We are in the middle of Women’s History Month 2017. It is a time to celebrate the history and contributions of women. Recognition of all that women have contributed deserves more than a month. But the extent and magnitude of women’s contributions were and continue to be “underwhelmed” in history and in life. So, we must use every opportunity to reframe and update the role of women in history.
“In the area of social studies, there is a noticeable imbalance in the importance given to women’s as opposed to male roles…Simply, women were not viewed as an integral part of the historical record. The vast majority remained silent and invisible; their history subsumed under general descriptions of men’s lives…Extraordinary figures like the queens of sixteenth-century Europe or the nineteenth century reformers of the United States, active agents in their own right, fared no better. Though sometimes praised for having assumed male roles, traditional, patronizing phrases and denigrating stereotypes abstracted and diminished even their exceptional personalities and experiences…” http://comminfo.rutgers.edu/professionaldevelopment/childlit/books/JOYDELA.pdf
Of course, we know that this is not unique to social studies. The significant presence and contributions of women are missing in most areas. The recent film, Hidden Figures, is a very real example of this phenomenon. Finding and filling in the significant impact that women have always had prepares us for a more transparent and informed discussion on women as leaders. Women have always led, just not in all places. That is a function of opportunity, not capability or competence.
One of the topics that continues to spark extensive research and debate is the role of women in leadership. Women continue to occupy a low percentage of leadership positions of significant influence and power. The extensive research and debate focuses on why. One of my own experiences as a senior executive in a Fortune 20 company points to some of the issues.
Several years ago, I was the only woman member of a leadership team reporting to the CIO. After going through a substantial workshop on culture, in which we took and discussed one of the many instruments that identify leadership styles and behaviors, my boss started the next team meeting with a declaration regarding how different my profile was from everyone else’s. What was unspoken, but inferred, was that they all had the right profile and mine was slightly off of right. The inference was not in what he said. It was in what he did not say. He did not say anything about the value of the diversity that my profile bought to the table. He did not say that the culture of our country and our company promoted a particular profile that represented the profile of a leader. So, most people recognized and given leadership roles fit that profile. Finally, he did not say that culture also significantly impacted me as a woman and a woman of color in ways that it had not impacted them. Gender plus many other factors of my life created the profile that is me. That is also true for all of them and for each of them so what makes one profile right.
Let’s dissect my experience some more. First, as recent as 2016, there were still a number of Americans of both genders who, when asked, said that they could never see a woman as President of the United States and would not vote for one no matter who she was. Most of us have grown up in a culture where we saw and assimilated what a leader looked like. It was always or almost always a man. It is not easy for any of us to change that entrenched image. I had to check myself a few weeks ago. I was boarding a flight, looked over and saw that the pilot for the flight was a young woman. Being a rather timid flyer, my immediate reaction was anxiety. After I took my seat, I started to calm myself down. The first thing I had to acknowledge was that the image of an older man as experienced pilot to be trusted was just that, an image. Experienced and skilled pilots come in both genders, and a range of ages.
“Although more women are assuming leadership roles today more than before, the notion of a woman as a leader is still foreign to many individuals, male and female alike. Changes in perception are difficult to achieve because the traditional norms of leadership are firmly entrenched. In our society, as in most others, leaders have customarily been males. In the past, leadership opportunities for women tended to be limited to all female organizations such as sororities, convents, and female institutions of education – but even there the presidents of women’s colleges were almost always men. From this phenomenon, the generalization was made that leadership implies maleness and that, since women were not men, they lacked the qualities that are necessary to be leaders. The assumption that leadership equates with maleness is deeply embedded in both our thinking and language.” – Moran, Barbara B, Gender Differences in Leadership, Library Trends, v40 n3 p475-91 Win 1992
Second, the value of the diversity that women bring to leadership roles has been touted for some time now. However, I believe that, often, the ways in which it is presented creates dissonance; certainly with many men but also with some women. Recent research conducted on this topic was published in a book, The Athena Doctrine. The researchers surveyed “sixty-four thousand people chosen to mirror the populations in thirteen countries that represent 65 percent of the world’s gross domestic product”. Based on that research they declare in their introduction the following:
“A clear majority of people around the world are unhappy with the conduct of men, including 79% of people in Japan and South Korea and two-thirds of people in the United States, Indonesia, and Mexico – and the rate of dissatisfaction is nearly equal among men and women. Canadian men must be doing something right, but they are the anomaly in our data…but, as we pored through the data, one particular set of numbers caught our eye. Nearly two-thirds of people around the world – including the majority of men – feel that the world would be a better place if men thought more like women. This includes 79 percent of Japanese men, 76 percent of people in France and Brazil, and 70 percent of people in Germany. This belief was shared regardless of age, income or nation…” – Gerzema, John and D’Antonio, Michael, The Athena Doctrine: How Women (And The Men Who Think Like Them) Will Rule The Future, 2013
I have heard the dissonance expressed in several ways. From men, many agree with the conclusion that certain leadership characteristics are becoming more important and maybe even more preferred. At the same time they can’t help but question whether some of ways in which they lead, which have led to great success for them, are now being labeled as wrong or bad. Also, many fear that the leadership characteristics that are now applauded may not be something that they can learn. From women, many do not embrace or own what they consider the stereotypes of masculine versus feminine leadership characteristics. Putting them in the box labeled “feminine leadership characteristics” is just as offensive as comparing them to the leadership image that is male.
We, as humans, seem to have the need to repeat certain patterns. Often, that which is asserted to be right or good is accompanied by what has now become bad or wrong. We have the opportunity to consider that all that we learn is additive and our challenge is to determine how to integrate the new with the old to create something even better. In other words, the more diverse leadership strengths and characteristics that we have available to us to apply to our leadership challenges, the more successful we will be. Also, we must resist our need to create boxes and lists that leaders must fit into. The beauty of diversity is that each leader brings his or her own set of leadership strengths and we will find our collective strength in figuring out how to leverage it all rather than try to make everyone the same. If we look at most of the current research, we are continuing to struggle to find solutions to what was cited in research a couple of decades ago.
“…When women are accepted as leaders, some men will change their leadership style because that option will then be available to them. The maintenance of rigid gender role stereotypes has hurt not only women but men. We all need to realize that people, with their wildly divergent abilities and advantages, should be looked at first and foremost as individuals rather than as simply members of one gender or the other. Many of the problems that have confronted women have also confronted men; these are human problems not women’s problems. When institutions are able to involve men and women equally on the basis of individual merit, they will be better places for everyone…the challenge to organizations of the future is to accept a variety of leadership styles. There is no one “best” style of leadership. It all depends on the organization and the task to be done…” – Moran, Barbara B, Gender Differences in Leadership, Library Trends, v40 n3 p475-91 Win 1992
The news is all good. This is a subject that continues to generate research and debate. There is continual growing recognition that women are just as effective and impactful in leadership roles as men. A global economy supported by rapidly growing advances in technology create leadership challenges that are much bigger and more complex than they ever have been before. Everyone is coming to the realization that we must find more and alternative leadership approaches and solutions if we are to continue to compete and succeed. This creates a great opening to seriously explore how to embrace inclusion in a way that allows us to fully value and leverage a variety of leadership characteristics and styles.
“The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born-that there is a genetic factor to leadership. That’s nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather than born.” – Warren Bennis