Monthly Archives: January 2014

Women and Leadership / January 13, 2014

I recently had a spirited email exchange with a male colleague regarding the need for leadership training in our shared profession. His main point – that most of the directors of large public and private social services departments and organizations are lawyers or people with MBAs, rather than experienced clinicians – is quite valid.


Where our thoughts diverged was how we approached the issue. At the time of our discussion, I had just read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. Her first few chapters presented a great deal of academic research that addressed the broad negative social and cultural messages women constantly receive, resulting in self-doubt, self-censure, fearing not being liked, etc. As we spoke, I began to wonder how all these messages intersect with leadership in our profession – one largely made up of women.


We were in agreement that of course both men and women have self-doubts and face adversity. He went on to say that men are more easily able to “ride with it…work against their doubts”, where women “…embrace their doubts” and allow this adversity to “slow them down”. Ouch. This is not something I wanted to hear. Yet…was he hitting too close to home?


On reflection – and we are both very broadly generalizing – I think he has a point. However, I would not use the word “embrace”; this sounds too purposeful, too active. Yet, if not embrace, then what? What factors influence differences between how men and women metabolize adversity?


One influence is the media, where portrayal of girls being “less than” starts very young and in very formative years. The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media does a stellar job researching and illuminating prominent gender roles in family (G-rated) entertainment. They found that male characters outnumber females three to one in family films; females are four times as likely as males to be found in sexy attire; females are severely underrepresented in the professions (medical science, law, politics, business leaders), and that less than 20% of working characters are female. Little has changed regarding the media’s representation of gender in 60 years (


This less-than portrayal of women continues beyond family entertainment, and sometimes takes a sharp turn toward degradation. Some of this is very old (literature portraying witches, the evil stepmother), and some is new. For example, the latest version of the best-selling video game Grand Theft Auto, released this past September, is quite remarkable (and unapologetic) in its misogynistic treatment of women. (And, how frightening that the target audience for this entertainment is adolescent boys and young men.)


This portrayal of women certainly has a societal and cultural impact in the working world, where 50% of workers are now women. Although there has been improvement in concrete areas in the last 30 years (increased wages, opportunities for advancement, access to more fields), less definable and subtler obstacles persist. Recently, as I was thinking about this topic, two items in my regular reading jumped out. One addressed a controversy in the classical music world, where three prominent and powerful male conductors (one French, two Russian) made comments disparaging female conductors. Statements included references to their weakness, their sexual energy being too distracting, their lack of stamina – it goes on and on.


The second was an article in The New Yorker about fashion icon Eileen Fisher. Fisher recalled a conference she had recently attended of heads of “like-minded” companies (Whole Foods and the Container Store were two of the other companies mentioned). Fifteen men and seven women had been invited, and on the second day one of the men observed that only one woman had spoken. I’m certain each woman had their individual reasons for not speaking (and, to be fair, the article did not address how many of the men had spoken), yet the phenomenon of female leaders remaining silent in the presence of men was startling.


Both of these examples address something that is difficult to quantify: the impact, both conscious and unconscious, of cultural and societal messages that say men are more valued than women. Since this begins so young, how can women not internalize, and be impacted by, these messages?


Again, Sheryl Sandberg does an excellent job summarizing the impact of societal messages, particularly at work, based on published academic research. To quote her, “Go to a playground: little girls get called ‘bossy’ all the time, a word that’s almost never used for boys. And that leads directly to the problems women face in the workforce. When a man does a good job, everyone says, ‘That’s great.’ When a woman does that same thing, she’ll get feedback that says things like, ‘Your results are good, but your peers just don’t like you as much’ or ‘maybe you were a little aggressive’…that means that as a man gets more successful, he is better liked by men and women, and as a woman gets more successful, she is less liked by men and women….But I want to be clear: I am not saying that men are too self-confident. That’s not the problem. The problem is that women aren’t self-confident enough”.


Finally, it is possible that biology aggravates all of the above. Although men and women respond similarly to fear and distress, physically (racing heart, stomach clenching, etc.), women’s autonomic nervous system takes longer to return to equilibrium. In other words, women, biologically, remain upset longer and take a lengthier period to cool off. (Listen here for a fascinating and amusing Radiolab discussion of this, beginning at 7:45; for the time pressed, start at 11:28.)


This is not to say that the above applies to all women, all the time. We are much more complex than that. It is simply to emphasize that women have different experiences than men, and many have quite probably internalized, on a fairly unconscious level, society’s messages.


So, yes, women absolutely need more leadership training. But this leadership training, for women, must acknowledge the social and biological forces at play. We need to begin talking about these issues freely, without shame or defensiveness. Only then can we begin to address practical ways of negotiating both internal and external obstacles to leadership.

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