What Blocks us from Accepting Women as Leaders?

by Marsha Hudson, Ph.D.

Recently, former President Barack Obama said, “If more women were put in charge, there would be less war, kids would be better taken care of and there would be a general improvement in living standards and outcomes.” I know few people who would disagree with President Obama, but many people want to know what we can do to bring more women into leadership roles, especially into legislative roles.  What stops us?

Simply put, it is our unconscious lives that keep all of us, including white males, from achieving all that we are capable of. We are used to looking at forces outside of ourselves, at people who already hold the power, at tradition that keeps us and others in our places, and at all the obstacles arrayed in front of us that hold us back—or down. All of these outside forces, however, have been created by our own expectations of what a woman is and what a man is. These expectations come from our unconscious, or from an implicit bias that is embedded in our culture.  We all share in that bias, and it will direct our thoughts, our emotions, and our actions unless we become conscious and examine it.  

Implicit bias is at the basis of racism, sexism, and all of the other “isms.”  The most basic of our biases is our notion of what a man is and what a woman is. This leads many people to become distressed when confronted with a more fluid concept of gender. The western culture’s image of woman is nurturant, receptive, compassionate, and maternal. Men are physically strong, dominant, assertive, and ambitious. Leaders are commonly thought of as being decisive, strong minded, dominant and ambitious. These perceptions, supported by our unconscious assumptions, affirm a definition of a man that is at odds with that of a woman.  This is one of the primary image clashes for women who wish to take on a leadership role or for one who is in leadership role, and to her dismay, constantly has difficulty. Many women managers report that they are criticized for being too weak in their management style, and at the same time, criticized for being too strong! As one woman executive put it, “you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.” 

What can be done?  So very often women are encouraged by friends and colleagues to imitate the ways of men in order to achieve a promotion, or to command the respect of subordinates.  This can be easy or hard depending upon the admixture of femininity and masculinity in a woman’s character, but because women, regardless of their character, are trained to grow up female, the harsher aspects of the male persona does not come easy to them.

I propose that instead,  friends and colleagues encourage men to be more like women as managers and that senior management exhort the ambitious men to emulate the ways of women.  Although difficult for many men to be more vulnerable and more like women in the workplace, they will ultimately find that women relate to them more easily, and they will become the kind of men who will nurture rather than destroy the planet and its inhabitants.

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