Why Women Do Not Need to Behave Like Men to Be Good Leaders

The messages to women about how to advance in organizations still, regrettably, urge women to behave like men, but men don’t seem to get messages that say they need to change at all. Reward systems in organizations still undervalue feminine workplace values and leadership behaviors and predominantly reward masculine ones. For example:

  • Assertiveness is rewarded more often than collaboration.
  • Women are urged to work long hours and pretend they don’t have children. (I’m not joking.) Women in a financial services firm whom I just interviewed are told not to talk about their families—even with each other—if they want to be considered for advancement.
  • Women must show they are task focused by not “wasting time” on building teams and relationships by soliciting or listening to input or problems.

Ruth Whippman, writing for the New York Times, notes that “anything (in most organizational cultures) associated with girls or women . . . is by definition assigned a lower cultural value than things associated with boys or men.” She goes on to say that “the assumption that assertiveness is a more valuable trait than, say, deference is itself the product of a ubiquitous and corrosive gender hierarchy.”

I agree with Whippman that achieving equality in organizations means, in addition to parity in representation, that organizations must come to value both feminine and masculine workplace values. These differences are described by Dr. Joyce K. Fletcher in her book, Disappearing Acts, in the table below:

Masculine Workplace Values Feminine Workplace Values
·       Task focused

·       Isolation and autonomy

·       Independence

·       Competition—individualistic competitive achievement

·       Hierarchical authority

·       Rational engagement is valued (focus on task, logic, and the bottom line—leave personal matters at the door)

·       Leadership style is directive

·       Community and team focused

·       Connection

·       Interdependence

·       Mutuality—success achieved through collaboration

·       Collectivity, or flat structure

·       Emotional engagement is valued (notice body language and process, encourage relationships, share feelings and personal information, and show empathy)

·       Leadership style is supportive

Fletcher emphasizes that organizations and society need both masculine and feminine values to have healthy and productive environments and relationships. When they are not both valued and our society and workplaces are out of balance, with a higher value placed on the masculine, as they are now, many problems occur for both women and men that could be prevented. For example:

  • Whippman notes that the emphasis on masculine assertiveness has led us to many of our current social problems, such as #MeToo, campus rape, school shootings, and President Trump’s Twitter rages.
  • The problem is not that women are not speaking up but that men are refusing to stop to listen to others and reflect on the impact of their behavior.
  • The problem is not that women apologize too much, as suggested in magazines and books, but that men don’t apologize enough. Whippman quotes a study that suggests women apologize more because they have a “lower threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior.” She is quick to point out that many of our problems with male entitlement and toxic behavior can be traced back to a “fundamental unwillingness among men to apologize.”
  • Rather than pouring money into encouraging only girls to take up STEM subjects, why aren’t we also pouring money into encouraging boys to become nurses? Are we saying that boys have no capacity for empathy, or that nursing isn’t considered masculine enough to count as real work?

Imagine having organizations where both masculine and feminine workplace values were rewarded and valued for leadership—where leaders could be valued for being both task and relationship focused, both competitive and collaborative, both directive and supportive—where leaders could be role models for how to have both careers and families rather than hiding the fact that they have families. This dream scenario is possible, and having a balance of both feminine and masculine values and behaviors will create more productive, equitable, and inclusive workplaces. We need men to “lean out,” though, rather than blaming the victim and putting all the pressure on women to become more like men. Women and men have to work together to make these changes in organizational cultures. Women can’t change things alone, but the results will be organizational cultures that are better for everyone.

 

Photo courtesy of Maryland GovPics (CC BY 2.0)

Women Still Score Higher in Leadership—New Research from HBR

Groundbreaking research by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman of the Zenger/Folkman leadership consultancy reported in 2012 found that women were perceived to be stronger leaders than men in twelve out of sixteen leadership competencies. Zenger and Folkman’s original research was conducted using 360-degree feedback reviews for 7,280 leaders in public, private, government, commercial, domestic, and international organizations. They have now updated this study with striking results—women are now rated more highly than men on 360-degree feedback reviews on seventeen out of nineteen leadership capabilities that differentiate excellent leaders from average or poor ones.

