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.

48 responses to “The Puzzle of Postmodern Women’s Leadership”

  1. Gail says:

    Several questions arise in me upon reading this provocative piece – one is if there are true feminine values that are actually more developed and self actualized in and thru women – because of the roles they have played and their biology? The other is whether the absence of women leadership is due to their lack of interest or ongoing discrimination – or some combination? I know that as a woman when I behave in more masculine ways – in terms of being outspoken and not sitting on the sidelines – I tend to make others (both men and women) uncomfortable. Is the expectation that I somehow utilize my femininity to obtain a position of leadership and then once there I can infiltrate and make changes? Or do we (men and women of vision) need to create new cultural structures in which to become leaders.

    I know that teachers of Feminine Power Claire Zammit and Katherine Woodward Thomas teach the latter, at least in part. That many of us who want create real change in our society struggle because the way we want to be in the world doesn’t fit within old structures. This might include models that are less hierarchical (at least in terms of power not true hierarchy in terms of knowledge and experience) – where people come together to make decisions based on more cooperative cocreative models. Barbara Marx Hubbard calls it Synergistic Democracy when people will come together in roles that they feel called to fill and will find that needs meets resources in such perfection that a new world becomes cocreated.

    Meanwhile what do we do? I for one really appreciate the trend setting work of these afformentioned women as well as the deep work that Andrew Cohen is already doing and has been for a long time with you Elizabeth and your “fellow” (?!) women students.

    I for one would like to be a real true blend of my intuitive, expressive, fluid – feminine – creative self – with my more assertive masculine -fiercely caring, provocative, daring, courageous, warrior – for – love self. I would hold a vision in which each of us are fully actualized – within these biological dimensions and beyond our perceived limits of self – and valued and encouraged for our out of the box insights and deep revelatory processes. Thank you.

    • Elizabeth Debold says:

      Thank you, Gail–I love your vision of a world in which women and men are free to express the full range of our shared humanity! Yes, I agree that there are multiple factors that contribute to this gap, internal and external. And certainly, there are skills and capacities–such as for “reading” people and empathic connection–that women have developed through our biological role. But how often are they used in the service of a larger purpose than a personal one? The important facts of menstruation and childbearing aside, I don’t know what is a unique expression of being human in a female body–the whole question is too tied up with the ways we have been conditioned by culture. My interest is in who woman will be at higher levels of development…

  2. Rosemary says:

    The only thing we can be guilty of is not being true to our desire. I do not desire to be the hero while I am willing to show up, offer my unique gifts and take responsibility (It would seem your survey figures concur and the very fact that you think there is something deficient about these results relative to moribund criteria shows traditional male values.) Authority (not to be confused with leadership) is the capacity to be both positional and relational. We women are just not buying into the male exclusively positional paradigm but haven’t figure out a way to do it differently and it is not for women to figure it out on their own but for ‘us’ – men and women together – to do it. We have had the era of Mother nurture and the era of Father CEO. I think a lot of us would like to be birthing a world from the shared heart and until we can do that we are not going to be short changed by copy cat old Patriarchal stuff about power at the Centre and Top Down when there is also the possibility of distributed power and bottom up. Incarnating a world from the shared heart while gifting you to standing guard over my solitude is a mutual affair not solo. The level at which most men and women envisage purpose and co-ordinated function is still very primitive. The power to co-create our world is through the union and co-evolution of spiritually awakened human beings, male and female.

    • Elizabeth Debold says:

      I cannot think of what would more radically shake up the deeply deeply ingrained cultural status quo in which women are dependent on men than women meeting in unity and the shared purpose to liberate themselves. When we have destroyed the powerful age-old patterns of neediness in our relationships with men, then something incredible can happen between us. I’m not advocating for a sex-segregated culture, by any means–just a laboratory for us women to wrest our autonomy from the jaws of history.

      • Neena says:

        Thanks Elizabeth for awakening true purpose of our being here . Its indeed inspiring an dencouraging to engage in this process of Evolution .

