In a succession of careers, as a business owner, as a consultant to Fortune 100 companies, and in my current role as the director of a Master’s program in culturally competent leadership, the theme of women’s workplace issues, women in leadership and women in power has been a potent one. Sorting out what works and what’s real in the cacophony of voices is often difficult and is one reason why I stepped into an academic role after a career spent mostly in business.
One thing on which the academic research is clear: society’s notions of leadership tend to be male-centric and women adhere to these notions too. While many of us notice the double-standard used in characterizing women leaders, we may also be perpetuating those double standards ourselves in our judgments of women candidates for jobs, for promotions, etc. in our respective organizations.
Another thing that I noticed is that women have organized around or within the silos of their organizations. Again, mirroring the structural norms of their organizations, which have also historically been creations of men.
What do I mean by that: Nurses with nurses, engineers with other engineers, all within their specialty areas and levels—especially levels within their organizations. This is understandable – we cluster with those with whom we think we have the most in common and with whom we are in closest proximity.
Yet, the issues that women face, regardless of organizational rank or level, are generally the same: the glass ceiling, flexible hours, face time, early a.m. meetings, or staying late at night… “work-life balance” in all its permutations. We may recognize these commonalities but are we acting across them? Are we reaching out to our women colleagues in these different echelons to nudge our organizations toward addressing these so-called “women’s issues” or are we content to fight for equity only in our organizational levels while letting the inequitable status quo remain for women in lower levels of our organizations?
At the same time we neglect race, class and professional differences. Women have many identity intersections. How does race and class further divide us at a time when we might need to recognize our common experiences? Which is a stronger affiliation --- your race or your gender? This might seem like an unfair question, yet I have worked with white women engineers who have failed to be supportive of their black female colleagues: race has trumped gender. I have also worked with women professionals who have been harsher judges of their female colleagues in promotion decisions than their male counterparts.
Madeline Albright’s comment, ‘there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other’ did not sit well with younger women, revealing a generational divide among women professionals. This divide was well on its way in the mid-80s when my professional women friends bemoaned their younger colleagues’ lack of appreciation for the gains their teachers’ union had won for them. The young women of the 1980s had not been alive to experience life prior to union protection. This trend has continued.
We push for reforms to make the world a better place and within a generation, we forget how and why those reforms were necessary.
Continued progress of women in the workplace is going to require a new round of coming together to address the unconscious bias that permeates our current workplaces. As women, we may be objects of that bias AND we are probably also perpetuators. The cornerstone of emotionally intelligent leadership is the willingness to deeply examine oneself. Change comes from within and works outward. We need to examine how we as individuals contribute to perpetuating the very biases we bemoan, especially when other people are the recipients of those biases. Check out Harvard’s Implicit Association website to check your unconscious biases!
Women’s voices and women’s power will be stronger in our organizations and in society if we examine and own our own blind spots; then seek common ground across the divides I mentioned above. For instance, women doctors in large hospital systems could be partnering with the large numbers of women nurses, aids, and orderlies, to ensure that their employer is addressing equal pay for equal work, flextime, and all the other issues that are important to women employees up and down the organizational hierarchy.
Owning our own biases around these issues, allows us to see opportunities to progress forward as a society. We are more likely to gain structural systemic progress if we address bias at the system level. Sheryl Sandberg exhorted women to “lean in.” I would argue that we need to be “all in” and “all inclusive” when it comes to fighting for equity for women.
Gaynier directs the Cleveland State University’s Master’s program in culturally competent leadership.
She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 216.523.7266. www.csuohio.edu/dmp.
Her leadership consulting website is www.creativechange.biz 216.470.3366.
Find me on Linkedin & Twitter: @lpgaynier