The Role of Women: Obedience
The role of women in our culture is all messed up and discombobulated. From a very early age, girls are asked to carry themselves in a way that comports to societies expectations of them. And that society is patriarchal. This is where the problem begins and persists. At a young age, girls are expected to be kind, considerate, thoughtful and caring, giving and eager to please. They are to be ‘obedient’. Girls happen to be able to take instructions well, are team-oriented and cooperative, and academically-driven. The graduation rates of women versus men in the U.S. is lopsided in their favor. The median rate of women graduating from high school is seven percent greater than that of men. This model of a good girl was true of myself from grade-school through high school. I was a shy yet charismatic girl. I excelled at school making the National Honor Society in high school four years running. I was also gifted athletically. I played three varsity sports; captain of two.
You Can Do Anything You Set Your Mind To
In college, women are feed a steady stream of positive ‘you can do it’ affirmations. We are explicitly told and come to believe we are important, equal and respected. Through hard work, personal application, and fortitude we are told we can succeed. Perhaps in a self-fulfilling prophecy, U.S. colleges are increasingly composed of women. Fifty-six percent of all university students are female. That percentage is expected to grow one percent more by 2026. That is a role-reversal from the 1970’s when men were the majority college seekers by 58 percent.
The Foul-Taste of Patriarchy
It was during these independent, becoming adult years at college I first tasted the foul-taste of patriarchy. I was by all accounts a successful, self-possessed, directed woman. I attended an Ivy League college, maintained a respectable B+ average and was on track to graduate within four years of matriculation. During my senior year, in my last semester of college, I decided to take an international trip with my boyfriend over Spring Break. Although I had been dating my boyfriend for three years and he himself was an all-honor, academic scholar and graduate of Dartmouth, who held an envious and lucrative job, my dad was incensed at my decision to travel together with him. My father informed me that he considered the trip unsavory and unacceptable, essentially calling me a “street worker”. He also threatened to stop paying for my college education. His reasoning was flimflam and absurdly extreme towards someone who had always followed the straight-and-narrow path of an upstanding and obedient child. At 22, I was a responsible adult who could make responsible decisions. I went on the trip. My father stopped paying my college tuition and all miscellaneously-related charges. It was an explicit take-down: you do what I say and what I want or I roadblock the desired goals you seek for your future. It was a brutal first lesson to be learned of many to come.
A Sense of Place in the Workplace
Next up: the professional world. The opportunity I had been waiting for to excel, achieve, and meet with success. Oh, how the obedient lessons came punching back quick and fast. It was during my three years working at a small strategic consulting firm located on the doorsteps of Washington, D.C., where the social strictures of how women professionals were expected to act were both subtly reinforced and explicitly articulated. There was an openly aggressive tear-down of both my dedication to the company and my competency as a consultant in the first months at the firm to a mutual supervisor by a male counterpart, who clearly felt he had received an inferior education to my Ivy one. There was my annual review which had in writing and was discussed verbally of the need and benefit for me to “smile more” while conducting myself in the office. I suppose seriousness and earnestness is not a pre-requisite to good work, amiability is.
Perceived and Assumed Notions of Appropriateness
At no point in my career path have I had access or been privy to non-work, recreational networking, say by playing a basketball pick-up game, tennis match or a round of golf with a higher-level executive, unlike most of my male peers, who were asked often by their superiors to participate in these activities. You may ask yourself if perhaps it was because I was un-athletic. The answer would be no. In fact, both my male and female peers knew me to be an adept athlete who played varsity basketball for a consistently Ivy-League winning basketball team at Dartmouth. At Wharton, I was recruited by the co-ed basketball team so they could have a better chance of winning games against other cohort teams. So too, I was on the co-ed racing ski-team while at MBA. No, my non-inclusion in this ritualized professional networking dance was because the perceived impropriety of having a single woman “canoodle” with executive-level men (whether married or not) was a breach of conduct that had to be abided by at all cost…and to much detriment when it came to quick promotions and corporate advancement versus my male colleagues.
Leadership: Assigned or Innate?
Even the qualities of leadership become distorted when applied to a woman versus a man. I have had male peers openly read newspapers for the first 45 minutes of their work day, banter around the various “water cooler” office locations about current events, sports, and the like while always being perceived as strong, commanding, and projecting the qualities a leader possesses. I found some of these men flabby in their industriousness and outright lazy in their daily business practices. It so happened my office was situated just off the copy room where at any one time, projects were nearing completion or furiously readying for an in-person client presentation requiring reams of copying to be completed and decks built. Because of natural circumstance, colleagues of mine often found themselves stepping into my office to chat. This was a deliberate action on their part. My desk faced away from the copy room. And because my office was an open cubicle on a floor with a sea of cubicles, conversations were for all to see (and hear). Now, I have got to assume that if I were not well-regarded by my peers, they would have resisted engaging me. The actual opposite was happening. At some point my VP mentor pulled me into his office to inform me that the organization found me to be a “trouble-maker”, who was causing havoc in the office by making people unproductive, and that this warning was a pre-cursor to a possible future firing. I was flabbergasted since I did not court people coming to my office to seek my company. Nonetheless, one could argue I was a natural-born leader: charismatic, self-assured, disciplined, and respected by my peers. To give this situation perhaps greater context, I was at this point in my career, working dually as a consultant (my day job) and as the lead recruiter of undergraduate students to fill entry-level positions at the firm. I did not seek out the recruiting position; the firm asked me to take that position because they found me to be compelling with a good sense at selecting successful candidates for the firm. How quickly one’s standing can drop when power roles are not pre-determined, but naturally gifted.
Ahh, Sexism Rises Again!
As professionals progress, both men and women often look to higher-degrees to gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace but also to make themselves more appealing and desirable to employers. Unsurprisingly, women maintain their majority over men in gaining Masters and Doctoral degrees.
