The Puzzle of Postmodern Women’s Leadership
“My generation, really sadly, is not going to change the numbers at the top. They are just not moving. We are 50% of the population, in my generation there will not be 50% of women at the top of any industry,” said Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg at TEDWomen. I felt a kind of cold chill hearing that. Sandberg is in her early forties–the generation that grew up believing that the world was wide open to women and that nothing could stop us. Now, as she notes, it’s pretty obvious that we’re a long way off from achieving parity at the top in business, politics, law, science, or academics. Estimates say that it will be at least another hundred years before the U.S. Congress is half women and half men. Moreover, in terms of equality at home, Sandberg notes that there has been even less progress there–women still do twice as much housework and about three times the amount of childcare. For me, as someone who came of age in the 70s, part of the Baby Boom, it’s a bit of a shock to realize that, while so much has changed for us women, so much has barely budged. As Diana L. Taylor observed in a recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece entitled “Where Are All the Women?,” “The percentage of women in the workplace goes down as one goes up the ladder everywhere, and this situation has not changed much over the years.” She, and many others, are asking: why?
Now, for those women who are not interested in high-rolling executive positions or becoming a leader in law, politics, the academy or you name it, you may feel that this doesn’t pertain to you. In certain corners of the progressive change and spiritual growth movements, this kind of leadership is shunned as being part of the old, established, exploitative power hierarchies. Popular thinking has it that women hold the answers to a way of working and living that is more attentive to relationship, less exploitative, and more nurturing; and so women, simply by expressing the values that come from women’s responsibilities as caretakers, are going to change the world. But how could that come about without actual women taking up the very real challenge of leading?
And that’s the rub: too few women are willing to take on leadership in almost any arena. Which is puzzling–because so many women seem to deeply care about the world being different and our culture evolving beyond the destructive patterns of the past. Obviously, such a transformation will need to be led. It’s not going to happen by itself. Someone will need to create the new values and new capacities in us as human beings that will support such a culture. Someone will need to lead the way to pioneer a new human, motivated by something higher than survival fears and desires. This is no ordinary type of leadership–it’s heroic. It calls for the kind of risk-taking and willingness to face the unknown that characterize those remarkable individuals who have catalyzed epoch-making cultural transformation in the past. Those individuals had the courage and commitment, vision and passion, direction and determination to risk imprisonment, threats, or even their sanity. Think: Galileo, Descartes, Van Gogh, Martin Luther King, Gandhi… Certainly, there have been a few women to take such risks–Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi is a glowing example. But the truth is that women have rarely played such catalytic roles in culture because our energy and intelligence have been needed bring forth new life (which has often been risky in itself) and raise children. Our biological mandate to produce and protect life has not suited us to risk ourselves in other ways that may now have larger and more significant cultural impact.
That’s why I submit that we have a lot to learn from women who are reaching for leadership in conventional ways. Because the fact that women are struggling to stay in the game within established forms of leadership suggests that we are going to have to work even harder to pioneer a leadership that is about changing culture, and ourselves, at the deepest dimension of what we value. The difficulties that women have achieving leadership in the current corridors of power reveal patterns in all of us, in our consciousness, that will have to be addressed if we are to become catalysts for something new.
Sheryl Sandberg noted three specific things that women who want to lead in the workplace need to do:
1. Sit at the table,
2. Make your partner your partner, and
3. Don’t leave before you leave.
Since these are a little cryptic, let me explain. In terms of the first point, Sandberg notes that, even when welcomed, women tend to exclude themselves from situations in which they could be granted authority and seen as leaders. Women demur and prefer to sit on the sidelines. While you could say that this might have something to do with humility, if you care about the outcome of the discussions around that decision-making table, then you have to be there to have your perspective count. That’s not humility, that’s ineffective. Now, the second point refers to the inequality at home–that women do more housework and childcare. Sandburg suggests that this may not simply be about men’s laziness or stubbornness but that we women hold onto and insist on playing these traditionally feminine roles. We don’t have a lot of sympathy for men who are stay-at-home dads. Could it be that, even though so many women gripe about how unfair this is, we may be subtly (or not so subtly) making sure that we’re in the starring role here? And finally, Sandberg’s last point refers to the way women unconsciously make choices about their careers and children that lead them to return home. In other words, in making plans to accommodate children in their careers, many women back away from greater responsibility, challenge, and, ultimately, leadership.
