May 14, 2011
Posted by Joan V. Gallos
Media coverage on gender and leadership has been interesting of late. I celebrate reports of women’s progress – and wonder about the impact of the messaging on men and boys.
The world is changing, no question. And so are the skills needed to lead in it. But all the hype can distort reality and make us complacent about work yet to be done to create that level playing field for all women.
Cover stories in Newsweek on “The Beached White Male,” “The Traditional Male as an Endangered Species,” and “Hillary’s [Clinton] War” (in the issue also featuring “150 Women Who Shake the World”) tell a story of role reversal and more. (Just contrast the visuals. You’ll see what I mean!) Hanna Rosin’s powerful “The End of Men” in The Atlantic and other such pieces on the topic reinforce the message: women rule – literally!
And last week, the Independent Television Service (ITVS) and PBS announced a new 50 film series, “Women and Girls Lead,” to air over the next three years. The project reflects the large number of documentaries in the pipeline on the issue and a proactive strategy for creating “a sustained conversation” about women’s evolving global impact.
It’s even cool to be a feminist again. The Daily Beast reports authors like Kathleen Parker, who angered feminists with her book Save the Males, have had a public change of heart. "I’ve become a born-again feminist after decades of feeling that feminism had veered off course,” to quote Parker. The reality for women in the Middle East changed her mind. "The struggle for free expression in cultures that condone sacrificing women to men’s honor gets the blood pumping again."
The good news in all this: women have new levels of power, opportunity, and visibility. They should. Women are now the majority of the U.S. workforce, managerial class, college graduates, and enrollees in graduate and professional programs like medicine and law – with similar trends evolving globally. Two career families in the U.S. are the norm, and it’s no longer an anomaly for women to bring home the bigger slab of the bacon. The number of women heads of state continues to increase across continents and cultures. Surprisingly, even preference for male children has been declining in traditional societies like South Korea, China, and India. Parents in the U.S. now favor the birth of girls more than 2 to 1.
The opportunities and competition in a global economy have moved things faster than consciousness-raising and legislation ever could. Nations need to get on the bus, or be left behind. Quote Rosin:
“As thinking and communicating have come to eclipse physical strength and stamina as the keys to economic success, those societies that take advantage of the talents of all their adults, not just half of them, have pulled away from the rest. In 2006, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development devised the Gender, Institutions and Development Database, which measures the economic and political power of women in 162 countries. With few exceptions, the greater the power of women, the greater the country’s economic success.”
I saw this illustrated powerfully on a recent trip to China: the throngs of eager young women moving into the cities and economic development zones in search of work, training, mentorship, and advancement – and moving from job to job when advancement and management training come too slow.
During a trip to Boeing Shanghai, for example, a young administrative assistant assertively sought my time and “leadership wisdom.” She finds Americans more willing to teach and mentor than Chinese bosses; and, she added, “how will I advance if I have to wait to be taught?” Amen, sister!
The press frames all this as the end of male dominance. My university experiences don’t support the claim. Take a gender lens on issues like academic salaries, endowed chairs, tenure, upward mobility as the result of advancement through informal networking, institutional leadership, the number of women college presidents – you name it – and the world doesn’t seem that much different from when I entered the academic game. [See previous post on women faculty at MIT for more additional data.]
And remember the socializing power of colleges and universities: they train and model professional life and values for coming generations of leaders. What’s the gender message sent and damage done?
A recent study of Princeton undergraduates is a clue. It reports women underrepresented in the university’s highest profile leadership positions and as recipients of its highest academic prizes for more than ten years – and in “marked contrast to the earlier days of coeducation.”
These are smart, competitive, high achieving women at an institution filled with diverse opportunities and supports. So explain the decade-long phenomena described as “men up front, women behind the scenes. Men at the top, women somewhere else. Men operating for public recognition, women for personal satisfaction.”
Who taught Princeton women that they need to be “poised, witty, and smart – but not so witty and smart as to be threatening to men,” as the report tells us those smart, competitive, high achieving young women concluded? Sounds 1950’s Leave It to Beaver to me.
Progress toward gender equity? Absolutely. Opportunities? Unlimited. Women’s leadership? Essential and growing in impact. Role reversal? No. We’ve come a long way, baby – but we’re not there yet.