  3. Rock on, Elizabeth.
    Love it. Clear, powerful, challenging and inspiring. I’ll share it with my mentors club, where i’m guiding holistic health practitioners & yoga teachers to create a bigger shift in their communities, and impact a more diverse demographic. (The group self-selected as all women.)

    This is my favorite one-liner you deliver,”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.” Amen.

    And the status quo of cultural norms that numb our growing edge and actualization potential if weren’t not aware. Oy vey.

    I photocopied that 10 Challenges to a Liberated Women you gals published in WIE a few years back and have been using it on my women’s retreats. Amazing work. Thank you for your depth, presence and continued contributions. The course looks fab.

    • Elizabeth Debold says:

      Thanks so much, Cate! I wish you great luck with your work in creating this shift. Hope you will join us!

  4. Paramananda Bogaard says:

    Is not this evolution requiring evolving women as well as men?
    Men respecting their female partners and becoming proud to show their “soft” side.

    • Elizabeth Debold says:

      Thank you, Paramananda–yes, of course, evolution requires both women and men. This is but one critical step in the process. And just to be clear, I am speaking to those who have been doing their inner work–both women and men. And in that part of our culture, which is what I am calling the leading edge, women are generally seen as the ones with the advantage…

  5. Thanks for the article. Good to have this issue being spoken up.

    I’m disappointed, but not at all surprised at the low levels of participation in leadership by women. And I don’t think it is only due to their pull towards motherhood and nurturing.

    Firstly, we have millennia of fear-based conditioning to ensure that we don’t speak up, and that when we do, we are not listened to. And its not just our conditioning. Men – even the more aware ones – are conditioned too – and their capacities to take notice of women remains compromised.

    Secondly, maybe women intuitively understand that the patriarchal work- systems created by men are just not the way to go. Who wants to be the head of a corporation that is designed from the ground up to be anti-human… anti-relationship?

    To move forward, we need to go back – to explore more deeply the effects that the Dominator/Patriarchal system has had on women and men. We need to provide forums so we can all question the basic premises of that despotic system that told men that to be a man he had to block feeling. And the worst insult he could be called was ‘Girl’.

    As well as continuing to free ourselves, we need to support men in freeing themselves from their far less visible oppression. Because unless men have access to their disowned vulnerability, sensitivity and compassion, they will continue to build a world to which we don’t want to belong. And no, I don’t believe these are feminine qualities, they are human ones)

    • Elizabeth Debold says:

      Thank you, Frances–we have a lot of work to do, don’t we? Just to clarify one aspect of my post: I am not suggesting that the answer to changing culture is for women to become heads of corporations or to assume conventional leadership. But if we want to pioneer a new consciousness and new ways of being human together–beyond the Dominator model–we will have to develop the capacity to lead the way through our own example. And that is going to take a kind of risk-taking that is common to leaders and changemakers but not very common–thus far–in postmodern women.

  6. Diane says:

    As someone who was active in the 70’s and 80’s around the boys locker room, I can tell you many of the women involved back then, did not get defeated, but walked away because the stench from the socks was just too much.
    I am disappointed that the writer has joined the if only women could be more like men brigade. What is needed, rather than that old antiquated put down, is some solid analysis of male power, how it works on the collective and on the individual basis.
    Most males in senior positions are bullies and thugs, though some wear a velvet glove, particularly in the medical profession.
    Personally my advice to women is to leave them to it, have your babies when you are young and full of energy, feel the joy that comes from it, look at the successful men around you where is their joy?

    • Elizabeth Debold says:

      Hi, Diane, I must not have been clear enough–I’m not saying that women need to be like men. (Or as I said in to the comment above, that we should assume conventional leadership.) But I am saying that we have to discover a new way of being women at a higher stage of development…and to do this is going to mean being willing to take risks for a larger purpose that, thus far, men have done far more than women. What is it going to take for women at the leading edge of culture to catalyze cultural change through their own transformation?

