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What does ‘women’s leadership’ mean?

It occurred to me today that the phrase ‘women’s leadership’ might be more challenging than I would have have thought of, in ways I would never have thought of. Put more specifically, to some people it apparently means ‘lead like a woman’, while to me it means ‘lead while being a woman’.

I don’t know how to have it mean anything else, because I don’t think there are things I do particularly well just because I’m a woman. I think I was acculturated to behave in particular ways, and that I’ve practiced certain skills more than others, and that some of that is because I’m a woman. But mostly I think I’m a person who wants to be a leader in my field and my institution. I’m also a woman, and women have certain culturally built disadvantages when it comes to leadership in professional arenas. (Consider today’s news stories about the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act for some evidence, there.) So when I see things that are directly linked to or advertised as being for “women’s leadership”, I pay attention, because I always hope that they’ll be aimed at teaching and building skills that shore up some of the gaps most women have in presenting themselves as leaders. Some of the gaps that come from being a girl in our schools, from being a young woman in our universities, from being female in our culture. And sometimes they are. Sometimes they’re awesome.

And then sometimes I’m furious.

About 4 years ago, I attended a regional women’s leadership conference for higher education. I hadn’t seen the program in depth — it wasn’t available online — but it was within driving distance, it was affordable, and the blurb read well and seemed interesting. And then I got there, checked in, and sat down for the keynote. The keynote speaker sang us a song about empowerment. And then she wanted us all to stand and sing it with her.

To which I say, “Are you fucking kidding me?” After the keynote, I quietly got up and I left. No way in hell. Would any self-respecting keynote speaker at a generalized leadership conference, either for men or for a mixed gender group, or for higher education or for business, it’s not actually relevant other than “not exclusively for women”, ask the audience to sing? As an “empowerment” action? The answer is flatly “no”. No. That would not fly.

Today I got an email, double exclamation pointed in the “priority” column, calling for registrations to this year’s version of the same conference from past attendees. It was the third or fourth I’d gotten, but today it just set my teeth on edge. I looked at the program. My teeth started to grind. And rather than continuing to (politely, kindly) letting it slide, I responded to the organizer.

Please remove me from your mailing list. I did attend, once, but I am not interested in attending again. I dislike the focus of the programming; I don’t think women should be directed to focus on the “touchy feely” parts of leadership at a gendered conference: women should be building a well-rounded leadership skill set, and I don’t feel that the programming offered here does that. Instead, by focusing on “empowerment”, “harmony”, “rejuvenation”, “reflection”, “peace”, and “fear” (all from this year’s program!), this conference reinforces a stereotype of women’s roles and “how women lead” that I find extremely distasteful, and in fact, dangerous to gender equality in the workplace. Women lead by being effective leaders with a comprehensive tookit of leadership skills, and I don’t see this conference providing that.

There are days when I look at this blog and it seems to be a record of me communicating bluntly and in ways that will get me labeled as a bitch. And when I think that, I start to backpedal. I feel awkward and acutely aware that I’m violating society’s expectation that women be peacemakers and problem solvers and nurturers, kind and gentle and willing.

And that’s precisely the goddamned problem with the “leadership conference” I’m declining to attend. By framing the day’s events around “harmony”, “rejuvenation”, “reflection”, and “peace”, all they’re doing is reinforcing the idea that women are supposed to be harmonious and peaceful, and that our strengths lie in reflection, emotional smoothing, and internalizing. That we shouldn’t be forceful, that we shouldn’t be bitchy.

Fuck that noise.

Yes, many women have strengths of character that are gendered, that are learned behaviors that result from their experiences as a woman in our world. That’s true, and those things have value, as we all do. It’s fair to say that the men of our world could also benefit from learning those things, as well-rounded people.  But telling a conference full of women to focus on those things, without addressing other tangible, practical, and often male-focused skills and traits? That’s reprehensible. That’s not about success or equality. That’s about creating a leadership culture that remains unapologetic about being gendered. That’s saying “this is how to lead if you are a woman” rather than “this is how people lead, and here are ways women may succeed or be challenged by that”.

