I've been thinking a lot about leadership in recent months. To advance in any career leadership skills seem to be a necessity and as someone who's been on the bottom rung of the ladder for too long I've been doing a lot of reading on how I can develop and demonstrate leadership skills. Being a woman it's even harder because we much tread that fine line of being a leader 'getting above ourselves' (the image at the beginning of the following article encapsulates the problem perfectly).
As a result of my interest, this article caught my eye. It's a good summary of the research to date on the issues surrounding women who try to be and are leaders.
“Men are often judged on their potential, but women are judged on their achievements,”
The article talks about the 'tightrope' that women must walk between being female and professional. It reminded me of this article which, while not directly about leadership, is all about the same balancing act, this time in what constitutes dressing 'professionally'.
In womenswear, there's no such thing as neutral. To make traditional men's styles okay for a woman to wear, women's clothing designers add feminine touches. Put just enough femininity into a piece and a woman appears "professional for a woman." Get a smidge too feminine, and she risks veering into "ditzy" territory, or worse, becoming a sexy "distraction."... To add insult to injury, "just enough femininity" or "too much makeup" are standards that fluctuate according to every coworker and boss on earth, meaning a woman is open to scrutiny no matter what.
This is a really long piece but it's also a really important piece that should be read widely. It looks at the challenges faced by women who want a career and a family and how society has failed to adapt to changes in women's roles. It's from a US academic and political consultant and obviously speaks about her world but is no less important for its fairly narrow focus.
Why Women Still Can’t Have It All
All my life, I’d been on the other side of this exchange. I’d been the woman smiling the faintly superior smile while another woman told me she had decided to take some time out or pursue a less competitive career track so that she could spend more time with her family. I’d been the woman congratulating herself on her unswerving commitment to the feminist cause, chatting smugly with her dwindling number of college or law-school friends who had reached and maintained their place on the highest rungs of their profession. I’d been the one telling young women at my lectures that you can have it all and do it all, regardless of what field you are in. Which means I’d been part, albeit unwittingly, of making millions of women feel that they are to blame if they cannot manage to rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life (and be thin and beautiful to boot). [my emphasis]
Just about all of the women in that room planned to combine careers and family in some way. But almost all assumed and accepted that they would have to make compromises that the men in their lives were far less likely to have to make.
A simple measure is how many women in top positions have children compared with their male colleagues. Every male Supreme Court justice has a family. Two of the three female justices are single with no children. And the third, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, began her career as a judge only when her younger child was almost grown. The pattern is the same at the National Security Council: Condoleezza Rice, the first and only woman national-security adviser, is also the only national-security adviser since the 1950s not to have a family.
Sandberg thinks that “something” is an “ambition gap”—that women do not dream big enough. I am all for encouraging young women to reach for the stars. But I fear that the obstacles that keep women from reaching the top are rather more prosaic than the scope of their ambition. My longtime and invaluable assistant, who has a doctorate and juggles many balls as the mother of teenage twins, e-mailed me while I was working on this article: “You know what would help the vast majority of women with work/family balance? MAKE SCHOOL SCHEDULES MATCH WORK SCHEDULES.” The present system, she noted, is based on a society that no longer exists—one in which farming was a major occupation and stay-at-home moms were the norm. Yet the system hasn’t changed.
While employers shouldn’t privilege parents over other workers, too often they end up doing the opposite, usually subtly, and usually in ways that make it harder for a primary caregiver to get ahead. Many people in positions of power seem to place a low value on child care in comparison with other outside activities. Consider the following proposition: An employer has two equally talented and productive employees. One trains for and runs marathons when he is not working. The other takes care of two children. What assumptions is the employer likely to make about the marathon runner? That he gets up in the dark every day and logs an hour or two running before even coming into the office, or drives himself to get out there even after a long day. That he is ferociously disciplined and willing to push himself through distraction, exhaustion, and days when nothing seems to go right in the service of a goal far in the distance. That he must manage his time exceptionally well to squeeze all of that in.
Be honest: Do you think the employer makes those same assumptions about the parent? Even though she likely rises in the dark hours before she needs to be at work, organizes her children’s day, makes breakfast, packs lunch, gets them off to school, figures out shopping and other errands even if she is lucky enough to have a housekeeper—and does much the same work at the end of the day.
Women have contributed to the fetish of the one-dimensional life, albeit by necessity. The pioneer generation of feminists walled off their personal lives from their professional personas to ensure that they could never be discriminated against for a lack of commitment to their work.
I love this piece!
Perhaps it is not that women should learn to be more confident, but we should all learn to be more sceptical of what confidence actually brings. It's not competence. It's not effectiveness. It doesn't necessarily make people better leaders or employers, and yet the world stage would amply demonstrate that under-qualified, over-confident men routinely grasp leadership positions over better qualified rivals.. . . we need to focus not just on the deficit of competent women in our public, political ranks, but on the surplus of incompetent men.