      • Maria says:

        Elizabeth, you say:”….to mean being willing to take risks for a larger purpose that, thus far, men have done far more than women”.
        I don`t experience, that men took more risks than woman – they only took different risks. And it`s obvious to me, that we as women are in a position today to transform us in order to transform culture. Comparing me as a women with men doesn`t help me to come along and do this so much needed change with the men.

        • Elizabeth Debold says:

          There are qualities that persons who innovate, go beyond the status quo, break limits, manifest the new all share. At this point, they have been exercised more by men. Just a fact. But they are, essentially, human qualities. I’m keen on seeing more women express those qualities so that we can lead the change we want to happen in the human heart and mind…

  7. Lisa Macy says:

    You left out 1 crucial factor. Many women, even successful career woman, feel an overwhelmingly strong heart pull to be the one who raises her own children. You can dismiss this as lowly instinct – your words: ” most of us are deeply pulled by the unconscious weight of hundreds of thousands of years of ensuring that the species could continue….”

    Or recognize that for many women the deepest desires of our heart are a call worth heeding. Perhaps our hearts desires are even…gasp…God talking.

    I don’t understand this idea of loving people in the abstract (culture/we space), but not wanting to do the real rubber-meets-the-road tasks of raising the child who came from your sacred body. Yes, raising human beings is unappreciated in our culture, unpaid, sometimes boring, impossible hours, back-breaking, heart-breaking, glorious work, but what else is a spiritual path for? Isn’t it seeing oneself in “the other?” Seeing God in All? Loving God through loving God’s creation? Evolving greater and greater ways to love?

    Why is it cool and evolutionary to love the “culture” but merely base unconscious instinct to love my children enough to spend 20 years raising them?

    You’ll get no argument from me about women progressing in the workforce. It’s important. But you are throwing the baby out with the bathwater by your assumption that the work of guiding a human being from infant to adulthood is minimally valuable and barely worth recognizing in the evolutionary scheme of things. Are you kidding me?

    • Elizabeth Debold says:

      Dear Lisa,
      I agree with you that raising a child can be an incredible, tangible, wonderful, nitty-gritty gift to the evolution of culture. I’m urging conscious awareness of what we are choosing and why. So often our choices are deeply unconscious. The drive to have children is very powerful, and works in deep ways in us. If it wasn’t so, then most likely we wouldn’t be here! At this point in postmodern culture, we women have the capacity to raise children and to assume leadership for the evolution of consciousness that will move culture forward. I want us to do both.

  8. Daphne says:

    Dear Elizabeth,
    Thank you for your perspective! This is what comes up for me reading your post: I trust that our precious and creative blessing of agency will exactly be the thing that will lead us to become aware of, heal and transform that what is keeping us from making autonomous choices, taking leadership and changing culture at the deepest level. The evolutionary impulse will move forward, one way or the other. Thank you for articulating this and by that helping me to see things clearer. And perhaps this way we can even speed up the process :-).

    • Elizabeth Debold says:

      Thanks so much, Daphne! Evolution occurs at the leading edge of what is currently possible…so that means that, because we are conscious of the evolutionary impulse, we are going to have to evolve consciously. It’s not going to happen by itself. Leading this seems to me one of the most important ways that we women have to lead now…

  9. Rochelle says:

    I too would like us to do both. . .yet leading generally takes alot of time. Studies generally agree that the difference between men at the top and women who aren’t is the number of hours per week each is willing to work. Warren Farrell for example, has written about this, and has suggested that for women to occupy more higher positions and better paying jobs, they need to be more willing to move to another city and work 45 instead of 40 hours per week.

    Relationships also take time. Many ‘high-power’ marriages fall apart with the lament that they just didn’t get to spend enough time together (especially in the entertainment world, where we see lots of high-power couples, where they have to be away from each other alot).

