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If you do not adapt, if you do not learn, you will wither, you will die.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Female Leadership – The Real Struggle?

Make-up, flirting, dancing, and bling outfits. A beauty contest as we’ve seen them so often. This one has a twist, however. Its men not women who dress up and the women get to pick the winners. I am talking the Wodaabe people of Niger, where male contestants paint their faces with red, white, and yellow clay and dance for hours to impress female judges who may take them as lovers, even if both already have partners. These unusual beauty contests, known as Gerewol, celebrate the fertility the rains bring to the parched edge of the Sahara. Drought, conflict and, more recently, insurgency from al-Qaeda's North African offshoot have prevented the celebrations from being practiced frequently. Only when there is enough water to support several hundred people in one place do the normally isolated Wodaabe gather.

Western women may dream of equivalents of this reversed male-female situation, like seeing female executives heading the corporate world. The facts about women in top positions are still shocking. Although women make up over half of America's workforce, as of 2009, only 13 Fortune 500 companies and only 25 Fortune 1000 companies have women CEOs or presidents. Women receive about six in ten college degrees, yet near the top there remains slow progress in the number of female directors, officers, and women in the pipeline, according to research by Catalyst and Corporate Library. Catalyst, the not-for-profit New York-based women's research organization, points out that its data shows a change over the last ten years. From 11.2% of corporate officers in Fortune 500 companies being women in 1998 to still only 15.7% in 2008. At this rate, it would take another 40 years for the number of female corporate officers to match the number of male officers. What to make of this?
Allow me a side step with a purpose. Author Shelby Steele in his book “The content of our Character” defines the present problem for blacks as not having abandoned the victim – role. Could this be the case for women in the corporate world? Steele asserts that leaders like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton make claims for special treatment solely on the basis of skin color and historic bad treatment.  But their claims fall on increasingly deaf ears, says Steele, and, unfortunately serve to foster a corrosive atmosphere of black dependence on white largesse. Steele continues that there will be no end to despair and no lasting solution to any of our problems until we rely on individual effort within the American mainstream rather than on collective action against the mainstream as our means of advancement. Maybe this is too strong, or better, too one-sided of an argument, and I am well aware of all the resentment and opposition women may confront in their way up the corporate ladder, but it sure supports my belief in the power of individual effort, in ownership, in personal responsibility, in perseverance, and in personal willpower and sacrifice – all necessary ingredients to be able to do what it takes to get where you want to be whether you’re born male or female.

Of course it’s tempting to blame the reluctant and male-dominated corporate arena for too few women at the top. Sure enough there was and is discrimination and harassment, there are biases and limitations and many other challenges for women climbing the ladder. I do not, however, want to get caught up in this debate that holds truths and exaggerations as well as misguided beliefs and incomplete conclusions. So I will not swamp you in a historical, psychological, socio-political or any other analysis of the ‘female struggle to the top’. For women that made the choice in favor of a career, whether it be combined with raising a family or not, they face challenges that in many ways are similar to those of their male counterparts. Many of the same ingredients for success apply to both genders. At the end of the day, it comes down to the question: Are you willing and capable of doing what it takes to get yourself and your career to the highest possible point – if that’s your goal? For females to become corporate leaders it takes resilience, stamina, strong values, vision, passion, humbleness, authenticity, astuteness, endless determination, and perseverance and sacrifices. It is my belief that the list for men looks pretty much the same. 

During my career I have coached female leaders who regularly confessed to me that one of the hardest struggles can be balancing between doing and being what they think their (often male) counterparts expect of them and what they really feel is the right thing to show and do, to just be themselves, whether it be considered ‘female’ or not. This is perception and expectation management and touches upon inner strength and confidence more than anything else.

Notwithstanding apparent gender-based injustice, discrimination, and harassment I suggest every female’s focus be on her own circle of influence and on her own power and perseverance. If you are a female leader or aspiring to grow into one, do not fall into the ‘victim-trap’. Instead, ask yourself questions like: What are my beliefs about leaders from both genders? What are my beliefs about the effect of gender on leaders, how they are perceived, and how they perform? What strengths and inner resources will I be able to draw from? Do I feel I should be given extra slack and chances merely because I was born female? Do I need regulations and preferential treatment or do I need individual effort, personal responsibility, perseverance, and willpower in addition to expertise, content, and interpersonal strengths to make it as a female leader?

On a lighter note, the Nigel Cole directed industrial action movie “Made in Dagenham” might serve as an inspiration on the topic of female leadership. It’s a 2010 dramatization of the 1968 strike at the Ford car plant in Dagenham, England, where female workers walked out fighting for equal pay. The main character played by Sally Hawkins serves as a reminder that you don’t have to be a leader in the traditional sense to be leading.

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