Although the number of female leaders in the business world is dramatically higher than just forty short years ago, the C suite is still male dominated. There are two schools of thought on female leadership- (1) the business world is against women and we need to speak up to change this or it never will change or (2) women must fight for their position just like any other employee.
I’m a member of the second camp and I am personally annoyed when someone complains “there are not enough women speakers on that panel,” yet when you look at the applicants for the panel, there were no women who raised their hands. When people say “men are holding us down,” I think back to one of my first jobs out of college as the Marketing Director at a commercial real estate group, overseeing an entire division and being the only female at executive meetings – I didn’t feel held down and I didn’t get the job because of gender equality but because I was the most qualified candidate.
In conversation, some find my position to be callous, but I argue that it was ingrained in me at a very early age that I was fully equipped to be a leader and it never occurred to me when I entered the business world that I was at a disadvantage. This naivete has benefited me in amazing ways- I didn’t know I was supposed to be “held down” or that the glass ceiling applied to me, so I didn’t let it. My personality has come into question before as overly ambitious, competitive and enthusiastic, and some have claimed those are not very feminine traits. But who says this of me? Mostly women. What a shame that women have found me not to be womanly enough, a position that implies the glass ceiling applies to me- these are the same women that complain that a speaker panel doesn’t have women on it. So very hypocritical.
Ignoring the glass ceiling
Why did I have this inherent refusal to acknowledge the glass ceiling? I trace it back to my upbringing. My grandmother taught me to read before I ever started kindergarten and out of boredom the summer prior to kindergarten, I read the entire Nancy Drew series not because I was told to but because I had this new tool called reading and the only books in my grandparent’s house that looked interesting was that colorful set, so I got started. No one knew I read the series, I did it for me. When I started kindergarten, I was very frustrated that everyone was learning the alphabet and it was everything I could do just to sit still. Tradition was to stay on track with the public school system, but my family didn’t believe in the conventional thinking and allowed me to move forward at my own pace on my personal time.
My grandmother was also the den leader of the local Girl Scouts, Brownies and Blue Bird organization over the years, and when my time came to join, I was ready. I learned crafts, outdoor skills and how to work in a team as well as lead a team. The mission of the Girl Scouts is that the program “builds girls of courage, confidence, and character, who make the world a better place.” While there are a lot more organizations available today to girls, especially those that encourage girls to be interested in STEM (science, tech, engineering and math) careers, in the 80s, the Girl Scouts was the best/only program available in the small town I lived in.
I hated selling cookies as a Blue Bird, and although I was nowhere near shy with strangers, I felt like I was imposing. Why did I feel like that? My dad getting angry at telemarketers calling during dinner- I equated the two and knew inherently it was annoying. I was taught “sales skills” through the program, but I didn’t learn how to negotiate (there was no “buy a full case today and get 10% off”), how to read buyer signs or buyer psychology, rather we had a script to read from and it ended in a yes or no proposition. My grandmother passed away after a year of my being in the program, and I quit. I didn’t quit because our den leader was gone, but because the selling process was boring to me and I had better things to do with my time.
I learned early on how to prioritize my skills and decide what my passion was. I hated sales, so I stuck with writing and was a published poet by second grade (after skipping first grade), which has come in quite handy in my career. Most children don’t know what their passion is, and there is no one around to inspire them. I happened to come from a family of creatives, but engineers don’t think their job is interesting to a child, so they don’t share what they do with their children. Single parents don’t have time to sit down every day with their child and ask about their dreams and then actually go through with shaping them, that’s left to the public school system which barely scrapes by with education since they’re required to focus children on short term memorization for standardized testing.
What we can do better – three things
The three things we can do as a culture to cultivate leadership in women are as follows:
- Teach girls how to read earlier than public schools require. Let them enter imaginary worlds and learn about environments other than the one they already know. Reading is critical to the expansion of the mind. Even though I grew up in a small town, I was very well educated about the world by the time I entered it. Reading helps girls to be creative which is a key component to developing leadership skills and helps with problem solving.
- Help girls identify interests early and help them develop them into passions. I hated sales, but I was asked what I don’t hate and that was writing, so I pushed forward with what became my passion. Don’t force girls to stay in a program they don’t like, even if it helps them develop other skills. Skills and passion aren’t the same thing, and sometimes parents and teachers tell kids, “don’t doodle” and stifle their creativity and teach them to ignore their own passions which can limit their ability to lead later on in life.
- We must teach our daughters that the glass ceiling doesn’t apply to them and that they can lead no matter what society says. This allows girls to become entrepreneurs if they end up in a field that is not female friendly, or helps them to have the confidence to sit in an executive board room without feeling self conscious. Telling girls that they have to fight to get to the top gives them an inherent sense of self consciousness as if they don’t deserve a leadership role when they actually earn one. Teach girls to work hard and bust their butts on anything they pursue.
There are many more things we can do as Americans without having to reform the school system, an impossible undertaking. Business leaders are great independent of their gender, ethnicity, age or religion, and some day, our culture will not teach girls that from day one they are at a disadvantage because that is one of the biggest things holding so many women back.