I did not lose my job. I did matriculate at The Wharton School to gain my M.B.A. From there I started a new chapter in my career in media and entertainment, managing digital platforms for traditional media assets (think: magazines) as well as for a multibillion dollar start-up, XM Satellite Radio. At the five-year mark, I scratched my entrepreneurial itch to write a business plan and launch a sustainable women’s active wear company. Over the course of nine months, I heavily networked to raise funds for my new venture.
It was during this time I once again hit up against both the latent and blatant sexism I had experienced earlier in my career and as a striving young woman. In pitch meetings with prospective Angel investors, almost always a wealthy, white male executive, I was indiscreetly asked when I was going to have children. These were usually questions posed over documents and PowerPoint decks summarizing the competitive advantage of my business idea and the initial valuations one could expect if an investor determined to make a formal investment through a private placement memorandum (PPM). My pat answer to these inappropriate inquiries was that I was not married and anyway, getting married and starting a family was not a current priority.
Horrifyingly, my own father told me point-blank that he’d invest in my business only if some man he knew peripherally but respected as a corporate executive, would run the company instead of me. The implicit logic of the statement was: only a man knows how to run a business and make it a success.
When Women Become DisObedient Is When the Trouble Begins
Obedient women are supposed to stay within their gender-specified, culturally-dictated roles: that of someone who is kind, caring, thoughtful, listens (and takes orders) well. They are gals who are intended to do well by keeping to themselves – not creating any unnecessary waves – and accepting what they are given. On the other hand, “disobedient” women possess power and display it; are aggressive and use it; are risk-takers, change-makers, thought-leaders, and drive toward their goals without side-track. If women decide to become entrepreneurs, their business ideas are negated more easily, their business drive questioned ceaselessly, and their access to capital and mentorship are denied more voluminously than men. The majority of striving women must kowtow to men for their financial security, while holding their revolutionary ideas tenuously out on a platter to be tossed casually, and package their dynamism, vision, and great abundance of talent in a neatly-tied box that is pretty, well-considered, composed, and always, forever always, unthreatening.
Sexism and male-determined cultural norms around the appropriateness of women’s behavior and the roles in which they inhabit, have allowed the boogeymen to win. It has not, however, stopped women professionals and entrepreneurs from rising up and succeeding in and of themselves. But the unmistakable markers of turmoil and strife remain steadfastly a part of the landscape for women in business. Women are striving, progressing, and earning accolades throughout their educational careers. Women are winning but without the rewards. Women are succeeding but are asked to travel a longer, more arduous and land-mined filled professional career of working for less, being offered fewer and less lucrative promotions, dinged for starting a family, and forced to navigate and deal with the perceived “failings” of being, by all accounts, a successful and desirable company executive but through a pervasive lens that minimizes those hard-fought accomplishments. This culture absolutely needs to change.
Bringing The Lessons Home to Be ReImagined and ReApplied
I bring my personal experience back-around to my two young children born from a loving, respect-filled relationship with a successful man, who values women and their valuable innate traits. Obedience is not one of them. Our children are split down the middle: one girl and one boy. Our daughter is now in third-grade and all the same traits of kindness, helpfulness, consideration and thoughtful application of oneself are there among my daughter and her female classmates. My husband and I revel in her innate character traits but also recognize the need for her to be less amenable to others (if it impedes her personal needs unnecessarily), speak her mind more and more adamantly, and to ‘fight back’ when another (male or female) is aggressive, unkind, hurtful and generally, disrespectful of her person. We are actively teaching her these more ‘male-attributed’ traits of interaction so that she may feel comfortable and right standing up for her beliefs and to help ensure her greater success in the often cut-throat world of business.
For our son, our daughter’s junior by four years, we seek to teach the near opposite traits we are driving to imbue in our daughter. He already knows how to speak his mind – vociferously – is adamant, demanding, often aggressively so, and persistent with his wants and needs. What my son needs to be taught are those nuanced, intuitive-brained traits we admire in girls but seem to try and take advantage of when they become adults. We work diligently on various teaching lessons for him such as respect and care for others, control of one’s body and emotions, appropriate expression of behavior, valuing others input and opinions even when it is different from one’s own and the like. Make no mistake about it: respect is learned…for others and particularly for women.
Solution-Setting Around the #metoo Movement
The solution to issues surrounding the #metoo movement are multifaceted and diverse, need to be applied both top-down and bottom-up, and likely require a “re-learning” in how to speak constructively, act appropriately, and perceive rightly the value, efforts, and innate talents – however foreign and non-intuitive they may be – of women as they progress to adulthood and into professional careers. Lessons of respect, valuing others and listening to differing opinions start early and must continue to be reinforced. No amount of fakery around superficially “understanding the other” will result in lasting change in mindset. Although corporate training is necessary given the awareness and widespread problems around respecting and valuing women in the workplace, training alone is a superficial, temporary salve. Training must be buttressed with non-bendable, red-line enforcement of infractions that are openly communicated and widely disseminated to build trust around an institution’s ‘rule of law’.
As with any new habits we seek to build, we must throw-away the old, unconscious way of doing things, create a new process to replicate, and then get-to the hard, tedious work of consciously making new, more productive habits that serve ourselves and others better. This transition is not easy, feels uncomfortable and may be downright scary, making us fraught with angst and uncertainty. However, at the end of the long, winding tunnel, greater respect and equality between men and women will be rewarded with broader contentment, freedoms now little understand and unrealized, and higher levels of prosperity among both sexes.
Contact Kate Gaertner today to see what Triple Win Advisory can do to help your business and industry increase sustainability to result in a “triple win” for company profit and long-term competitive advantage, societal well-being, and successful environmental pollution mitigation.