“Actually,” She Said, “He Works for Me.”
That’s the title of an article by the CEO of Aureus Asset Management, Karen Firestone, in a recent Harvard Business Review posting.
It’s just one of hundreds of articles, interviews, blogs and books that are popping right now on the topic of women in leadership. The role that women play in the world of business, government and society at large has been in important topic of conversation for decades, but in the last year something seems different. It’s like something new is brewing… I can’t quite put my finger on it, but the sense that NOW is a defining moment for women is strong. Never before in my lifetime have I felt so optimistic about the future for women. Or so worried.
I believe we stand at a point of inflection. The timing is right. The moment of “disruption” is here, and there is an opening for significant change before the portal is closed tight once again. We can get it right (and by “we” I mean women and men), or we can screw it up big time.
In the article above, several women share their stories of how clients often make the assumption that women are subordinate to men – especially in professions such as medicine, law, finance, and technology. Most of the examples are variations of the same story: a woman founds a practice with a man, they hold a lot of client meetings together, the clients assume she reports to him, and she doesn’t correct them for fear of making the situation awkward for everyone. Comments on the article range from “she should say something” to recommendations on how to say something and not make it offensive to the client, to making the roles more clear through nameplates, letter heading, etc. All very good advice.
But here’s my question: Why doesn’t THE GUY say anything?!?!
OK, I admit that I pretty much know all the various answers to that question. But none of them are good enough. Most of all, the reasons are stupid. Because increasing the role of women in leadership is good for everyone. We could fill stadiums with the amount of research that concludes increasing the number of women in leadership positions in business, government, education, health care – yes, even the military – results in stronger productivity, better morale, improved communication, higher return on investment, and on and on.
Men I know who have had the opportunity to report to a female boss, while often hesitant in the beginning, end up concluding that they prefer it. From young men taking their first jobs out of MBA programs to experienced diplomats who worked for Hilary Clinton, the story is the same – women can be good leaders. One of the women I coach moved into the CEO position of a large financial services organization last year. She is the first woman to hold the role and was following a man who had held the position for over 10 years. The Board of Directors was nervous. Had they made the right decision? While the man she was replacing was a classic good ol’ boy, with lots of charisma, a strong physical presence, and a traditional “directive” leadership style, the woman was more reserved, thoughtful, pragmatic, and focused on “inclusive” methods of leadership and consensus-building. Could she really do the job? Would people accept her differing approach? Just one year later, she received the highest employee survey ratings in the areas of “trust”, “leadership” and “good decision-making”. People don’t just “like” her, they believe in her – they want to follow where she leads.
But it’s not just men who need to change their view.
Women hold themselves back all the time. This may not be so much a question of lack of ambition (as the current debate over Sheryl Sandberg’s message rages on) as it is a question of self-criticism. I was surprised and saddened by the recent Dove campaign to share findings from an experiment conducted by a Forensics sketch artist to compare the way women described themselves as opposed to the way people who met them described them. The side-by-side sketches are worth checking out – proving that a picture really does say a thousand words. (Thanks mom, for sharing this!)
You see, it all starts when we’re young. The quest for beauty teaches us to analyze every imperfection, and it’s only a matter of time before we let those honed skills of criticism bleed over into evaluating our professional lives and our leadership capacity. There’s a ton of literature out there on how we can help our young girls to weather this storm of impossible beauty standards, but that’s a subject for another blog. For now, I will give a big shout out to the new Portland women’s professional soccer team – The “Thorns” and their decision to partner with Girls, Inc. to help our young women grow up to be “Strong, Smart, and Bold”! (To learn more about the powerful connection between women’s sports and women’s confidence in business and leadership check out the book Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls by Dr. Mary Pipher).
Things are different this time.
I applaud the women that are leading the charge today in public discourse: Marissa Mayer, Sheryl Sandberg, and Anne-Marie Slaughter. Diversity gurus have long preached the “magic of three” when it comes to combating inequalities, and these three women are both reaping the rewards and paying the price for speaking out. But what is really exciting right now is the shift in the conversation from strategies for success to a need for change.
I remember 10 years ago when I bought a copy of Dr. Lois Frankel’s Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office: 101 Unconscious Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers. It was big for me. Of course, I was making many of the “mistakes”. The ticket to admission in “a man’s world” was to learn to play by the rules men use. And to succeed, once admitted, meant scoring points in a “man’s game”.
What seems different about the conversation now is that we don’t want more women in leadership so they can contribute to the current game – we want them there so they can change the game entirely! Look at Wall Street. Look at the Fortune 50. Look at the U.S. Congress – can it get any more broken than that? Leadership in America sucks right now. It’s time to shake things up. It’s time to change the game and what it means to “win”. A good friend of mine, Chief Judge Ann Aiken, once said to me, “Women keep score differently.” It’s time to take a good, hard look at what we think it means to win in leadership today. It’s time to decide what matters most, what it means to “score” and what it will take for men and women partnering together to build the future we all want for generations to come.
This is a big deal.