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Roundabout ways to support women leaders

Posted by Chad O'Connor  August 10, 2012 10:00 AM

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About a year ago I met up with a friend and colleague to check in on each other’s projects. We eventually got around to weightier topics, and she said she felt like the women’s leadership movement was more or less stuck. “It’s like we just keep running around giving each other awards,” she said. “But then what?”

Since then—with this image in my head of women running circles—I’ve been keeping an eye out for people and organizations who are moving the women’s leadership conversation forward. By this I mean not just saying something new, but saying what we’re too often silent about, or, going about the conversation differently if need be. I mean asking ourselves hard questions like, “Who gets to participate in the public, highly visible conversation about women in the first place? Who isn’t in the room?” And I mean going beyond models of leadership that served us for a while, but maybe don’t serve us so well anymore.

It’s an exciting, tricky time to be a woman leader. I joke with girlfriends that “women are soooo trendy” these days because we kind of are. People seem to be getting the hint that women’s leadership is where it’s at, that maybe if we had more women leaders, our businesses, organizations, and communities—heck the earth—would be better off. Do we know how to get more women in leadership positions though? Not so much.

In the spirit of not running around in circles, here are a few ways we can support women leaders and keep the conversation interesting.

Back good ideas, wherever they come from. One way to support women leaders is to go out looking for them. Another, simpler way is to ask yourself if you genuinely back good ideas wherever they come from. We may think we’re ok with the idea of women setting the agenda or playing key roles in important dealings, but we work with people we’re most comfortable with. Backing a good idea wherever it comes from may mean going outside of your comfort zone. (Entertain the idea that you have a comfort zone.) This goes for men and women alike.

Question your assumptions about power. As business thinkers have encouraged more “flat”, networked organizations, we’ve begun to change leadership structures. But we must do more than adjust structures; we must question our beliefs about leadership and more specifically, power… how it works and what it looks like. Letting go of strict, top-down hierarchical structures doesn’t do much if we approach our work with the same old attitudes about power.

For example, as my colleague Lina Cramer reminds me, we know that we can immediately strengthen a community by increasing two things: diversity and connectivity. Consciously or unconsciously, many women know this. So in business, when faced with a strategic challenge, we may respond by encouraging a greater diversity of ideas or paying closer attention to office communication and well-being as a way of improving teamwork and developing capacity. But these methods often get categorized as “soft skills” and are perceived to be of lesser value than more traditional leadership styles and methods. In many cases, women lead differently than men. When we dismiss women’s leadership as soft and their methods somehow secondary or besides the point, we make it harder for them to lead.

Call it out. When you see or experience an injustice in your professional life—aka your life—call it out. There’s a way to do it appropriately. In her article for The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” Anne-Marie Slaughter names the exhaustion so many women feel in attempting to balance work and family. In contrast to the advice we hear these days along the lines of “dream bigger,” Slaughter bravely offers: “I would hope to see commencement speeches that finger America’s social and business policies, rather than women’s level of ambition, in explaining the dearth of women at the top.” What’s more, every time you call something out you arm people with new language. A lot of people (women and men) aren’t happy with where women’s leadership stands, but we don’t always have the language to explain what needs to change.

Leave women’s bodies out of it. Speaking of calling things out, Barnard student and founder of FBomb, Julie Zeilinger said it best in her recent Forbes column, “Why Millennial Women Do Not Want to Lead”: “During the 2008 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin were presented not as political candidates, but rather as stereotypes and opposite ends of sexist dichotomies. Both women’s ideals were dismissed in exchange for commentary on their physical attractiveness or their [ability] to live up to [definitions] of femininity.” This still happens all the time. And, speaking just for myself here, for women-led startups, it would be nice to see fewer logos with an absurdly thin woman in heels clutching some new fancy product. We might also cool it with pink. Pink is awesome, but not all the time. Seriously though, it’s as if we feel we have to prove our feminity and sexuality before our ideas can become interesting.

Recognize men as allies. When I think about the professional opportunities I’ve been given that have made a difference for me, men have almost always been involved. Men bosses and colleagues have trusted me with important projects, gone to bat for me, and invited me into important meetings. This is not to say I could not have gotten those kinds of opportunities by other means; it is to acknowledge the role of men as advocates for women in gender imbalanced systems. Men have always been a key part of the women’s movement and I imagine they will have to play a bigger role to come if we are to continue making gains.

Show financial support and enter into the dialogue about money. If you have it to give, support women leaders and entrepreneurs by making a contribution to their cause or startup. If you struggle with your relationship to money, check out the trailer for filmmaker Katie Teague’s documentary Money & Life, spread the word, and help her get the film out there.

These may not be the most direct ways of supporting women’s leadership, but they are powerful precisely because they involve all of us, not just women. When we think critically about how we show up in the workplace and in our community, when we consider what we’re willing to talk about and what we stay silent about, and when we welcome men into the conversation about women’s leadership as allies and fellow citizens, we increase our collective strength as women leaders and women’s advocates.

Lex Schroeder is a writer/speaker on leadership, mindful work, and creativity. She is a Partner at Wisdom Exchange, a Research Fellow at The Lean Enterprise Institute and a Connector for Boston World Partnerships.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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