Girl Talk: Who Says Girls Can’t Lead?

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Look just like a man…but wear a skirt!!
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In the 80s, I wore suits to work. I shopped at places that specialized in women’s suits.

Gretchen, a new friend of mine is starting to run again. She posted on Facebook that she was looking for a running coach, preferably male, because they have been the ones that have pushed her the most in the past. We talked on the phone yesterday, and she said she was blown away that she had so many female friends that were awesome athletes that responded to her post.  🙂 I told her that maybe what she needed this time was not to be pushed but to be supported, a strong characteristic of female coaches.

I was thinking about this on my run this morning, a plan designed by my 25 year old female running coach who definitely challenges me but also supports me a great deal, personally and athletically. It reminded me of my path in Corporate America, a male dominated world. I have worked in corporations most of my life. For 10 years I worked for Whirlpool Corporation, a company started in the Midwest in the 1930s. It was a male dominated company, started and run by engineers, but it was selling to a mostly female market. They had a problem – a gender identity problem. And they knew it. But, it’s hard to turn the Titanic around on a dime.

I noticed that the women that got into management positions dressed like men and acted like men. There were feminine women in management, but they managed things like Innovation, Marketing and Customer Service. They didn’t manage the business. We used to laugh when the large group of balding white middle aged males walked through our office to have a meeting. There they go….the big boys. I had goals of being a corporate manager, but it began to dawn on me that I couldn’t fit into the mold. I couldn’t dress like a man certainly – I love dressing like a woman. And, I could not deny my emotions, my softer side. I wanted to help people not drive them. I couldn’t put words to it at the time, but I knew I was not in a place I could thrive. By the time I left that company, I knew I was on a dead end street.

This is me at work! I wear what I like, and I like women's clothes!
This is me at work! I wear what I like, and I like to look like a woman!

Development Dimensions International, a talent development consulting company that I’ve used in my work, did a study on women in business that I read two years ago. It made a lot of sense to me. They found that companies want to promote women, but the issue is that they are not developed to be in leadership positions. The leadership traits that are valued are traditionally masculine traits similar to the ones my friend Gretchen mentioned. Feminine traits such as supportiveness, work/life balance, compassion, and cooperativeness are just not valued as much in corporations. So, women are not chosen for high potential development. If they are not developed early in traits that are not traditionally their strengths, why would they be chosen for leadership roles?

I believe that we don’t have a paradigm in our culture for women as leaders. We think that if they don’t act like male leaders, they are not effective. A woman I know made a comment that a female political leader “set women back in politics 50 years” because she cried during an interview about the Katrina disaster. My comment to her was that we have to accept that women bring things to the table that men don’t bring if we are to ever support women in any leadership role. Why don’t we feel that tears are okay from leaders when terrible catastrophic events happen? Why don’t we see something wrong with a leader if they don’t shed tears when it is appropriate?

How do we know that we wouldn’t be better off if we had leaders selected that had feminine characteristics? We will never know because historically our leaders have been male. That’s the only baseline we have. What might the world look like if our leaders were supportive, motivated by beautiful things, compassionate, emotionally expressive and motivated by the success and development of people rather than money. I’m not saying male leadership is bad, but we just haven’t tapped into the power of women as leaders.

I went to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago when I lived there. They had an exhibit on the automobile. Apparently, there were two designs initially. One was noisy and went fast and was powered by gasoline. One was slower and powered by electricity. Women favored the second version. Men favored the first. What if the electric vehicle had won out? How would our world be different if we weren’t burning all our fossil fuels for energy? If we weren’t dependent on oil and gasoline for running our world? I’m sure we’d have issues either way, but how would it be different?

I used to think that being a woman was a “less than” proposition. I felt I needed to develop my masculine traits, and I did a pretty damn good job of it. In the last 10 years or so, I’ve begun to appreciate the leaders I’ve had who were women. I have a female running coach. I had a mentor at Whirlpool who taught me that looking like and acting like a woman was okay even if it caused discomfort to my male peers. I choose female personal trainers because they understand my needs around body image and balance. I work better for male bosses if they embrace their feminine side. I’ve found that I do better work, I work harder, and I’m more loyal when I’m supported as a person, as a female. Good leadership requires both the feminine and masculine qualities that are present in both genders. We just need to be open to something new. Who knows, maybe the world would be a better place……or at least a softer, gentler one. I think I might like that.

6 Comments on “Girl Talk: Who Says Girls Can’t Lead?

  1. pushing vs supporting
    I like that you pointed out the difference.

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