Sunday, March 10 is International Women’s Day. I’m mad about it.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not opposed to a world outreach to appreciate the potential of women. I am irritated that we designate a single day for this outreach. Then, I really got mad when I read the theme: The Gender Agenda: Gaining Momentum. When I read The Feminine Mystique with wide-eyed optimism as a high school student, never in my wildest dreams did I think 40 years later we would still be talking about gaining momentum on issues of women’s equality.
I suppose the real thing I’m upset about is that the theme is right. We NEED momentum in gender equity and representation. Despite record advances in access to education and graduation rates from universities and professional schools, the numbers of women in leadership roles- the roles that can really make a difference in access and policy- remain stubbornly stuck. Women still represent only about 20% of the parliamentary officials around the world and 15-16% of private sector boards and C suite officials, despite the fact that women represent approximately half of the world’s population and workforce. Yes, sadly, we still need momentum.
Why Are We Still Stuck?
This post will not address all of the reasons why women’s advancement to senior levels in just about any institution is stalled. There are good cases to be made for complex cultural and social dynamics that serve as sort of a centrifugal force holding up a glass ceiling. I’ll limit this post to one sticky issue: How we think about leadership and women in leadership roles.
In a fantastic peer reviewed article, Issaac, Kaatz et al (2012) note two pervasive leadership stereotypes: Men are or should be agentic (i.e. logical, independent, decisive) and women are or should be communal (i.e. emotional, supportive, dependent). These traits lead to common stereotypes that men lead and women follow. My own thesis research into Implicit Leadership Theory (ILT,) which describes the traits most expected in leaders, shows one of the most commonly expected leadership traits is “masculinity.”
Isaac, Kaatz, et al write about their work with a group of women in STEM (i.e. Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) related academic majors at the University of Wisconsin. Their work is designed to help women in STEM fields develop improved self-efficacy and leadership abilities. Here is what one of their students wrote about stereotypes she feels:
The slow, insidious lessons that we must be feminine but not too feminine (we wouldn’t be able to take care of ourselves); smart but not too smart (the boys won’t like us); nice but not too nice (then we’d be easy).
Bear in mind that this impression was written by a young woman studying in a STEM field in one of the finest Universities in the United States in the last year or so. My God, yes, we need momentum.
The Strain of Swimming Against Stereotypes
The danger of stereotypes rests in their power. In the case of women, several studies show the tendencies of competent women to hide their true abilities through underperformance in order to not upset expectations. (See Davies, et al 2005 and Burgess, et al 2012 for two examples). What does this mean? It means that the bright, talented woman you recruited just might choose to down play her smarts and leadership abilities in order to not stand out as the exception to the rule.
Bear in mind that choices women may make to downplay their talent may be made despite the best egalitarian expectations of others. A recent personal experience comes to mind. I was in a networking conversation with an extremely successful self-made man, a former CEO, exchanging ideas about a project. He was effusive in his praise of a woman he used to work with, describing her as having “rock star “ talent in brains and abilities, and suggested that I connect with her. I did. In the course of our conversation, she descibed her preparation in extra curricular leadership activities, initiative and outreach. When I shared the praise I had heard about her, there was a pause. Her explanation for her success? “I’m just lucky,” she explained. I called her on it. I told her that there was no luck involved in her former boss’ description. Quietly, she admitted, “I am good at what I do. It’s just so hard to say that.”
This extremely talented young woman is representative of so many of her peers. She worked hard to get where she is. She has the talent. She has the skills. She can lead if she wants to. When she does, she has to not care so much about being different and standing out from the group by standing up. She needs the women around her to hold her up instead of pull her down.
My Hopes on International Women’s Day, 2013
I have a few special hopes this International Women’s Day. First, I hope that women everywhere recognize that leaders come in all forms and styles. I hope every woman sets a goal to be the best authentic leader she can be, which is probably pretty damn good. And mostly, that we woman recognize our special potential for leadership so that 40 years from now we aren’t still talking about “gaining momentum” in women’s equality.
Isaac, C., Kaatz, A., Lee, B., Carnes, M. (2012). An Educational Intervention Designed to Increase Women’s Leadership Self-Efficacy. Life Sciences Education, Dec. 2012, vol.11, (3).