    So Farrell’s solution of spending more time at work requires for working mom’s that they spend less time with their kids. I find this suggestion problematic in that it requires the sacrifice of relationship. The basic unit of relationship according to researcher John Gottman, is bids for attention. Not being present as a parent means missing bids for attention that are the mainstay of relationships. So if you’re working 45 hours a week, or even 40, you miss so many of your child’s bids for attention that it impacts the relationship.

    Likewise, if you move city, you may be taking your child away from cousins, uncles and aunties, grandparents etc, and the face time required, according to Gottman, to grow deep relationships with them. In other words, both of Farrell’s suggestions sacrifice the being present for the bids of attention that are the mainstay of relationships, for making money and assuming more power in the workplace. This either/or solution is simply not attractive, and if we want to attract more mothers in leadership roles, we will have to come up with something else, most likely.

    The basic proposition of Farrell’s solution is ‘this is how the system works, here’s how you can get a better place in the system’, and this is not of interest to me nor perhaps to many women if we look at the data on women in leadership roles. Farrell’s argument has all the appeal to me of ‘here’s how you can be a higher up slave’, when for me, it’s the slavery that’s problem I want to change, not my place within the slavery system. I think he doesn’t go nearly far enough with his solution.

    To look to a systemic thinker on this topic, Raj Patel, author of ‘Stuffed and Starved’, and “the Value of Nothing: How to reshape market society and redefine democracy”, economist and activist, has said that unpaid women’s work contributes trillions to the economy, and one of the biggest things we could do to reshape the world is to simply pay women for the contribution they already make. As one who has made $5,000 dollars per day (net) skippering a commercial fish boat, and $0 per day mothering a newborn, I tend to agree with Raj’s solution. There’s no good reason I shouldn’t be making the same at both jobs. And if we looked at which one is more grueling, demanding, difficult, challenging and requires more skill, mothering is the clear winner.

    The other interesting thing was how invisible I was as a mother compared to a commercial fisherman (woman). As president of Fisherman’s association responsible for co-managing this 20-30 plus million dollar a year industry, (again, an easy job compared to mothering – I considered meeting days a kind of ‘day off’), I was listened to, looked to, admired even at cocktail parties when asked what I did. By contrast, when people asked what I did and I said “I’m a mom”, most often was the end of the conversation.

    So the point being, the way society has commodified and valued certain roles (running a boat or industry) and not done so with others (mothering, running a household) seems to me a little odd.

    So to offer something like a summary: best I can tell, Farrell’s approach may be summarized as “rise within the current system, make it work better for you as women”, Patel may be summarized as “the current system doesn’t value women’s contribution, therefore we need to change the system”. The view put forth in this article (Puzzle of Post-Modern Leadership), seems to be something of a hybrid of the two, sprinkled with the suggestions that we need more agency and yet also to be beyond past gender and masc – fem conceptions. (which I’m a little confused by: agency is a concept linked to the masculine, or men, yet if we are also not to be bound by these conceptions. . . well, I’m not quite seeing how these add up – being more masculine, yet not being tied to ideas of masculine and feminine?).

    • Elizabeth Debold says:

      Thank you for your long, thoughtful, and informative response, Rochelle. The two positions you describe on leadership fit into the ideologies of liberal vs. radical feminism–i.e., change by becoming part of the system vs. change the system. I’m not actually talking about either. I’m talking about evolving the ground of who we are–change at the level of consciousness. By culture, I don’t mean something “out there” but the interconnected web of relationship that structures how we make sense of everything. Leadership in that doesn’t take time, it takes everything. :-) And in terms of agency: To be human is to have agency. We couldn’t make any choices whatsoever without it. I’d like us to be conscious about what we are choosing, and make choices at a deeper/higher level of consciousness.

      • Neena says:

        I love your articulation with clarity and conviction . Keep sharing your Being with us , Yes ! we are Agency! Thanks ! Evolving Together Consciously !