I admire Sandberg for calling it as she sees it. The Boomer response to this leadership gap often goes back to 1960s-70s feminist notions of discrimination. While, sure, that still is an issue, the persistence of this gap all over the world, including countries with great childcare and parental leave policies, suggests that there is more going on here than society’s hostility to women. Sandberg dares to point to something at work in women ourselves that unconsciously holds us back. In these times, when the pall of women’s historical subordination still hangs heavily over the social landscape, that’s not the accepted party line in progressive circles. But denying that the doors are open and still the majority of bright, talented women drop out before assuming the authority of leadership has to be acknowledged or else we never will be able to develop the skills and capacities to become the leaders we need to be to create the change that we most deeply want.
In fact, there is a schizophrenia around the issue of women’s leadership right now that is making progress impossible, or at least unlikely. A colleague of mine attended the 2010 Massachusetts Conference for Women where Gloria Steinem, Elizabeth Lesser, and Victoria Reggie-Kennedy were a few of the impressive speakers. The conference speakers acknowledged the lack of women’s leadership in business and politics. However, the speakers who focused on women’s leadership held two conflicting positions in relation to this fact: that women need to develop certain core capacities (to make complex decisions, to be self-directing, to maintain perspective under emotional pressure) that are crucial to leadership AND that women have all the skills and capacities to lead but just haven’t realized or awakened to them yet. Given the very real history of women’s subordination, it’s risky to say, flat out, that we have very real gaps in our own development that cause many of us not to seek leadership in the first place and also make it difficult for those who do to exercise authentic authority and leadership. Such statements certainly make me nervous! If we were to say, yes, now we have equality of opportunity, but women are not equally developed in the capacities that enable groundbreaking leadership, would we be told to go back home?
Frankly, despite my nerves, I doubt it–we’ve all come too far. Looking at our past, and the support roles that we have played to ensure that human society could be stable and grow, it makes sense that we haven’t developed a preference for putting ourselves forward and pushing the limits of what’s possible. This is for rare individuals, male or female, and given our history, far more rare in women. Seeing this clearly can be galvanizing, even inspiring. Because nothing will change if we don’t see how we habitually, compulsively, and unconsciously make choices that keep us moving along the track of the status quo. And in that status quo, women keep the homefires burning, manage households (and even organizations), and set their compass by what others want.
The gift of our postmodern (that is, post-1960s) culture is that we have the power of choice. But when we look at the numbers of women who pull back from leadership, I question whether we are really making free choices. Yes, women are choosing–making decisions that, one after another, lead them away from leadership and back home where conservatives say that we belong anyway. (Amazing that we used to bristle at that and now we seem to be enacting it ourselves–even smart progressive women!) Are we truly, freely choosing? I think it would be more accurate to say that we keep compulsively defaulting to the most habitual, known, and comfortable psychic pattern that we have–as supportive caretakers who sit on the sidelines and are responsible for our own and our children’s survival. Not as outrageous, fearless changemakers who are fired up with a vision of what could be. Women are not going to be truly free to exercise choice until we become more conscious of the forces toward the status quo that are within us. Right now, after only fifty years of having access to leadership opportunities in culture, most of us are deeply pulled by the unconscious weight of hundreds of thousands of years of ensuring that the species could continue.
For us women, the precious and creative blessing of agency–the capacity to choose our direction–is wrapped up in millennia-old habits that lead us away from the daring needed to change culture at the deepest level. Because that’s what it’s going to take. Not a superficial change, but a profound one, at the level of our most fundamental motivations. That is not cosmetic surgery. It’s spiritual surgery. And the end result would be the evolution of who we are as women.
At EnlightenNext, my spiritual sisters and I have been engaged with spiritual teacher Andrew Cohen in such spiritual surgery. For over fifteen years, we’ve worked to become conscious of what we are made up of as women. And we find that we can only begin to exercise a deeper and authentic freedom of choice as we loosen our identification with the habits, impulses, instinctual drives, and patterns of thought and feeling that we take for granted to be who we are as women. We are creating greater space, a larger measure of freedom, within ourselves from which new clarity, direction, and purpose emerge. It is exciting and ultimately challenging–putting to the test all that we have ever taken for granted about ourselves as women. Now, after these years of work, we are beginning to offer what we are learning to other women–women who also are committed to creating a new future. We’ve created a course, entitled The Ten Agreements for Evolving Women, that teaches how to liberate yourself from the old to build the strength and solidarity that will take us forward. We’ve learned that we can’t do this alone. I hope that you will consider joining us to discover a new kind of leadership that rattles the status quo of who we are and have been so that we can forge the future that we glimpse in the depth of our hearts.