Changing the Perception of Powerful Women


The labeling of womenIf I had a dollar for every friend I lost when I started my business, I would have a pretty solid nest egg. One minute I’ve got a large circle of friends and the day the doors to my new business opened, I’m surrounded by only a couple. The one-time friends looking at me with disapproval ask, “What will possibly happen with your children? Are they o.k.?” It was at that moment I realized I was an entrepreneur and misperceptions about my role needed to change.

I was raised the youngest of three girls. Unfortunately, we were not raised to support ourselves rather we were told to seek out our future in a man. I can barely write that without getting a bit nauseous. How I envy the girls who were raised by parents that told them they could be whatever they wanted to be. However, even with that support those girls were likely unaware of the caveats that lurked out in the real world. Looking back, I witnessed some that overcame those obstacles, while others were defeated.

Are women hardwired?
The latest book to hit the best sellers list, “Lean In” by first time author Sheryl Sandberg, addresses obstacles women face while trying to have it all.

“As women get more powerful, they get less likable,” said Sandberg. “I see women holding themselves back because of this, but if we start talking about the success-likability penalty women face, then we can do something about it.”

I think we can all agree that statement is completely true. Every powerful woman I knew (it’s getting a bit better now) was labeled a bitch because she was focused and tenacious. Men with those attributes are labeled go-getters, ambitious. For women, the idea of being disliked is not one that is easily accepted. I believe women like the idea of balance and team work. When those two scenarios are overshadowed by the perception of bitchy or aggressive, it’s hard to feel confident about moving ahead. Some women don’t care, other women back down.

Leslie Stahl, 60 minutes correspondent believes that it’s hardwiring and women by nature are indeed less likely to push as hard as necessary to gain position. “I keep having this gnawing feeling that a lot of this is hardwired. Aren’t you just fighting the way men and women are?” she asked Sandberg at a recent Q and A session conducted by Time Magazines Nancy Gibbs, deputy managing editor. 

Sandberg responded, “I don’t pretend there aren’t biological differences, but I don’t believe the desire for leadership is hardwired biology, not the desire to win or excel,” she said. “I believe that it’s socialization, that we’re socializing our daughters to nurture and our boys to lead. We call our daughters bossy and we never call our sons bossy. A friend of mine says that she now stops herself from saying her daughter is bossy and instead says, my daughter has executive leadership skills.”

I remember when my daughter, now 21, was playing with her dollhouse with my nephew. My nephew being the “dad” said, “O.K. dear, I’m off to work so you’ll need to take the kids to daycare.” Without hesitation my daughter jumped in, “Oh no you don’t, I have a meeting. YOU take the kids to daycare.” That was a proud moment for me. Clearly she understood that work and home is to be shared not determined by gender.

Do labels affect our children’s belief systems?
I agree with Sandberg that the labels we give boys and girls do influence their belief system. When girls are little they tend to be praised for their looks, pretty dresses and hair. Boys get kudos for their ability to run fast or throw a solid baseball. Things like that stick no matter how much we try to say they’re equal. I never raised my daughter to believe she couldn’t do anything her brothers could. However, she’s never picked up a baseball or pushed for leadership roles. Not because of how I raised her, simply by her own personality. She knows her skill set and works to strengthen those.

When all is said and done, I believe that we are limited only by what we think we want versus what we really want. The idea of having it all has been defined by everyone else except ourselves. I have it all, but someone else may see my life as missing all the pieces. I think as women we have to be careful not to tie ourselves to what society defines as successful or desirable. That creates a whole other set of issues and problems.

There are women out there who are indeed natural leaders and even if they would have been raised by an old school father like mine would have risen to their abilities. Other women who may be raised in a family where the parents constantly tell them the world is their oyster may grow up feeling pressure to be the next CEO when all she really wanted was to be a great photographer.

I love the conversation that Sandberg’s book has generated. I think women need to talk more about what success is to us, not to others. I love the fact that we’re talking about rethinking women’s drive as a positive attribute versus a negative one.

I personally permeated a world that was male dominated. Though I quickly learned that men certainly do play differently, it was just as important to me to create my own rules as it was to study theirs.

I’m proud of what I’ve done and how I’ve been able to raise my children, run a business and have a great quality of life. I recently sold my business, volunteer more and look back thankful for all the risks I took and choices I made. I believe the only reason why men have the edge, is because they’ve been doing it longer. As the next generation of female leaders rise I believe it will likely be game, set, match and perceptions will shift.

What do you think? 

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