The authors note that while for the first time in history several women are running for president of the United States in a major political party, the voters and TV pundits are still asking whether people will vote for a woman for the nation’s highest office. Furthermore, the authors acknowledge that the percentage of women in senior leadership roles in business has remained the same since the original study was done—4.9 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs and 2 percent of S&P 500 CEOs are women. In addition, these numbers have steadily declined globally.

Despite the fact that women consistently prove themselves to be—and are perceived to be—capable leaders, why do so few women hold senior leadership roles? Zenger and Folkman suggest that many factors probably contribute to the small number of women in senior positions, including in the elected role of president of the United States:

  • For centuries, societies have held onto broad, cultural biases against women being leaders.
  • Lots of research shows that unconscious bias plays a big role in hiring and promotion decisions.
  • Research shows women often don’t apply for jobs unless they feel 100 percent qualified, while men are more likely to assume they can learn what they are missing on the job.

Zenger and Folkman report that their updated study shows that women are perceived by their managers—especially male managers—to be more effective leaders at every hierarchical level and in virtually every functional area, including IT, operations, and legal. Women are rated higher in seventeen out of nineteen capabilities with their highest ratings in the following areas:

  • Taking initiative
  • Acting with resilience
  • Practicing self-development
  • Driving for results
  • Displaying high integrity

In conclusion, the authors state that research shows women make highly competent leaders. What’s holding them back is a lack of opportunity driven by old stereotypes and unconscious bias. We have six women who have declared themselves to be 100 percent confident that they can lead our country. Wouldn’t you like your next president to excel in the competencies above? We need to challenge ourselves to push through old stereotypes to hire, promote, and elect women as leaders. Women are more than up to the task of leading.

 

Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash

Black Women Lead the Way to Change: Four Strategies That Work

Black feminists in Chicago have been breaking ground as leaders and we can all learn from their strategies and successes. Salamishah Tillet, writing for the New York Times, reports on some of their recent accomplishments:

  • Lori Lightfoot became the first black woman mayor of Chicago in 2019.
  • In 2016, Kim Foxx, a black woman, became the city’s top prosecutor.
  • In May 2015, black feminist activists pushed Chicago to become the first city to award reparations to people who survived police torture in the 1970s and ’80s.
  • Rahm Emanuel, the previous mayor, decided not to seek a third term as mayor after black women organized a citywide campaign against him.
  • Thanks to black feminist activists, Illinois became the first state in the Midwest to approve a path to a $15-an-hour minimum wage.

Tillet highlights a four-point model for change used by the black women in Chicago that can be a guide to change for the rest of us:

  1. Blend activism and the academy—Organizers and professors at many universities in Illinois work together to ensure that community activists and young black people work together and listen to each other. Young black people who feel engaged and empowered affect change. Their engagement can make the difference in elections and policy changes.
  2. Work across generations—Older feminists encourage young activists to be at the forefront and utilize their expertise, while older feminist activists provide guidance from the sidelines.
  3. Share power—The black feminists of Chicago encourage many local leaders to emerge rather than allow a single charismatic figure like Louis Farrakhan or Jesse Jackson to set an agenda. People show up for each other’s campaigns rather than align with only one candidate. People show up for each other’s issues as well.
  4. Work on several issues at once—Collaboration that brings focus to the intersection of issues such as low wages, police violence, and the recent murders of black women and girls is a critical strategy. For example, in 2015 after Black Lives Matter of Chicago organized a rally outside of a McDonald’s to stand with food workers striking for a $15 minimum wage, they all marched to a nearby police department to demand the firing of a police officer who shot an unarmed bystander. This last strategy has always been a hallmark of black feminism—a focus on the intersection of sexism, racism, classism, and other forms of oppression.

Potential presidential candidates have a lot of good reasons to court the support and votes of black feminist activists, whose proven track record of successfully organizing for change is formidable.

