Recently I was asked what I thought were the challenges women in positions of leadership, or those who wish to move into positions of leadership, face in our society today. I was happy to oblige.
The challenges facing women in positions of leadership or those who wish to move into positions of leadership within western society differ from woman to woman. I see, however, four fundamental challenges that can be overwhelming to women leaders. They are one, a personal conflict within the woman herself regarding her leadership abilities; two, the challenge of cultural role conflict; three, the public perception and acceptance of gender leadership styles; and four, the fierce competition of rules of engagement in the executive boardrooms.
These are complex challenges that can overwhelm intelligent and excellent women leaders, many who eventually prefer to start their own businesses rather than aspire to or remain in the boardrooms. Others prefer to move into leadership roles within institutions with predominantly traditional female occupations, i.e. education and health services, where women leaders easily move horizontally and vertically quite comfortably and confidently within these organizational structures.
Let me briefly describe each of the four challenges mentioned above with a few suggestions that may open a crack in the door toward full leadership participation for women in western society.
First, many women leaders question their leadership abilities nearly every day. Good leaders always look for ways to improve their leadership skills, and rightly so. But women experience a paranoia that differs from men, which is the constant questioning of their leadership abilities, including their own perceived notion of being constantly judged by her executive peers and subordinates, not just as their leader, but as a “woman leader.” The paranoia includes the questions, “Why me?” and “Did I get this position as a token female?” These questions often add to the already heavy load she carries as the top executive. Add to that burden the thought of being “the first” and the pressure to “set the right tone for other women” coming up the ranks. One of the reasons for this paranoia of doubt is that women do not have vast role models or women mentors in leadership positions—historically or present day—to affirm her as a destined and successful leader. Very often the “stand alone female leader” is still proving to the world and herself, that women are just as capable, intelligent, and strong as her male counterparts.
A confident woman at the helm may say she isn’t “performing” for anyone except to do the job she is paid to do, and I say so much the better. However, you can be sure that everyone, or most people around her and in her industry is measuring her “gender leadership style and success.” And so is every woman standing in line to break through the glass ceiling and into the executive boardroom. Women hunger for mentors and will watch and learn from those who made it to the top. Go to the bookstore and see how many of these successful women have written books, or have been interviewed, regarding their success and how they made it and how they are maintaining their positions. So although she may reach the top to the boardroom, it is an overwhelming challenge to feel comfortable and to keep her chair as head of that executive team.
On the other hand her male counterparts have had generations of mentors and he has to only open a history book, watch the latest war film (or almost any film), or listen to or watch C-SPAN to affirm his success, or his “right” to be a leader. As women begin to gain confidence in their abilities and remain in leadership positions without fleeing or feeling guilty for choosing the leadership position over a more maternal choice of life endeavor, the numbers will continue to increase, hopefully at a faster rate, so the next generation of women will have more role models to emulate and affirm them.
The second challenge overlaps the first in that there is always the conflict of whether I “should” be in this leadership position and “how long” am I “willing or expected to be” in this position. Men consider these questions in regard to the next steps toward achieving their career or life goals. When women consider these questions, it is not only about their career goals. The questions are also related to cultural norms that define appropriate woman behavior, and the ticking of the biological clock. The fact that many women feel that their decisions are “personal choices based on personal values,” attest to the strength of cultural norms that are deeply rooted and formidably resist change.
Although there are many socio-cultural gender rules that are continually changing, the most difficult ones to change are those which define roles because they are tied to the social welfare of the community’s infrastructure, i.e. the family and employment. The challenge still exists for a woman executive to balance career and home life. More than ever women moving into leadership roles admit that they hear their biological clock ticking. And this is just the tip of the dilemma.
The third challenge is about educating society regarding women’s strength and abilities as leaders. The media in its entirety could be the single change agent to improve the perception of women as leaders. A woman’s leadership style must be shown in a positive light as an accepted cultural norm. For example, it is okay for a leader to cry (there are appropriate times to cry openly), to not be over 6 ft. tall (and a former professional athlete), wear a skirt or become pregnant while she’s in a leadership position. She doesn’t need a deep, loud voice, or anything masculine to intellectually and rationally decide what is best for her organization, or her country. Until society can separate leadership from masculinity, a woman leader will continue to be in doubt and frustrated because she is asked to deny her feminine strength, which she knows is an effective leadership tool.
I believe that given all the qualities of an effective leader such as good communication skills, handling conflicts, strategizing, etc. it is a person’s total ability to be graceful under fire, keep focused in the midst of chaos, be able to unwaveringly hold fast to one’s belief though everyone disagrees, and to truly “lead” through the ever present turbulent emotional storms while keeping all elements of an issue or project in their right places–in thought and form–until they willfully and timely obey her command, making strategic decisions like placing pieces to a puzzle in correct order, resulting in successful business and management decisions, is how leaders earn their stripes. And with all the deep personal and professional conflicts that inundate a woman leader in addition to the obligations of ensuring corporate profit, a country’s dignity, or a team’s success, a woman may just have the edge over her male counterparts because she lives and breathes these challenges every moment of every day in her capacity as the leader in the boardroom.
