This editorial is part of our GREAT DEBATE feature ‘Why Aren’t There More Women In Positions Of Power?‘Recently, while in car with my husband and me, my six-year old saw a road sign for “Manchester,” and commented that she would not want to live there because men would be the boss in a place with a name that like that.
Fortunately for her, the world she’s growing up in is one in which she sees both women and men leading, even if not in equal numbers. Although women make up 51 per cent of our population, they are only 16.8 per cent of Congress and just 15.7 per cent of seats on Fortune 500 boards.
Explanations and excuses for this appalling gap in leadership abound, some of which are not only inaccurate but also help perpetuate the gap.
The most pervasive and damaging of these are that women voluntarily opt out of the work force, women don’t help advance other women, and women lack ambition.
Myth #1: Women opt out of the workforce.
Families with children face tough decisions about whether both parents can stay in the workforce and juggle those responsibilities as well as afford childcare. Layered on this financial and practical decision are emotions and values about how children should be raised, values informed by a dominant narrative in which women should be primary childcare providers.
Often, this equation includes a higher wage earner, and unless that person is the mother, practical financial considerations win out. Women do not opt out just because being at home with their children is the only thing they want to do; this is a poor explanation for a false choice with which families are presented. If fewer women were presented with this false choice, the more women there can be in the workplace, and the more likely women are to achieve leadership.
Limited incentives for women to work outside the home while juggling parenting and other household responsibilities, and a lack of disregard for the importance of men as equal partners in family and home limit women’s ability to immerse themselves in and thrive in the workplace and in leadership positions. This is not a women’s problem, it’s a fundamental flaw in our society. It decreases our productivity, dampens our country’s potential, and weakens families.
For me, being a working mother is important not just because I love my work, which allows me to see the vitality and contributions of immigrant leaders, men and women, across the U.S., but also because I know that my daughter is influenced by watching her mother go to work, earn a living, and maintain a life that complements her family life and fulfils her as an individual. I recognise that not all women have a real choice, as I did, but for those of us who do, having a career is a prerequisite for holding leadership positions.
Myth #2: Women don’t help advance other women.
In fact, women can create the work environments that reflect and respect our needs rather than try to force fit into workplaces whose cultures have been shaped by men. Women like Lupe Valdez, the first Latina sheriff of Dallas County, have done this by adopting a zero tolerance towards sexual harassment in the Dallas police department.
When we lead with authenticity and with authority, we can help create safe spaces for our women colleagues, offer solutions that might not occur to men, and help educate men through our actions. We can bring new women to the table and build our individual power so that the sum is greater than its parts.
Myth #3: Women are not ambitious.
This is a pervasive myth that hurts women’s abilities to own their goals and work toward them. Women’s visions for the world, their communities, their organisations and their families are powerful and uplifting. And, we have the ability to achieve them. Many women recognise their ambitions and pursue them, despite a pervasive narrative that suppresses women’s agency.
The best leaders are those whose drive extends to a vision beyond their own achievements, to one that enhances the quality of life for others as well. Retired Air Force Colonel Kimberly Olson was one of the first women in the Air Force, and served for 25 years. That could have been enough of an achievement. Instead, she runs Grace After Fire, to ensure that other women veterans are guided and honored. Colonel Olson and other women embody the kind of ambition we need to uphold in our women and girls.
Not only do we need to increase the number of women leaders, we also need to increase the number of good leaders, men and women, who value community and family relationships, who support the development of others, and who are ambitious for a greater cause than themselves. We need this shared and ubiquitous leadership so our daughters and sons can see it every day and believe it is normative and permanent.
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