 

Photo courtesy of Johnny Silvercloud (CC BY-SA 2.0)

How Women Pay A Price for #MeToo

I remember the 1990s when the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas Senate confirmation hearings brought the issue of workplace sexual harassment into the light of day and gave the name sexual harassment to a set of behaviors that were previously undiscussable. Sexual harassment is defined as unwanted behaviors of a sexual nature perpetrated by a powerful person (like a boss) against a less powerful person (like an employee) as an abuse of power. In what was the precursor to the #MeToo movement, after Anita Hill’s testimony about Thomas’s behavior toward her as her boss, women began to speak out, name their abusers, and win big lawsuits against the companies that failed to protect them. Men complained that they had to “walk on eggshells” around the office to ensure they were not wrongfully accused of sexual harassment by female colleagues, especially younger female colleagues. They argued that the best way to protect themselves was to stop mentoring younger women altogether. This was BS, of course—but now it is happening again. Katrin Bennhold of the New York Times reports that many high-powered men at the recent World Economics Forum in Davos, Switzerland acknowledged concern about the #MeToo movement which, she explains, “has empowered women to speak up about harassment in the workplace.” As was true in the 1990s, these senior men are deciding to reduce their risk by minimizing contact with female employees, thereby depriving women of mentorship, sponsorship, and valuable exposure to influential networks. Two online surveys conducted in 2018 on the effects of #MeToo in the workplace found the following:

  • Almost half of male managers were uncomfortable engaging in one or more common work activities with women, such as working one-on-one or socializing.
  • One in six male managers was uncomfortable mentoring a female colleague.
  • Men reported being afraid of “saying or doing the wrong thing.”
  • Research by Sylvia Ann Hewlett found that two-thirds of male executives hesitate to hold one-on-one meetings with junior women.
Bennhold cites Pat Milligan, a researcher on female leadership at Mercer, as noting that “if we allow this to happen, it will set us back decades. Women have to be sponsored by leaders, and leaders are still mostly men.” We learned some things in the 1990s about how to reduce the risk men felt when working with women and how men can create respectful work relationships with women, thereby ensuring that they will not be accused of sexual harassment. Here are some examples:
  • Education on preventing sexual harassment and assault is important to help men know what is and is not appropriate workplace behavior. This education is especially effective in male-only group settings. Bennhold cites Marc Pritchard of Procter & Gamble as explaining, “Men also need ‘safe spaces’ to air their confusion and concerns about what behavior might qualify as bad. We need something like Lean In circles for men.”
  • Male leaders can meet one-on-one with young female colleagues in a nonthreatening environment by leaving the office door open for meetings, socializing over dinner with multiple colleagues, and not inviting female colleagues to their hotel rooms for meetings when on business travel out of town. These strategies are examples of ways to continue supporting the careers of female colleagues with less risk of misunderstanding for male leaders.
Alexandra Robbins of the New York Times notes that redefining masculinity from toxic to productive is being encouraged on college campuses in some fraternities. Productive masculinity is defined as conscious action to disrupt sexism, racism, and homophobia by men confronting disrespectful behavior in other men, which involves having open conversations with other men about masculinity and developing respectful and platonic relationships with women. In their recent ad addressing toxic masculinity, Gillette explains that they hope to influence the next generation of men to show respect, hold each other accountable for bad behavior, and be role models to show the best in men. Jennifer Wright of Harper’s Bazaar notes that the firestorm unleashed by the two-minute Gillette ad, which many people labeled as a “war on men,” shows how far we have to go. Perhaps senior male leaders in companies can learn from younger men on college campuses about productive masculinity and from Gillette about what respect, accountability, and role modeling look like. We really do know how to do this—but powerful men need to be willing to do things differently. Do you see examples of productive masculinity at work? We would love to hear your stories.   Photo courtesy of thetaxhaven (CC BY 2.0)  ]]>