The fourth challenge is the reason why we have such few role models. Once she gets to the boardroom it is difficult to remain mainly because of how the game is played. Men know the game and it is second nature for them. The woman’s challenge is the need to assert herself—even when she is called “a bitch,” and still maintain dignity and civility—and participate in male activities and be present where business is really discussed—at the bar, the golf course, the club—and there are places she still can’t access, like the men’s steam room. After awhile it just makes sense to flee the high profile leadership role and start her own company, be her own boss and follow her own rules. However, in the web of society she cannot flee completely because “he” is her business competitor, and “he” is still in charge of the institutions that establish and enforce public policy.
How have women responded to these challenges? Those who have succeeded have stood up with passion, purpose and persistence, and didn’t back down from the challenges. Examples of such women who rose to leadership and gained the respect of men and women are Madeline Albright, Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel, and Eleanor Roosevelt. And in the business world we have Mary Bara (GM), Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook), and there are a few others listed on the Fortune 500 list. The number is few when you look at the top crust of women leaders. In fact, an article in Fortune 500 magazine noted that in 2014 there was an increase in women CEOs–six new faces, and one departure. Also, women CEOs now is 4.8% of the overall CEOs on the Fortune 500 list (Caroline Fairchild, Fortune 500, “Number of Fortune 500 Women CEOs Reaches Historic High,” June 3, 2014). There seems to be a polite outcry of this poll, and Sheryl Sandberg has made great efforts, including writing a book, to encourage women to step up to the plate, as well as reminding corporate America that there are eligible and qualified women who are ready and willing to take the helm of large corporations. [Note: Read my blog entry on Women Being; the interview with Deborah Gomez of Alaska Business and Professional Women in 2002.]
Take a look at mid-level management in any company and you’ll see it flooded with women-in-waiting–waiting for the opportunity for that upward mobility. Meanwhile, women learn what it means to “lead from the ranks,” and they do. The middle ranks are less threatening on a woman’s esteem and overall career when she has a child, takes some time off for childcare or to pursue higher or more specialized education. Our corporations are flooded with educated, qualified, experienced women leaders. But it is the most passionate, purposeful, persistent and courageous woman leader who can meet and overcome the challenges and stay the course. I hesitate to say that it takes a “thick-skinned and ambitious” person to survive the bullpen of corporate CEOs because I want to redefine that rough and raw strength in other terms. I will say that a woman who uses her gifted intuition to out maneuver her competition and convince her board and employees to trust and support her decisions, has a strength mightier than an army. And I strongly encourage women to recognize that intuition strength, believe in it, and use it. It is a gift that this human race speaks about but has not yet given it the full credence it deserves. Leadership using faith and intuition? I’ll stand behind that woman!! And I want to hear more stories from women who depend on their faith and their intuition to govern their decisions–and the successes they have achieved.
In summary, it is not as bleak as it may sound. Cultural concepts are ingrained, but they all change with time. As the old cigarette ad said, “We’ve come a long way, baby.” The doors to the voting polls are open, the educational institutions are open, and opportunities abound for women to become leaders. And women make up a large percentage of college graduates. As long as the rules and definitions and perceptions of leadership remain the same, we still have a long way to go.
It is true that the number of women in leadership has increased. It will take, however, continual education and courage for society to accept female characteristics into the leadership paradigm. Leadership characteristics such as bravery, courage, intelligence, astuteness, trustworthiness, voice depth, experience and just simply the word strong must also include powerful feminine traits such as emotional passion, quiet fortitude, elegant composure, compassion, gracious wit, openness to listen to opposition, and INTUITION as positive leadership qualities. What? You think these are funny adjectives to describe leadership? Think again. In managing a business and dealing with conflicts these qualities are very effective tools at any negotiation table, in establishing and keeping good business and personal relationships, and competing in the global market.
Some of the challenges I present may seem “old and outdated” from the 70’s and 80’s. The fact that we are not yet even close to gender parity in leadership positions in private and public sectors, as also indicated in the Fortune 500 article, attest to the slow change of and resistance to the last 30 or more years of diversity education, and a forever idea that woman is the weaker sex.
The world needs to know and inherently understand woman’s points of view and recognize the viability of her leadership skills and styles. I believe that even as Nature seeks balance–flowing rivers seek a level valley or the ocean; the ocean seeks the shores; the plants plunge through the soil seeking the sun– so, too, are our human organizations, institutions and relationships destined to seek equity in how we are valued and treated. Although cultural inertia fights hard to keep the norm of defining leadership strength as synonymous with a man’s masculinity Nature will keep moving us towards improving our understanding of different gender leadership characteristics until both genders are appreciated, valued, recognized and rewarded equitably for their effective leadership attributes and worth.
Baby, we still have a long way to go, but we’re not turning back.
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