Women Leaders Stay the Course

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.

© Jennifer Lee and WomenNewDefinitions.com. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from Jennifer Lee and WomenNewDefinitions.com is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jennifer Lee and WomenNewDefinitions.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Esther: The Risk Taker

History provides a vast array of women mentors.  One of my favorite is Esther of the Bible who, from a minority status uses wisdom and faith to save herself and her people.

Societies extol living and playing safely.  Responsible citizens obey the rules of society and live within their means.  Taking risks elicit wary raised eye brows, and we frown upon deviants and rebels stepping out of the norm.

 To develop her uniqueness however, a woman must step out of the mainstream and respond to her life’s call and purpose.  Historically, God has called ordinary people out of life’s comfort zone and provided significant opportunities for spiritual growth and personal achievement.  This is risky for the chosen because when a person steps out of sync with societal norms the consequences are often damaging.  The risk is even greater if the person’s race, occupation or gender already represents a low status in society.

 Interestingly, sociologists describe a minority woman’s position as “double jeopardy” because there are two strikes against her; she is a woman and a minority.  Some women are in “triple jeopardy,” being a woman, minority, and old.  Although these negative challenges minorities face, particularly women, are real, it doesn’t mean that living a purposeful life is unattainable.  (That these social statuses exist is for another blog!)  Esther of the Bible is our mentor in such a situation.

 Initially her older cousin, Mordecai, used Esther as a pawn.   When Persian King Xerxes sought a queen beautiful Persian maidens posed before him.  Mordecai arranged for Esther, his young Jewish cousin, to join them, concealing her Jewish identity.  The king chose Esther because of her exquisite beauty.

 The Bible says that King Xerxes loved Esther.  Her submissiveness and obedience found much favor with him.  His previous queen, Vashti, publicly disobeyed him when he wanted to show off her beauty to all the princes but she refused to comply with his wishes and failed to appear.  The wise men advised the king to dispose of Vashti at once because her outright disobedience would influence the rest of the women in the kingdom and they, too, would disobey their husbands, and the king complied. 

 Women’s role during Esther’s time was to please and entertain men, and to carry out the household chores.  Esther, as a Jewish woman, would have had lesser acknowledgement and status in this Persian society.  But her true identity was kept a secret.

 Mordecai, Esther’s cousin, had once saved the king’s life, and in gratitude the king appointed him an advisor in his court.  His appointment angered the king’s general, Haman, who sought ways to get rid of Mordecai and the rest of the Jews.  This is the cast of men Esther faced in her challenge to save herself and her people.  These were men seeking status, power and wealth.

 Esther finds herself in the crossfire between Haman and Mordecai.  The general, wishing to destroy all the Jews,  convinced the king to pass a law forcing the Jews to kneel down and worship the king or be killed.  Knowing the Jews would never comply, it would give Haman the excuse he needed to destroy the Jews in the Persian kingdom.

 Mordecai, however, played his pawn turned queen, Esther, to retaliate in the feud asking her to tell her husband, the king, of Haman’s wicked plot.  Mordecai prophesied to Esther, “Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape.  For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish.  And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14-14, NIV) 

Esther, hedged between two threatening choices, seriously considers the challenges of one, presenting herself to the king which the law prohibited without him first requesting her presence; and two, risking revealing her Jewish identity which would surely mark her betrayal and put her life and her people’s lives in danger.  Or, she could do nothing and remain queen.

 But Esther, raised by Mordecai when she lost her parents and had a solid understanding of her heritage, became a risk taker by faith.  Fully aware of the devastating consequences that awaited her if she confronted the king unrequested to make a plea for herself and her people, she carefully weighed and analyzed the costs and benefits of the risks she was about to undertake.

Calculating her every move, Esther did not storm into the king’s throne room, announce her heritage and demand freedom for her people.  That would have been suicidal.  She did not outright disobey the king as her predecessor, Vashti had done.  She took the time to carefully conceive a plan, developed it step-by-step, and patiently worked it.

 Esther planned not one or two, but three special feasts to honor the king, and requested General Haman’s presence at each feast.  She further honored her king by being submissive and obedient, using these qualities as her offensive moves to gain the king’s favor.  Her submissiveness and kind gestures were her strongest resources for a successful strategy. 

 The king found favor with his queen and on a sleepless night as he read through chronicles of his reign she reminded him of Mordecai’s good deed in saving his life.  It was the timely intimate moment Esther had prayed for and she carefully informed the king that her life and the lives of her people were in jeopardy.  The king asked, “Who wants to destroy your people?”  She replied, “The adversary and enemy is this wicked Haman.”

 Haman was eventually hung on the gallows built for Mordecai’s execution.   Esther humbly revealed her heritage and still remained in the king’s favor.  She eliminated her adversary and saved the Jewish nation.

 Esther’s success resulted because she firmly maintained her values and was well acquainted with her God and her Jewish heritage.  She demonstrated that a disciplined person committed to her values could afford to take risks.   She remained subservient to her king and husband and wisely used the limited tools within her possession.  It required wisdom, patience, and tenacity to carefully consider the risks, develop the plan and carry out the strategy.

 Esther is a heroic mentor for today’s women  risk takers.  She crossed cultural boundaries, lived definitely outside of mainstream, and remained true to her faith and values.  She knew her risks, the consequences, the timeframe necessary for a successful venture, and by faith she believed that her decision was right for herself, her people, and her king, and she was in tune with her role at a critical, historical moment aligned with the stars and God’s plan.

 The Lesson – A risk taker does not mean living a carefree and reckless life.  Rather it means being willing to step out of the ordinary to grow and discover the unique woman you already are, combining the characteristics of humility, self-sacrifice, servitude, and obedience with strength, courage, initiative and decisiveness.  These are attributes of strong, risk taking women and men who are unafraid to face the daily challenges, big and small, and by faith live their purposeful lives.

  Risk it wisely!

 © Jennifer Lee and WomenNewDefinitions.Wordpress.com, October 2009.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from Jennifer Lee and WomenNewDefinitions.WordPress.com is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jennifer Lee and WomenNewDefinitions.Wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

A Milepost

First 100 Hits! 

It is Saturday, October 24, 2009 around 11:15 AM West Coast time.  WomenNewDefinitions.WordPress.com has 100 hits.  Congratulations!

 Thank you, WordPress.com!  You have made it easier for the world to read an aspirant writer’s work. 

 Thank you to my readers and “clickers on the go” for dropping in just out of curiosity and then returning throughout the week for quick visits.  Many of you are acquaintances and friends who have responded very favorably through direct e-mail.  It would be great if you would click “leave a comment” at the bottom of the page and enter your thoughts, suggestions, and feedback.

 As I am finding my niche and designing the page, my posts are articles written and filed away for many years, which I’ve edited for relevancy.  My target audience is the female population because my writings describe  transitions of a woman’s life.  There are flashbacks of growing up on a farm in Hawaii, relationship with my children, women working with women, public policy effecting women and children, and especially my spiritual journey, all being edited for future posting. However, many articles and posts reflect global thoughts and ideas, and it would thrill me to know that men also enjoy reading my blog.

 The few who have read my writings in the past have continually encouraged me to publish–especially my older sister Liz, who was the 100 hit!  Perhaps someday there will be an interested publisher.  For now, however, the first 100 who have hit my blog are my virtual friends and audience. 

 Thank you!

 © Jennifer Lee and WomenNewDefinitions.Wordpress.com, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from Jennifer Lee and WomenNewDefinitions.Wordpress.com is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jennifer Lee and WomenNewDefinitions.Wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.