One of the tweetchats that captures my attention and respect is #bealeader. It is moderated by Jen Olney of GingerConsult. Last week, I missed a chat because I had the less than distinct honor of sitting in the dentist’s chair having a broken tooth examined. The topic was one with which I have some experience and some history. The topic: The Rise of Female Leaders.
When I was twenty-two years old, in my first year of teaching at a Junior High School (think 35 years ago) I obtained my 100-ton ferryboat operator’s license for navigating on Lake Champlain. I was the first female licensed operator. It had taken a lot of work and some testing of wills. But I did it and was pretty proud of the achievement. There were a few male operators who didn’t think I should be operating a boat, just because I was a “girl.” In the end, I won them over and paved the way for several other women to follow and become operators.
I wanted to be part of the chat, so I spent the time to answer the questions on my own and have put them together in this post. This is a topic needing addressing every single day until there are no more barriers for women or anyone who wants to be whatever it is they have a passion for! It is time to dissolve the stereotypes, the barriers, the prejudice, the fear that daring to follow a dream will somehow diminish someone else.
Q1: What are the challenges women in leadership experience?
A1: Women continually face the challenge of battling sexism. Our commercially focused culture continues to sell products based on sex, especially selling women. Too often, women are not taken seriously unless they become almost androgynous or masculine. The need to use sex to capture attention (business clothing that continues to be excessively revealing, TV shows with women executives, leaders, or in any role being sexual objects) is worse than ever and even more dangerously subliminal. The music our children are subjected to continues to downgrade and diminish women. Women do have to work harder than men to be taken seriously as a leader.
Q2: Are women more challenged by internal or external factors in their leadership?
A2: I don’t believe we can separate the internal from the external. The external is a heavy factor as young children, adolescents and adults are assaulted by the rampant sexism. This feeds the internal messages that we have been fed since we were born, that somehow it isn’t the natural order of things for women to be in positions of authority or power or leadership. There continues to be a great fear about women in positions of power. All types of methods are used to keep women down, including our own!
Q3: Do women leaders face different challenges than men in the workplace?
A3: Women certainly face challenges that are different than the ones men face in the workplace. Needing to prove worth and expertise, competence and strength on a daily basis being some. Male customers/colleagues often feel that they can more easily bully a female and dominate with loud voices, intimated threats, coercion and strength. Women are still paid at a lower rate, and there are far fewer women on important boards and heads of important companies and in government roles.
Q4: What are the hallmarks of a great female leader?
A4: A great female leader is able to bring strength in compassion, connection, communication, problem-solving skills, negotiation and mediation, faith in people, and a smaller nugget of competitive need to the workplace table. Women are generally more communal and community minded and focus on building that, realizing that collaboration and working together bring greater results. That is a strength, though sometimes seen as a weakness.
Q5: Is it possible for a female leader to be too tough or too weak in their leadership style?
A5: All leaders can be too tough or too weak. There is always an intricate dance between the two. The problem is that certain characteristics are viewed as weak when in fact they are strengths. Compassion is not a weakness. I can have a very difficult (tough) conversation with an employee AND still be compassionate. Our role as leaders is not to beat folks down and lord our “power” over them, it is to build, create, sell, teach, learn, develop etc. products and people who make an informed sustainable important difference in the world and bring about change and growth.
Q6: Are gender-specific differences different from individual personality traits?
A6: Gender specific characteristics ARE different from personality traits. This is beginning to be shown through some of the cutting edge brain research. It is fascinating. That doesn’t mean that genders can’t adopt or adapt the other’s characteristics. That is clearly possible. Like Teddy Roosevelt mimicking the behavior of people he knew as brave and courageous when he was a frightened weak youngster brought him courage and bravery (fake it ‘til you make it). We can all learn behaviors and characteristics, we just need to be clear about WHY we are doing that and not lose our personal identity by adapting.
Q7: Can women truly balance career and family?
A7: Women can DO anything. Some women find it emotionally draining to try to do both, some find it energizing. It is not necessarily gender specific. I was able to continue working (I am far more the workaholic than my husband) because my husband stayed home with our four children for 10 years. Did I have guilt trips? Of course, but I also knew his personality better suited the stay-at-home more than mine did. As I have aged, I think I would probably be able to do either.
Q8: Are there traits that women posses within that hold them back?
A8: The messages we have received from birth about who we are “supposed to be” aren’t really traits as much as ingrained messages that we have taken to be “natural law.” It will take a great deal of change, research, acceptance and growth for us as a society and culture to tease out what are traits and what are messages and then figure out a path to alter perceptions. We are all TRAINED from birth to be something. We should have that CHOICE instead, to choose the “traits/messages”, the behaviors, the heart and core of who/what/how/why we want to BE.