Dealing with Imposter Syndrome

Have you ever felt like a fraud or imposter—like you did not belong or deserve a promotion or award? I know I have. Kristin Wong, writing for the New York Times, explains that the imposter syndrome is a term coined by psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes in 1978 to describe an “internal experience of intellectual phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” In my experience as a leadership coach, imposter syndrome is not uncommon, but most people do not talk about these feelings and think they are the only ones having them. Imposter syndrome can cause people to hold back, hesitate, or fail to contribute their valuable ideas and skills. They may appear to “lack confidence.” When they have an opportunity to put a name to this experience and discover they are not alone, they often feel liberated and empowered. They also come to know that these feelings will reappear from time to time and that they need support from others who understand when this happens. I am a coach in several women’s leadership development programs and one of them, the Power of Self Program, administers an imposter syndrome self-assessment instrument during the first of six classes in the program. I have the opportunity to debrief my coaching clients who take this course to hear about the impact of having a name for the imposter experience. They are often surprised and relieved to discover they are not alone and that there are strategies they can use to overcome the debilitating impact of the syndrome. The imposter syndrome often becomes a central focus of our coaching work. Some researchers have found that imposter syndrome hits minority groups harder, which has also been my experience as a coach. Sometimes a coaching client struggles with an almost debilitating imposter syndrome when

  • They are a member of an underrepresented group in an industry or organization. When you don’t see other people like you, this can reinforce the feeling that you don’t belong.
  • They were raised in a culture where they were told they would not or could not do certain things. For example, many of my clients of Asian descent, especially females, have been told all their lives that they are not intelligent or worthy. It is the belief in some Asian (and other) cultures that parents will bring bad luck to their children if they say positive or encouraging things. They do the opposite to show their love and protect their children from bad luck. But this can cause difficulty for those children as adults trying to succeed.
  • They are raised in a culture, including Western cultures, where social norms dictate that women and men should adhere to traditional gender norms and roles. To do otherwise can feed the imposter syndrome.
  • They are functioning in a culture where racial/ethnic/class/caste norms prescribe roles and access to opportunity. Breaking through those barriers can be difficult, both externally and internally, as internalized oppression can accompany us on our life journey.
  • They cannot distinguish between their own internalized experience of oppression and actual discrimination, where the barriers really are external.
Wong cites Rosanna Durruthy, a global diversity leader, and Kevin Cokley, a professor of educational psychology and African diaspora studies at the University of Texas at Austin, as suggesting these strategies for dealing with imposter syndrome at work:
  • Join an affinity group to find people with similar backgrounds and experiences.
  • Recruit a mentor to serve as a professional anchor, preferably someone who has shared your experiences.
  • Document your accomplishments. Record positive feedback you receive and your accomplishments in a daily journal. A review of this journal can both help you get through an attack of imposter syndrome and create a record to draw from to make the case for your next raise or promotion.
  • Develop a mantra to remind yourself that you earned your success.
What has worked for you?   Photo courtesy of businessforward (CC BY-SA 2.0)]]>

Why We Don’t See Women as Leaders and Why This Matters

The number of women leaders in the largest companies in the United States declined by 25 percent this year, as reported by Claire Cain Miller of the New York Times. Because the number of female chief executives is small to begin with, the departure of even one, such as the recent departure of Denise Morrison as the CEO of Campbell Soup Company, has a big numerical impact. In fact, the number of female CEOs has dropped from thirty-two to twenty-four in the past year. Why does it matters that so few women are CEOs and that the numbers are declining? One reason is that unconscious assumptions about gender determine who gets seen as leadership material when managers need to hire or promote. In a study reported by Heather Murphy of the New York Times, both women and men almost always draw a man when asked to draw an effective leader. Murphy reports on another study where research participants were asked to listen in by phone to a fictional sales meeting. In some of the “meetings,” study participants heard “Eric” offer change-oriented ideas while other participants heard “Erica” read the same script. When research participants were asked to rate the speaker, either Eric or Erica, on how much he or she had exhibited leadership, the Erics were far more likely than the Ericas to be identified as leaders, even though the Ericas shared exactly the same ideas. Murphy cites Nilanjana Dasgupta of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, who explains that “when people are consistently exposed to leaders who fit one profile [male], they will be more likely to notice leaders who fit that same profile in the future.” In other words, even when a woman acts like a leader, her talents are less likely to be noticed or identified as leadership because the generally accepted profile of a leader is a man. This inherent bias is why it matters that the number of women in high visibility CEO roles in big companies is declining. Murphy points out that we need to see more women in leadership roles to expand our unconscious assumptions about who can be an effective leader—and instead the numbers are declining. In fact, depressingly, every female executive who stepped down during the past year was replaced by a man. Miller notes that the obstacles for female executives are rooted in biases against women in power. In fact, Miller cites two studies to make her case:

  • Both women and men have families, but caregiving is considered to be a woman’s problem and, therefore, limits the opportunities made available to women.
  • Leadership ability does not appear to be affected by gender differences. A study of 2,600 executives found no difference in multiple areas assessed, including interpersonal skills, analytical and managerial skills, and general ability. Yet women were much less likely to become chief executives.
This problem is clearly a vicious cycle. Because we don’t see women in executive roles, women don’t get the opportunity to be hired or promoted into executive roles. We have to keep challenging both women and men to examine their unconscious biases about who can be an effective leader. We must also continue to push for more women on corporate boards who will hopefully push for more women to be considered for CEO roles, and we need to elect women to office where they can raise these issues legislatively. Let’s keep asking, “Where are the women?”   Photo courtesy of Vector Open Stock (CC BY 2.0)]]>

Is Sexual Harassment Coming to an End? Good News and Bad News

First, the good news: dozens of women have been speaking out about sexual harassment in the workplace in recent months, bringing their upsetting experiences into the light and out of the shadows after a long period of silence about this issue in organizations. Understandably, women have been coming forward slowly either because of pressure to stay silent or justifiable fear of negative consequences to their careers. Gretchen Carlson spoke out at Fox News and brought about the firing of Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly, and other women gained courage from her example to tell their stories of sexual harassment at Fox. Mike Isaac of the New York Times reports that “in February, the former Uber engineer Susan Fowler wrote a public blog post detailing what she said was a history of sexual harassment at Uber. That plunged Uber into crisis” and emboldened dozens of other women to come forward about the pervasive “bro culture” at technology firms. Shirley Leung of the Boston Globe  notes that while most women have not spoken out publicly because of fear of losing opportunities for jobs or startup funding, those who have are making an impact. Katie Benner of the New York Times  describes some of the results:

  • Dave McClure, founder of the startup incubator 500 StartUps, resigned after admitting to an accusation of sexual harassment. The company also had covered up an earlier sexual harassment charge against him when “the investigation was kept confidential.”
  • Binary Capital imploded due to sexual harassment charges lodged against Justin Caldbeck by several women.
  • Uber CEO Travis Kalanick resigned.
  • The New England Venture Capital Association invited members to sign a pledge of good behavior.
Now for the bad news: the voluntary signing of a good-behavior pledge is not likely to change much. While I agree with Katie Benner that “often change happens only when there is public revelation,” I don’t think that public revelation is enough to stop sexual harassment. I agree with Farhad Manjoo that sexual harassment is systemic, pervasive, and ingrained in many organizational cultures. Sexual harassment is systemic because
  • Organizational leaders ignore complaints or sweep them under the rug
  • Lack of transparency is built into employment contracts with arbitration clauses that rarely favor complainants
  • Lack of transparency is built into nondisclosure agreements required for settlements when sexual harassment claims are found to have merit
  • Abusive organizational cultures are enabled by a failure of oversight by boards and investors
The fact that a few dozen women have spoken out and a handful of high profile CEOs and investors have been dismissed does not mean that anything has changed. Katie Benner notes that “some venture capital firms [the sites of a lot of sexual harassment] are privately grumbling about having to deal with the issue.” She quotes Aileen Lee, a founder of Cowboy Ventures, as saying, “They’re asking when people will stop being outed.” As I have written in previous articles, steps can be taken to really change organizational cultures to be more hospitable to women: In the meantime, thank you to the women who have come forward publicly to put this important issue back into the spotlight. And thank you to the trustees of Uber who forced the founder to step down for a wide range of bad behavior, including sexual harassment at his company.   Image courtesy of US Embassy, Jakarta. CC by-nd 2.0]]>

Where Are the Women Entrepreneurs?