  10. jim channon says:

    Elizabeth, very provocative, well argued, and thoughtfully attended. I would offer my favorite women leaders have chosen better than the senior ranks of corporate leadership. As a man I see my creative male friends leave for more creative spots before they reach the top tiers where management is too sober and “not” often leadership. The women I worked with on the World Business Academies positive world vision for the next 100 years were all thought leaders not grown up project managers. After seven years of thoughtful debate there were twelve top goals selected. Six of them were clearly driven by women on the team.

    • Elizabeth Debold says:

      Thanks, Jim. I’ve heard that working teams that are 50-50 women and men often are remarkably effective.

  11. Anna says:

    I feel very appreciative for all the contributions offered so far in this most essential conversation. My perspective is that the world is the way it is because the structures within people as well as the structures they created outwardly are inseparable. Lately, I have become very much aware of my own inbuilt structures as a woman that go far beyond my upbringing i.e my fear of becoming a leader rather than simply supporting a leader.

    Culture is very much about relationships including our relationships to each other, to our communities, to our heritage, to our gender roles, to our natural environment, etc. We create and use language that reflects our cultural values. Our cultural values in the western world are based on the idea that competition is our most essential natural drive and that markets and economies need to expand and compete with each other constantly. Nation states were formed to protect communities, natural resources & markets and to compete with other nations for resources.

    Women didnt really have much choice about their role in society before contraception became available. Our main role was that of child bearers and homemakers in a culture based on the belief that we are all competing with each other for resources, jobs, education, partners … As a culture we have now reached the point where actions based on this belief are becoming self-destructive. There is a recognition that as a culture we need to change for the sake of ourselves and the planet. This is happening simultaneously with a strong desire for community building worldwide.

    I see everywhere the acknowledgement of the importance of relationships and relational thinking and acting: i. e. Systems thinking, social networking and local community projects based on sustainability principles are becoming attractors for people who recognise the limitations of values based on competition. Amongst other things they provide opportunities for women to develop leadership skills and to exercise leadership. Leadership not in the traditional sense of leading from the front or top-down but leading by example and by inspiring to co-create a more co-operative culture and a sustainable world for all of earthkind.

    The models of how to govern a country i.e Capitalism or Communism are not necessarily the only ways we can govern ourselves and live and work together. Even so-called ‘ethical’capitalism supports and rewards the enclosure of resources that belong to us all and does not reward our feminine strengths i.e. recognising relationships everywhere, building sustainable communities, sharing experience and skills freely, exchanging gifts…..

    The alternative and tremendously inspiring model I see is a commons-based society. This will need the leadership of women acting as women while not being afraid to give expression to their masculine energy. I don’t suggest that women should act as men but embody the wholeness of being human and allow both the yin and yang qualities to their fullest.

    Such a society is not a pipe dream of the future; it is already present in how we common with each other. Commoning is built upon a “network of social relationships that arise from the implicit expectations that we will take care of each other and on a shared understanding that some things belong to all of us and must be used in a sustainable and equitable way – which is the essence of the commons itself.” (Julia Ristau, co-director of On the Commons)

    • Elizabeth Debold says:

      Dear Anna,

      Thank you for your response–I totally agree that the structures we create in society mirror the structures in ourselves.

  12. Rosemary says:

    The more I think about it the more I wonder: What is the question? What is wanted?

    • Elizabeth Debold says:

      Ummm… how about: How can women transform our culture in a profound way? How do we need to develop in order to do so?

  13. Nanna Jensen says:

    Thank you for the article. This is very interesting. I got stuck at the part, that said: (To lead) women need to develop certain core capacities (to make complex decisions, to be self-directing, to maintain perspective under emotional pressure)… And so what? :-) (And says who?) Women will need to lead, lacking all these things, lacking all kinds of things and qualities… And surely conscious evolution is nessecarity at the same time. I am wondering, if it isnt the visions – and the truely wanting (to lead) – that is mostly missing, for women to get going? Looking forward to look into this.

    • Elizabeth Debold says:

      :-) Wouldn’t truly wanting to lead have to come from a new kind of self-directedness that would be evolution?

