Women in Leadership: What We Deal With

by Joanie Connell

woman and man tug of warI was carpooling recently with three business colleagues, all male. One of them noticed someone in the car ahead cutting us off. He blurted out, “It’s a woman!” All of us looked a little surprised. One of the other men in the car said, “At least he didn’t say it must be a woman!” to the rest of us. The first colleague then went on to say that “the two worst things for our country were letting women drive and letting them vote.”

Yes, this happened in the year 2014. A man said that out loud, in a business context, with a woman present. He’s lucky he didn’t receive a black-belt-level kick in the back of the head from me at the time and he’s lucky now that he is remaining anonymous in this blog.

woman leader climbing ladderFor all you people out there who think that sexism and other “isms” are gone, you are wrong. I heard from another colleague just the other day that women leaders take time off to have babies and they shouldn’t progress to the top because of that. This was a woman speaking in the context of a discussion of why the percentage of women on Fortune 100 Boards has not increased over the years.

Yes, this was also 2014. A woman said that women shouldn’t be leaders of Fortune 100 companies because they have babies. She’s lucky I had an appointment to get to at the time and she’s lucky to remain anonymous in this blog too. Babies? All women? Never be top leaders? Don’t even get me started.

I’ve never been one of those people who can produce a zinger of a response in the moment. In fact, I still don’t even have zingers for these two people. It’s just too big for a zinger. I need a manuscript.

But what I want to say to you, the reader, is that, no matter what anyone tells you, it is challenging for women to be leaders even still. For all of you who think that sexism and other “isms” are a thing of the past, beware. They aren’t. And how are you to deal with that? The question to ask yourself is, do you want to be part of the problem or part of the solution? Do you value equality? If so, it’s time to take a look at how you put this value into play. I’d like to challenge you to challenge others in their beliefs and in their behaviors.

I didn’t tell you what I said to these folks and the many others I’ve had to deal with saying disparaging comments about women to me, but I can assure you that I did speak up. And I can assure you that people know me as a person of character who challenges them to do the right thing.

In fact, a few years back I chaired a dissertation defense meeting on the topic of gender stereotyping. Would you believe, during the meeting one of the male committee members made several sexist remarks to the female candidate! How did I handle this? I shut down the behavior in the meeting and I followed up with individual meetings with each person who was on the committee and in the room, including the person who made the remarks. The goal was to give constructive feedback to my colleague on how his behavior impacted others to help him be more inclusive in the future. I hope it helped.

Just so you know, it was extremely uncomfortable for me to have to go to a colleague and call him out on his sexist remarks. It would have been so much easier to just let it go. But it needed to be done and I needed to do it because I value equality and inclusion.

One of my role models for advocating inclusion is Bernardo Ferdman. He’s one of those people who does even better than coming up with a zinger. HDiversity at Work book covere comes up with constructive responses that challenge the person’s thinking and behavior in a positive way to bring about inclusiveness. He has a new book out on the very topic of inclusiveness and I highly recommend it for you and your organizations. I’ve wanted to buy it myself, but it is hardcover and it carries a hefty price tag. I’ve been telling myself that it’s too expensive to buy. After the last couple of weeks, however, I think it’s too expensive not to.

I’ll leave you with a final fact, which might surprise you. The people in the three examples I gave are all high-level, highly influential leaders, with global impact. Don’t ask me who they are or even try to figure it out; I won’t tell you. The purpose of this article is not to expose them; it’s to learn from them. The lesson is: your behavior does count. Make it count!