. No law degree, no years playing the game, running for office, climbing the power ladder, making the right connections. Result?

“Gee, she must be pure! Untouched! A clean slate with good intentions!”

“Listen to her language! She even talks like us! ‘Gotcha!’; ‘ ‘How ya doin’ with that hopey, changey thing?’ ”

She “calls out” whole sections of the population for blame and ridicule– sections the rest of us live in and recognize. How satisfying to those who feel left out, disenfranchised, confused and angered by the current scene. Who aren’t part of the visible circles representing us in Washington. What do they care that she really doesn’t even understand government. She’s on TV, talking loudly, with angry accusatory words, about stuff those outsiders are seething about. “She’s our girl!” they think. “She’s even voicing some basic prejudices we weren’t supposed to say out loud any more. And she’s got a load of kids, even a teenage unwed mother and a special needs kid!! Handling it all the good old fashioned way — just sucking it up, like plain folks. Like us. And she’s pretty! Sure I’ll listen to her. My kinda people…”

So what does this tell us about us and how we’re now choosing our leaders and elected officials?  What do we now look for when we decide “this is the one for me?” Since personally experiencing our candidates has radically changed from the live speeches and handshakes of yesteryear to  watching them and their ads on television or on line, we get such a well-coiffed, carefully rehearsed, edited version these days. So how do we know what we’re really getting now? What landmarks do we look for as we short- cut the old process of actually experiencing a real person and making our intuitive as well as our cognitive decisions?

A leader needs to make people feel two things: 1. He/she knows and understands our problems, even from personal experience. And 2. This person is strong enough, passionate enough, driven enough to fight for the solutions. But with our sanitized electronic versions, we now rely on shorthand clues — quick symbols we identify with — to tell us that all the above is true. Obama voters saw those not only in his evocative and eloquent language and thusly assumed intelligence. They assumed what else he knew and felt because he grew up black with its attendant hardships and  overcame them to achieve so much that he wants to give himself to furthering our future. His speech, like Sarah Palin’s, and his family relationship, like hers, jibed with what those voters believe in, reassuring them about what he knows and cares about, how he thinks and what they should expect.

So it’s no surprise that Sarah’s constituents feel they’ve got enough from just her shorthand signals to forego any analysis of what else they should think about in order to call her leader. “ Do you realize her husband was part of the secessionist movement for Alaska? He saw what a mess our government was in. Never heard her say she was against it. So she’s sure gonna fix and change all that stuff I’m so mad about!”