      • Nanna Jensen says:

        Yes :-) Definately.

      • Nanna Jensen says:

        Well. It wouldnt necessarily be necessary to already have developed core capacities. If that is needed, first, its unlikely that much leading will ever happen (still wondering :-).

  14. Rosemary says:

    If the question is:
    How can women transform our culture in a profound way? How do we need to develop in order to do so?
    I would first pose the question: What is going on in our culture and to the best of our ability establish key ‘objective’ data. (Which begs the question of who is ‘our’ but that can be defined.) In smaller groups* each person could, via a given process , examine their subjective interpretation of the data so as to uncover their personal block to a recognition of a deeper, more encompassing ‘self’. In the process each participant is enabled to go beyond their particular perspective (which may require shadow work) and to enter a shared ‘we space’ through the suspension of a limited identity. It is from this space that we (the group) can ask: What is wanted and in whose interest? A coherence around a culture we desire (imaginal pattern) can emerge – what we want to create (rather than being constrained by what already exists) – and we can formulate the action required to bring it into being. Action might be joint or individual and part of that might be a personal developmental commitment. (I imagine this is not very different to what Andrew Cohen does on his Being and Becoming retreats) How one follows through on this would depend on what emerged but it would probably involve some sort of local mutual support system and the agreements of the course you are offering. (although I do not know specifically what they are.)
    *Large groups / organizations require more complex discourse analysis

  15. penelope says:

    I am struck by the very thoughtful responses of those who have replied on this subject. I would say that we already have much of what we need, based on the replies. It is extraordinary what the human, esp. feminine brain is capable of.

  16. I can’t imagine myself as a traditional alpha-personality leader. I don’t have the physical health or ability to commit to any one side of any issue; I’m not charismatic or attractive. I am smart, creative, intuitive, able to walk in another person’s mocassins, and good at cutting through bull and seeing the real nut of complex issues, and expressing that verbally.

    Still waters run deep but no one notices them in these days of louder, faster, more, brighter, bolder, more, bling, steroids, action films, more more more…will there be a place at the table for the soft voice? Or will that be scorned with other feminine traits that aren’t obviously useful?

    What if I can’t develop anymore? What if this is all I can ever be? I’ll never survive. It’s more than this single woman can handle. But I have no one in my life, and if I can make no improvement to superstars like you gals, I’m doomed.

    I’ve never felt so inadequate, sorry, this is not grou for me.

    • Elizabeth Debold says:

      Dear Anna,

      I’m not sure what you are asking, but there is far more to the world than what you are pointing to, yes?

  17. […] their eyes on the horizon, they aren’t going to any time soon. In the following excerpt from “The Puzzle of Postmodern Women’s Leadership,” the most recent blog post for EvolveWomen, EnlightenNext senior editor Elizabeth Debold […]

  18. Katrina Anderson says:

    Hi Elizabeth,

    I attended the talk and panel discussion that you and Dalma Heyn gave last week on Friday at MIT (June 24). I have to admit, I have thought of little else since then. Oh, how I would love to sit down with you someday and compare notes; what fun we would have. It isn’t often that I’ve encountered people who think beyond the prescribed boundaries of our human disciplines, examining relationships between science and spirituality, culture and evolution, as if those boundaries weren’t even there. I keep returning to my notes from that night, pondering their significance to who I am and where I am right now.

    I would like to comment on your blog entry, though, “The Puzzle of Postmodern Women’s Leadership.” You (rightfully) ask why women aren’t pursuing positions “at the top.” It seems to me that it’s difficult to find good leaders, period, gender notwithstanding. All too often leaders have gotten to where they are because of a psychopathological disorder of some kind, such as narcissism, delusional disorders, paranoia, etc. (Remember the “Peter Principal?”) Good, well-integrated, morally balanced leaders are hard to come by, in part because the emotional toll is too great working with high-level people who are, well, pathological.