Am I unapologetic about being a woman? You bet. That picture right there? That’s me, today, in my office. I’m wearing cosmetics, I’ve manicured my nails, I’m wearing jewelry only socially accepted on women, and I’m dressed in gender-specific cuts and styles. Andromeda Yelton reflects on the choices we make around boundaries, gender, and persona in this piece, and like her, I present as feminine — very much so. It’s identity, and it’s personal. And that choice has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not I can run a meeting, draft a strategic plan, advocate for important issues, craft an argument, sell an idea, cultivate political support, or any of the other thousand small things that make up effective leadership, because gender has very little to do with effective leadership. Yes, my leadership style is informed by my personality traits, strengths, and weaknesses, and some of those are in turn informed by my gender and our culture around femininity. But my leadership style is not limited by my gender, and I am not limited to a particular path just because I paint my nails and wear lip gloss and often default to an emotionally empathetic place. So stop trying to sell me on “harmonious empowerment” as something that’s in the domain of “women’s leadership”. I’d be the leader I am, learning and practicing the skills I’ve chosen, whether I chose feminine, gender-neutral, or masculine presentation. Because I’m a person, not a gender.

Leadership. That’s what we should care about. You want to hold a conference around empowerment, harmony, and facilitation as leadership skills? Go for it. But own it: open it to everyone and call it what it is. It’s not “Women’s Leadership”. It’s a kind of leadership, and those skills should be available to anyone who’s interested in building them, just as other kinds of leadership skills should be available to everyone. And if we’re going to care about gender as a part of the leadership argument, then we should be caring about whether or not women and all other disenfranchised people have a place at the big table with the majority, not that they build their own table out of special harmonious materials so they can feel good about something we’re falsely declaring to be innately theirs.

7 Responses to What does ‘women’s leadership’ mean?

  1. F&^% YES!

  2. Barbara Petruzzelli, Mount Saint Mary College

    Not only women sing. Perhaps it’s more of a cultural difference than gender difference. But it elicits the same response, at least in me. I attended a national ALA teleconference years ago, led by the then-president or immediate past president of ALA, I think his name was Franklin. The teleconference topic was change (no surprise there). In an attempt to encourage people to embrace the changes happening at ALA and in the profession, he led the studio audience – and tried to get the remote audiences to participate, too – in a singalong of the phrase “If change is to be, then it’s up to me.” I was horrified at what I saw as trivializing the topic and treating attendees like children. I left the room where the session was being broadcast as quickly as possible. It was a long time before I could take any ALA leadership seriously.

    • I agree. ALA needs to get serious about leadership. I know they have their emerging leaders program, but everyone i know that has done it gained very little from such an effort. It’s merely smokes and mirrors, unfortunately.

      • The unfortunate truth is that the Emerging Leaders program is about how to get on a path to leadership within ALA, not how to lead in libraries or the world. We need more and better.

  3. As a male library director who was raised in a “women’s space” (mom was a separatist for many years), I had to laugh at your recollection of that meeting. Yes, there is still a huge gender disparity when it comes to the workforce and leadership, but the “touchy-feely” and “peace harmony” parts of it seem to have all been cooked up from a few decades ago. And, I’m not sure if this is because librarianship is predominantly female, but I see a lot of that carry over to the profession.

    I also still have a bit of an issue with this “If a man does it, he’s powerful, if a woman does it, she’s a bitch.” In my time as a corporate librarian, the feeling was more, “if a man does it, he’s a douchebag. If a woman does it, she’s a bitch. But if they get the job done, no one cares.” But that idea hasn’t always translated into the academic library world, as academia is indeed a bit of hermetically sealed silo.

    And I think that might be missing from much our library field. People don’t want to be unliked and mean, but being a leader means having to burden the hard and sometimes unpopular decisions. And, yes, women, are often acculturated as to not be “mean.”

    I’m thankful to see that there indeed some better programs out there for developing leadership issues than that unfortunate one you attended. I’m hoping you continue to fight for a space at the table (without singing).

  4. Everything you just said – times ten. I have been more than a few times that I’m a “surprisingly strong leader, for a woman.” Oftentimes, as you say, that translates into “bitch.” Thank you for writing this. As always, Jenica, you are right on.

  5. Agreed. It’s not about behaving “like a woman” in the workplace. A good leader refines the strengths she (or he) already has, developing on weaknesses or inexperience. Fairness and strength and vision are not gender-based.

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