Where Are the Women?

As an adult woman, I am always looking for or tracking whether women are represented in different settings. I look at photos of national and world leaders and count the few faces of women in these groups. I go to art galleries and look for the works by women artists, often searching in vain. I notice lots of statues of military men on horses in public places and rarely see statues of women.

Children also notice the lack of female leaders and role models in public life. Elizabeth Renzetti of the Globe and Mail of Canada writes that after recent losses in national elections, for the first time in many years, Canada currently has no female premiers for any of its provinces. Renzetti cites research by Kate Graham, a political scientist at Western University, involving groups of five-year-old girls. When the girls were shown a group picture of Canada’s current premiers and asked if they noticed anything, they all did. “There’s only one girl,” the children responded. Only one of the premiers was a woman when this research was conducted before the recent election. Now there are none. The children noticed.

Renzetti notes that adults should also be concerned about the absence of women in Canada’s leadership for the following reasons:

  • Diversity promotes better decision-making when developing public policy.
  • Young women need to see themselves represented if they are to believe they can go into political life.
  • Women bring particular knowledge and life experience to policymaking that has implications for half of the population. Their perspective will be missing if they are not at the decision-making table.

On another note, Gail Collins of the New York Times writes that, at last, some statues that honor the accomplishments of women are being created by the City of New York, a city she describes as having a “wildly man-centric population of public monuments.” New York City has commissioned five new statues, one for each borough:

  • A statue will be placed in Manhattan to honor Elizabeth Jennings, a fearless twenty-four-year-old black woman who started the integration of the New York City transit system in 1854. Long before Rosa Parks, Jennings refused to leave a trolley car when told it was for whites only. Collins reports that Jennings clung to an open window frame crying “murder” when the conductor tried to pull her from the trolley. A police officer shoved her off the trolley onto the street, ruining her dress and bonnet. Her family filed suit against the street car company for discrimination and won. Several follow-up lawsuits later, segregation in the New York City transit system came to an end. A statue to Jennings will be placed next to Grand Central Station. It’s about time.
  • A statue to honor Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to serve in Congress, will be placed in Brooklyn at the entrance to Prospect Park. It’s about time.
  • Billie Holiday, the great blues singer, will have a statue in Queens. It’s about time.
  • A statue of Helen Rodríguez Trías, a pioneer in treating families affected by HIV, will be placed in the Bronx. It’s about time.
  • Katherine Walker will be honored with a statue on Staten Island. A tiny widow, Walker ran a lighthouse alone outside of New York Harbor in the early 1900s until she was seventy-three. When boats would start to sink in rough waters, she would row to the rescue and is credited with saving at least fifty lives. It’s about time.

The absence of women in public roles and public spaces sends a strong message to girls that they do not belong. It’s time for us to send a different message.


Photo by Dean Hinnant on Unsplash

Single Millennial Women Feel Pressure to Downplay Ambition

I am surprised by the findings of a recent study showing that single millennial women who are MBA candidates in an elite program feel they must downplay their professional ambitions when in public in order to attract a marriageable male mate. I realize I should not be surprised, given the support for traditional heterosexual relationships reported by voters for Donald Trump in the recent presidential election. Joan C. Williams, writing for the Harvard Business Review, describes the strong feelings about traditional gender roles that still exist in large segments of our society. She explains, “Trump promises a world free of political correctness and a return to an earlier era, when men were men and women knew their place.” With these attitudes still deeply embedded in our society, it is no wonder that many young women feel they have to minimize their goals in public settings. An article by Valentina Zarya in Fortune reports findings from a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research. These findings show significantly different responses for single millennial women when compared to the responses of female peers in long-term relationships and to both single and partnered male peers. When they believe men are watching, single women:

  • Are noticeably less assertive and speak up less in meetings
  • Minimize their goals and lower their desired annual salary expectations from $131,000 to $113,000
  • Lower their willingness to travel from fourteen to seven days per month
  • Lower their ambition for leadership roles in the future
While the study only analyzed and reported data based on gender and relationship status, it seems likely that there are racial differences for single women that are not reflected in this report. Yes, we have come a long way, but it seems we still have a long way to go. Society still teaches that it is not acceptable to be ambitious and assertive as a woman. While I’m sure that many women will say they are not impacted by these traditional attitudes, many women are still getting the message that they must tamp down their ambitions if they want to be acceptable to men. What role models and societal influences have shaped you?   Photo courtesy of COD Newsroom. CC by 2.0]]>

Four Reasons Why the Bar Is Higher for Women in Authority Roles

I have been curious for a long time about the persistence of double binds, which create challenges for women in leadership that men do not have to deal with. My interest in this question shaped my own research, published in my recent book, New Rules for Women: Revolutionizing the Way Women Work Together. A new article by Carol Hay offers some thoughtful perspectives on the deep cultural roots that keep these double binds in place. In her article, Hay writes from the perspective of a female professor and describes the confusion of both male and female students about what to expect from her as a female authority figure. I believe that everything she describes has widespread application and can also be said for women in authority or leadership roles in most other types of organizations.

  1. The Madonna-whore cultural script limits women. Hay notes that we lack cultural scripts for how to deal with women in authority. Women are locked into limited cultural scripts described by Freud in 1925 as the “Madonna-whore” complex. Freud explained that men can only see women in either the Madonna/mother role, where the expectation is that women will only express compassion or unconditional acceptance, or as sexual objects. I submit that women have also internalized these scripts about women. In addition, Hay cites feminist scholar Patricia Hill Collins, who writes that the cultural scripts for women of color are even worse—“mammies, matriarchs, welfare recipients, or hot mommas.” Hay notes that there is no middle ground for women, thus setting up the double bind dynamic. She states, “My male colleagues don’t have these problems. There’s no shortage of roles they can avail themselves of in trying to reach their students.”
  2. Father knows best: another cultural script creates additional challenges. Hay states that “in our culture, men are the keepers of the intellectual flame . . . and can use their positions of authority to inspire a student. Female professors have no such personae available to them.” This same challenge exists for women leaders in most other types of organizations when women leaders are expected to “dispense hugs” and not wisdom or constructive feedback.
  3. Few cultural scripts exist for women as leaders of women. Both past and current feminist philosophers such as Simone de Beauvoir and John Stuart Mill, and more recently Sandra Bartky, have described the difficulty women have with accepting leadership from other women—a finding also in my own research. Hay notes Bartsky’s description of the phenomena of internalized oppression at play in this dynamic and shares her experience with a current-day example from academia: “surprisingly few female students seek out female mentors.” I think this probably maps to recent studies showing that both women and men prefer working for a male boss.
  4. Women are responsible for the emotional work. There is an unspoken, unwritten expectation that women will do the emotional work in the workplace because, Hay writes, “women are thought to be naturally caring and empathic.” One of my colleagues, a senior HR professional, gave this example: “Male leaders are more likely to ask a woman for help with personnel problems than to ask another man.” This is work that women are expected to do that takes time and is not recognized, rewarded, or expected from men. The bar is higher for women and they are penalized harshly and vilified if they don’t play this role.

The Challenge

“We lack cultural narratives to make sense of women in positions of social power or authority,” explains Hay. “The ones we have haven’t changed much since the days of Freud and de Beauvoir. This failure of cultural imagination affects women’s political, economic, and social prospects. It always has.” We need new role models for women in authority. We need to figure out how to be those role models, while dealing with the old cultural scripts that are still operating about women. What has worked for you? What new models have you seen and admired in women leaders?   Image courtesy of marcolm at FreeDigitalPhotos.net]]>