    I apologize for how cynical this sounds. Good leadership is not, by definition, gender related. But women and men have such biologically different ways of processing the world that I have a hard time ever imagining them genuinely and authentically working together. And yet, of course, creating separate worlds makes no sense either. I don’t know an answer for this, but I do think our world, which is very much a patriarchal culture, seems to be impenetrable at this point, and not a very appealing place, in any case.

    Please tell me I am wrong.

    With great admiration,

    Katrina Anderson
    PS The content of this missive may be too narrow for submission to this blog. I completely understand, if so.

    • Elizabeth Debold says:

      Dear Katrina,

      I’m glad you found the dialogue between Dalma Heyn and myself to be provocative! We will be posting video excerpts of that evening on this site.

      About your other question: well, of course the answer is that it depends on what we mean by “leadership.” As I say in the blog, I am not talking about alpha-male leadership or corporate leadership. I’m using Sandberg’s example to make some a deeper point about where we women are. We need to develop the capacity to lead, to set direction, through a profound engagement with where we are now and what world we want to create. I don’t mean a world of peace and harmony where everyone is holding hands. How is the world going to change in a way that we want it to if women don’t step up? That’s the rub. We women complain about men and the way things are, but won’t go beyond our patterns of holding back to be a real force for change. Which will really take some real spiritual work to shift the ground of ourselves from insecurity and waiting for others’ approval to making it really happen ourselves!

      Let me know what you think of that!

      • Katrina Anderson says:

        Well, Elizabeth, two weeks later, I’m back, and I still haven’t made a significant dent in our evolution. I’m sorry I’m so tardy on responding to your reply, too.

        So, you asked me what I thought of the idea that we women need to [stop complaining and] step up to the plate to initiate and lead real change from where we are now (a patriarchal world). Well, you’d get my vote, but I haven’t much of a clue as to what that all actually means, given the world-as-we-know-it-now as the “clay” we would be starting with.

        I have this feeling that there’s a broad step that we’re ALL missing, and I’m not sure if I can explain it without sounding like a nut. It directly involves us, and evolution, and even spirituality, but it transcends gender initially.

        We humans are, first and foremost, animals, living on this planet with all the other countless species, none of us better or worse or more or less than any other. As animals, we made an unprecedented evolutionary “leap” from a species that primarily evolved physically (like all the others), to one that began to evolve cerebrally (developing symbols, then words, then concepts, and beyond…well beyond). Evolving cerebrally didn’t involve limitations like predators, so our brains—now symbolic and able to interpret the world symbolically– began an accelerated kind of evolution. Science, medicine, and technology began forming our culture, as well as complex hierarchies that were of our own design– though we called them “natural.” We grew, for a variety of reasons, further and further from our basic identity as animals, now seeing ourselves as humans first, and now as managers of nature, rather than actual members. We had, during this evolutionary process, effectively convinced ourselves that we had seceded from nature. (I’m going to avoid altogether how religion plays into this exclusivity.)

        I believe in what you are saying, Elizabeth—almost every bit of it. But my gut tells me that first we, as a species, need to come full circle in an evolutionary sense, accepting and embracing our “animal-ness.” We aren’t “special” in the way we were raised to believe, but we definitely hold some of important keys to our future and the future of the planet. However, if we can’t fully accept ourselves as animals first, and humans second, the keys are of no use.

        Honestly, Elizabeth, without understanding this, women will make many of the same mistakes as men, and certainly create more of their own. We humans, all of us, have developed an astonishing anthropocentric view of our planet, and until we pull ourselves, somehow, into a more biocentric view, which wholly includes human animals, we will stay stalled out at this evolutionary impasse, and we will continue to see the world in a narrow “us vs. them” mentality.

        All that said, however, I must confess that I, myself, do a lot of “waiting for others’ approval,” quoting you, rather than “making it really happen” myself. It’s hard to find good approval these days! And it’s hard to know where to start. Maybe that’s why I’m responding to you, Elizabeth—for approval, and inspiration!

