02 Sep Consensus As Power: Global Women Embracing Success
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I recently had a conversation with a senior Fortune 500 female global executive who, after reading an article about her route to success said “I feel uneasy seeing my achievements in print and even wonder why on earth anyone would be interested.” She was demonstrating an underlying anxiety around being judged as boastful or unfeminine.
This got me thinking. I reflected on the language coming out of some of my recent articles in my series of interviews with global women executives like Katie Mehnert, Kahina Van Dyke and Natalia Shuman. They are all very different women and yet they share a number of traits: Clarity, integrity and the ability to take risks when necessary. An emphasis on the need to be open, stand in the shoes of others and actively seek diverse opinions, cultures and approaches. Trust, empathy and support. The courage to act, to take a leap in the dark, even when there is no guarantee of success.
Why would any of these traits attract adverse judgement? Why, is it that, as Sheryl Sandberg said “Success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively for women. When a man is successful, he is liked by both men and women. When a woman is successful, people of both genders like her less.”
Recent research tells us that often women who are successful are erroneously seen as untrustworthy or just out for themselves and discoveries in the world of neurobiology and unconscious bias give us clues as to what is happening here. Every time we see someone, the amygdala1 makes an immediate decision on whether they are part of an ingroup (people like us) or a more threatening outgroup. Despite our good intentions, if our medial pre-frontal cortex fails to regulate our thoughts (very likely when we are tired or under pressure), we end up regarding outgroups as stereotypes and not individuals. The amygdala is quick to learn and slow to forget and each time the decision is made, the more strongly it becomes ingrained, like a well-trodden path through a cornfield.
Social conditioning reaffirms further reaffirms these biases. If every time we drive past a school and see that 85% of people picking up their children are women, the idea that childcare is a female pursuit is reinforced. Similarly, if there are relatively few female successful leaders, people without realising it see women in positions of power as outgroups and potentially untrustworthy.
So we are in a kind of catch 22 situation. Until we have a more equitable situation where women are properly and rightfully represented in the senior ranks, it will be difficult for many people to fight their evolutionary biases and accept that women can excel as leaders, are trustworthy and add value. In the meantime, although as a society we have made progress, many women still hold themselves back for fear of being judged as uncaring or combative.
But do we have to accept this ‘between a rock and a hard place’ dilemma? How could we re-frame and and see the situation from a different, more ‘feminine’ angle? Here are four questions to start the ball rolling:
- How could we redefine the term ‘power’? Do we have to stick with age-old descriptions like ‘the capacity or ability to direct the behaviour of others’ or could we focus more on success as the result of not of just one person but as the product of effective teamwork and of building consensus?
- How could we more often use, and name, our abilities to understand and acknowledge the perspectives of others when negotiating? We know how much more sustainable and impactful agreements brokered in this way are.
- What could we be doing to bust the myths about women as poor leaders? For example, the one that says women don’t support each other in the workplace. Of course women sometimes do bad things to each other including ignoring people and backstabbing, but men do this as well. There are many women who give their time and energy to mentor other women and to create opportunities for women to help each other both inside and outside of the workplace and this would surely be a more truthful and powerful message to spread.
- What if we could see that not asking for a promotion or not telling our story were tantamount to depriving people of the guidance or role models they are seeking? In other words, that we have a responsibility to reveal our talents. This is an alternative and more positive slant on being ‘pushy’ or ambitious. Marianne Willamson’s poem, read by Nelson Mandela at his inauguration, sums this thinking up perfectly for me, especially this verse: ‘As we let our own lights shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.‘
What are your views on how women’s success is perceived? What is your experience?
I leave you with one of the most powerful yet humble of leaders I have ever seen in action. Malala Yousafzai, shot by the Taliban in Pakistan because she campaigned for education and girls’ rights, speaking here at the UN Youth Assembly aged 17. Prepare to be inspired.
© Move Ahead Global 2014
a section of nervous tissue located in the temporal lobe of the brain which is responsible for the perception of emotions – anger, fear, sadness, etc. – and which helps store memories of events and emotions so that an individual may be able to recognize similar events in the future ↩