I grew up in a family of entrepreneurs where my mother and many of my aunts were strong businesswomen. I am also an entrepreneur, perhaps because I had female role models, and I have always wondered—why don’t more women start businesses? Claire Cain Miller of the New York Times  agrees that something is wrong with the underrepresentation of female business founders. She notes that while women make up half the workforce and earn 40–50 percent of the degrees in business, science, and engineering, fewer than 10 percent of technology startups are founded by women, and only 36 percent of all US companies are owned by women. Also, many woman-owned businesses are small, employ only the founder, and earn less revenue than businesses founded by men, according to the census data. Why are there fewer women entrepreneurs? Miller cites research reflecting the following factors:

  • Women have fewer role models.
  • People mentor and give venture capital money to people like themselves. Miller notes that this dynamic is called “homophily, or love of same.”
  • Of all venture capitalists, 91 percent are male. Most worked in investment banking, private equity, or consulting and went to the same few universities—Harvard, Stanford, or University of Pennsylvania.
  • Not surprisingly, 91 percent of venture capital-backed entrepreneurs are men. Most of them have degrees from similar colleges and worked in the same firms.
  • Women are outside of these established networks and do not get the same mentoring, contacts, or funding opportunities.
  • Women are also less likely to get management experience before trying to become entrepreneurs. Only 19 percent of top executives are women, so women are less likely to have mentors in senior leadership.
Another disturbing roadblock is that women can experience sexual harassment by venture capitalists, especially when women are raising funds for technology startups. The massive imbalance of power between women and men controlling venture capital funds means that women are often propositioned or inappropriately touched as a condition of receiving funding, jobs, or other help that they need to start businesses. They often do not receive the funding when they rebuff the sexual advance. What difference do women entrepreneurs and investors make for women and for companies? Miller cites research by Linda Bell of Barnard College showing that the gender pay gap shrinks when women are the CEOs of companies, and women are more likely to be promoted when women are the leaders. In another article, Miller  reports that when venture capital firms hire a female investing partner, the financial performance of the venture capital firm improves. While networking groups for women like Astia or women-led investment groups like Broadway Angels can help, women cannot change these lopsided dynamics without male allies fighting alongside them for these changes. Perhaps more men with daughters will be motivated to challenge the status quo. Miller cites a research paper by Gompers and Wang showing that male venture capitalists with daughters show less bias against women in making hiring and funding decisions. We need to tackle this imbalance together with conscious intentionality.   Photo courtesy of Kevin Krejc. CC by 2.0]]>

Male CEOs with Daughters Are More Socially Responsible Leaders

I just came across an interesting new study, reported in the Harvard Business Review (HBR), showing that companies run by male executives with female children rated higher on measures of corporate social responsibility (CSR), defined as “measures of diversity, employee relations, and environmental stewardship,” than is true for comparable companies led by men with no daughters.  This means that male CEOs with daughters spend significantly more net income on CSR priorities than is true for other companies (unless the CEO is a woman, but more on this later). Alison Beard, writing for HBR, reports on this research by Henrik Cronqvist of the University of Miami and Frank Yu of China Europe International Business School, who examined the CSR ratings of S&P 500 companies tracked between 1992 and 2012 and compared the CSR ratings for male executives with male and female offspring.  Beard notes that other researchers have found similar results on voting records for US congressmen who have daughters and for the decisions of US Court of Appeals judges with daughters.  Here are some of the findings:

  • Male CEOs with daughters spend significantly more net income on CSR than the median. Cronqvist and Yu explain that the literature in economics, psychology, and sociology support the notion that “women tend to care more about the well-being of other people and of society than men do, and that female children can increase those sympathies in their parents.” They hypothesize that because the median age of S&P 500 CEOs in the research sample was fifty-seven, these male CEOs may have seen their daughters discriminated against in the workplace and become sensitized to issues of inequality.
  • Male CEOs with only sons did not spend more on CSR.
  • Male CEOs with female spouses and no daughters did not spend more on CSR.
  • Research from Yale University by Eboyna Washington shows that US congressmen with daughters tend to vote more liberally, especially for legislation involving reproductive rights.
  • Beard reports on research by Adam Glynn of Emory and Maya Sen of Harvard that found similar patters among US Court of Appeals judges in cases involving gender issues.
As for female CEOs, Cronqvist and Yu had only a small sample of them available in their study, so they could not draw firm conclusions.  They did make these interesting observations that are worth noting:
  • The companies in their sample with female CEOs had much stronger CSR ratings in every category—diversity, employee relations, environment, product, human rights, and community—than did those of the male-led companies.
  • The researchers calculate that a male CEO with a daughter produces “slightly less than a third of the effect of having a female CEO. Comparisons of the data on congressmen and judges yield similar numbers.”  They conclude that “any man behaves one-third more ‘female’ when he parents a girl.”
These findings add to the growing body of research showing that gender does influence the decisions of leaders, legislators, judges, and other decision makers, in one way or another.  Doesn’t it make sense to have more gender-balanced representation in all decision-making arenas? Photo courtesy of Ruben Diaz, Jr.. CC by-nd 2.0]]>

What Liberia Can Teach Us About Electing Women

In 2005, the women of Liberia elected Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as the first female president of an African nation, and we can learn a lot by examining how they did it. In a recent article for the New York Times, Helene Cooper, a reporter who grew up in Liberia before immigrating to the United States in 1980, tells the story of how Liberian women got Sirleaf elected, highlighting valuable lessons for American women. When the Liberian election took place in 2005, Liberia had just emerged from a brutal civil war. Nearly everyone had been a victim or witness, if not a perpetrator, of extreme acts of violence. Children were kidnapped and turned into child soldiers; family members were brutally murdered while survivors were forced to watch. Cooper reports that “more than 70 percent of Liberian women were raped . . . while horrified children were forced to watch their sisters, mothers, and grandmothers gang-raped in front of them.” Cooper notes that while the women of Liberia blamed the men who waged the war for the violence and brutality, when it came time for the first postwar presidential election, initially only 15 percent of the women were registered to vote. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Harvard-educated global technocrat with significant government experience, was running against a field of men—with an uneducated soccer star in the lead. A group of women leaders got worried and went to work to organize women to vote for Sirleaf. How did a small group of women in Liberia get enough women to register and vote twice in two rounds of voting? The problem in Liberia for getting women to register and vote was time. The men running for president were holding mass rallies, which women did not have time to attend. The majority of women worked in markets to earn their living, which is equivalent to low-wage service jobs in our country, and they were responsible for the child care in their families. Realizing that there was a need for a more effective strategy for engaging women, Sirleaf’s supporters organized to

  • Use radio stations to broadcast their message
  • Provide babysitters and market-stall tenders to free up the women to register and vote
  • Send women into rural areas with bullhorns to stand along the road and broadcast their message of the need for a female president
  • Organize women’s rallies and pass out clean drinking water at the rallies
  • Go door to door passing out t-shirts and flyers
  • Offer young men money to buy a beer in exchange for their voter ID cards to ensure that the men could not vote—not something we could do here, but very creative, nonetheless
The result, ultimately, was that 51 percent of the registered voters were women. On the second ballot, 80 percent of the Liberian women voters elected Sirleaf, who won 59.4 percent of the total vote. What lessons can we draw for electing a woman president? We have not had a brutal civil war, but women in the United States do face deeply entrenched problems in this country that male leaders have ignored for decades. We need to join together to elect women to all levels of government to represent our interests, such as
  • Closing the gender wage gap (which is much worse for women of color)
  • Ensuring that our workplaces are free of sexual harassment by eliminating nondisclosure agreements that silence women when we are harassed and keep the harassers protected and in place
  • Subsidizing child care and instituting paid family leave policies
The women of Liberia have given us a wonderful example of what we can accomplish when we work together. What would you like to achieve as part of a united coalition?   Photo courtesy of Center for Global Development. CC by 2.0]]>