        In any case, thanks. I’m very grateful for the forum, even if I don’t often speak the same language. I think you’re extraordinary, and, as a matter of fact, I was finishing up reading your essay on “Spiritual but not Religious” today when I suddenly remembered I hadn’t checked back to this blog. That’s how I got here. I do hope we meet someday, just to gab and compare notes.


        • Elizabeth Debold says:

          Dear Katrina,

          Talk about a tardy reply! Sorry about that–I left the country shortly after your last response and just got back last week. I agree that the first step is beyond gender–and that it is a spiritual step to the foundation of existence, or Being, itself. Through the deepest dimension of self that exists before any “I” or “you,” we can discover a freedom from the conditioned mind that creates a space in our ongoing awareness for something new to emerge. That, and the recognition of who we are in the evolutionary scheme of things, which includes all that you are saying plus the very real burden of being the shapers of evolution now, is a context beyond gender. The evolutionary process doesn’t place any inherent meaning in maleness or femaleness, it, like the sex drive, only wants to move on and forward. The combination of these two creates the opening for the new and next. I don’t think you can get there from “here”–all that we know and think ourselves to be.

          Too bad you missed the course that my colleague Mary Adams and I taught, called “The 10 Agreements for Evolving Women.” You would have been challenged and intrigued, I’m sure. It would be great to meet up sometime…


  19. Steve says:

    Like so many of these articles, this is only telling the story from a perspective of female advantage.

    Women select the strongest, most powerful male to mate with, an instinct from neanderthal times. No female is trying to change this behaviour. Women ask for equal ‘power’ (in whatever terms you measure that) but continue reproducing the genes of powerful men thereby linking male reproductive success to power. Cake and eat it.

    This is why females do not dominate industry. Most of them don’t really want to and doing so only lowers their chance of reproductive success. They lose their biggest advantage (being able to select and not having to compete) and they would be selecting themselves out of the game.

    Besides, they are more interested in competing with each other for the high status males. Another throw back to neanderthal times. Women place themselves where they want to be in society, and they can change that place if they want to, but they must choose to evolve. Men are just doing what they are supposed to do.

    • Elizabeth Debold says:

      Dear Steve,

      Evolutionary psychology is made up of “just so” stories that justify males and females in very traditional roles by arguing that these are hardwired from our evolutionary past. Often primatology is used to justify role and cultural differences, when not even all primate societies have the same pattern between males and females. That said, the general patterns of behavior that you are speaking about whereby women seek protection from men in order to be able to raise their children are more true at lower levels of development. Primarily because seeking this kind of protection and having a mate that will support them ensures their children will grow to maturity–there are often few economic opportunities, no social support systems, and a great deal of violence and disease that make it impossible for women to do this on their own. But these patterns are less and less true at the postmodern level of development–which is still a small fraction of the overall population. That’s my audience. And even for us postmoderns to aspire to evolve further, requires that we make conscious these structures in our psyches, these patterns, that compel us to seek male protection and security that can, if we are unconscious, still drive us.

  20. Bradan Beech says:

    I have surveyed the comments posted about this subject of leadership and find the most recent ones between Steve and Elizabeth to be an especially positive resolution to ” The Puzzle of Postmodern Women’s Leadership.”

    The necessity to develop the competence and confidence to take on the full and difficult range of expressions of social inertia ( including ignorance, resentments, unconscious motives, lapses in rationality, etc.) in public forums with discernment and clear judgement is an area particularly in need of modeling for and by evolving women. This inertia is a formidable force in both sexes, though usually experienced and expressed quite differently in women than in men.

    Elizabeth’s leadership on this challenging evolutionary edge continues to strengthen, and there is much to gain from spending a few moments studying whichever of these posted exchanges we might find most challenging were we to meet them in either our own interior consciousness or our exterior culture.

    Best Regards,
    Bradan Beech

  21. Dangombe Ganjirbe says:

    I need to learn

  22. […] This post was Twitted by joyofbeing […]


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