Women & Leadership: It’s not a level playing field, but that doesn’t mean we don’t play at all

This week Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female Prime Minister was ousted after the leadership sore that had been festering under the surface finally broke through. It was probably the most significant political event in Australia for almost 40 years.

Leadership is a tough business, and for women it is even tougher. There is not a level playing field, but some of us learn that early, and then try to work with it.

No matter what political persuasion we may be, the resignation speech by Ms Gillard showed strength, composure and even ended on a note of good humour. It was one of the most amazing orations under such pressure I have ever witnessed.

The reaction to being the first female prime minister does not explain everything about my prime ministership, nor does it explain nothing about my prime ministership…it explains some things.

As a child and through to my teenage years I belonged to a denomination that had very clear ‘rules’ concerning the participation of women within the church. In Sunday services it was “to keep silent in church”. Then, add to that, our head was to be covered as an “act of submission”. We were able to teach children, including boys at Sunday School, and remarkably, it was accepted for women to take roles in the missions in darkest Africa, not just middle class Australia. We could go to ladies meetings, make the sandwiches and look after the children.

As a child in the 1960s, the middle class white Anglo-saxon life put pressure on families to conform. Then as a teenager in the 1970s much was challenged. Despite conservative views they may have held in a number of areas, my parents were happy to challenge the things they thought were just unreasonable and unfounded. I was raised in an environment that prepared me to make a stand.

This experience didn’t cause me to turn my back on my faith, not at all. But it did help shape the person I am today, my faith in God can surpass human idiosyncrasies. I am part of a church community that “places value on women”. It needs to be a deliberate strategy.

As I have progressed in career and in life I have always had an internal tension between trusting that good people and positive role models will help more women take leadership roles, and the need for affirmative action – seen in quotas and targets. I naturally lean toward the former, but due to the lack of the level playing field, maybe we also need some of the latter.

So playing with the un-level-playing-field metaphor, here is how I have worked it out.

When the playing field isn’t level:

1. The disadvantaged team needs to run uphill. This takes stamina achieved through training and developing agility. It also takes determination to keep playing despite the conditions.

2. The other team has a smoother run of play. It is easier to run downhill and this definitely gives an advantage. But the obstacle isn’t insurmountable.

3. It takes a little longer to get the ball over the line. With increased stamina, and without the downhill advantage, it is still possible to make gains, but it will just take a little longer to achieve them.

3. Accepted standards of sportsmanship (or …womanship) still apply. We did choose to get in the game, after all. This means not complaining about the un-level playing field, but just getting on with the game to the best of our ability. It also means displaying good grace when we win and when we lose.

4. Our supporters still expect us to do our best. There are other players who would like to get into the game and they are watching us. They need us to coach them. We have the responsibility to share what we know and provide encouragement to keep going.

5. Level the un-level-ness of the playing field. Do what we can to make it easier for those who come after us.

Ms Gillard concluded her speech:

What I am absolutely confident of is that is will be easier for the next women and the woman after that and the woman after that.

And that is the responsibility of all of us


The feminine and feminist leadership challenge: Embracing the “both/and” rather than “either/or” #leaningin

A number of years ago I made a professional decision that I wouldn’t shy away from the “difficult conversation”. At the time I was working for a school system and I had witnessed too many serious problems that need not have escalated if, when the leader was faced the brutal facts, he/she was prepared to take action:

  • Have the conversation,
  • Address the issue and
  • If necessary ask the person to change/improve/leave.

Yet facing up to this seemed to be avoided, and the impending disaster wasn’t.

These conversations are never easy – for either side. I was involved in a mediation where a new principal at a school was addressing an unfair dismissal claim by a long-standing employee. Suffice to say, there were many circumstances surrounding the decision and while potentially justified, it was enacted clumsily, due to the (obvious) heightened emotional context. After listening to the situation I shared my observation that it needed to be done, but could have been done better. Once this was acknowledged and the principal gave an apology, the matter drew to a close.

Being in a position of authority doesn’t make the difficult conversations any easier. Leadership is often defined in terms of opposites – autocratic vs democratic, task-oriented vs people-oriented. Today’s leaders need to be  holistic. In the uncertainty and shifting times of this century, we actually need to be able to embrace this duality of leadership.

Especially women.

It has been fascinating reading about Margaret Thatcher over the last week since her death. Kaiser and Kaplan in their HBR post (16 April, 2013), ‘Thatcher’s Greatest Strength Was Her Greatest Weakness’, write:

…we will remember Margaret Thatcher as much for her leadership style as for her polarizing politics – in fact, the two are almost identical… she attacked the status quo and stuck to her guns in driving her agenda through opposition.

But as the title says, her greatest strength was also her weakness. Thatcher embodied the “assertive forceful approach” at the expense of “a participative, enabling approach.” She definitely wasn’t described as a feminist. It could be argued that she displayed femininity, Thatcher took great care to manage her ‘look’ – the hair, the suits and the style, she didn’t see the need to dress in a masculine way to compete in a male world. However, her manner presented a different side when faced with her rivals:

“I must say the adrenaline flows when they really come out fighting at me and I fight back. I stand there and say, ‘Now come on Maggie, you are wholly on your own; no one can help you.’ And I love it.” (Quoted in Kaiser & Kaplan, 2013)

Says it all – this was the era of the lone, strong, decisive leader. This is not the leadership required today. Thatcher is not my role model as a female leader.

I am committed to growing women in leadership:

1. We need more women to stand up as leaders

2. We need to be both/and leaders

3. We need to support and encourage one another

When I was reading Lean In, I found myself describing the book and sharing the ideas with my friends, yet discounting it as ‘feminism’, until I got to the chapter that challenged me and the use of the F-word. Sandberg writes,

Social gains are never handed out. They must be seized. Leaders of the women’s movement… spoke out loudly and bravely to demand the rights we now have. Their courage changed our culture and our laws to the benefit of us all.

Currently, only 24% of women in the United States say they consider themselves feminist. Yet when offered a more specific definition of feminism – “a feminist is someone who believes in social, political and economic equality of the sexes”  …rises to 65%

I’ve decide to embrace the word. ‘Fitting in’ as a female leader doesn’t involve pretending to be male. I need to be my authentic self, and this is the environment in which the people I lead will be able to flourish.

I am resolute about embracing the both/and of leadership. This means, that when I need to have the difficult conversation I try to do it in such a way that means I stick to my message, yet the person is valued and (hopefully) keeps dignity in tact.

It is never easy.

It often involves a sleepless night.

I’m not perfect.

I want to see a generation of women who can embrace the duality of leadership – with the right *measure of feminist and feminine.

Read Lean In.


*As soon as I wrote the word ‘measure’ I realised that this was the key. Another post on this coming up.