Women in Leadership. Women in STEM. Women on Boards. Women in politics. The push to encourage more women to consider these options is ever-present and intensifying, at least from where I sit. The questions don’t go away:
- How do we attract more women to ____________________ (name your domain of choice)?
- How do we mentor well-qualified women to _____________ (same as above)?
- How do we identify qualified women to _________________ (once more with feeling)?
These questions aren’t new, and the lack of answers isn’t new either.
Recently I was asked to be a speaker at a conference on Women in Leadership, and in particular in the realm of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). For possibly the first time in my life I declined. I know, how could I?! Well, I’m past 70 and I’ve been adding my two cents worth for a long time. It strikes me that young people need to hear from women whose experiences are closer to their own age. Besides, I’m trying to be more successful at being retired, so I need to practice saying “no”. But – and you were waiting for that “but”, right – that doesn’t mean that I can’t share some thoughts on the subject in the blogosphere. So here I go.
There are always exceptions, but generally speaking:
- The world definitely needs more women in leadership roles. Having a diverse senior leadership team, with a truly effective, insightful, empowering leader of any gender, is bound to produce more successful results than a leadership team and leader all cut from the same cloth. No-one disagrees that answers are worth looking for.
- Contrary to what at least some women believe, (most) men are not out to make sure that no women are included or as few as they think they can get away with. By and large, they’re just not thinking about it one way or the other.
- Women need to be careful not to think of men as the enemy. It’s not we versus them. The occasional one, sure, but that can be true of the occasional woman as well. Just because you don’t get the response you were expecting, it doesn’t necessarily mean anything at all. Many men simply have different responses to things than women, or different ways of analyzing a situation. It’s not a deal breaker. We need to learn to embrace (figuratively) the “diversity” in male/female communication style.
- Women need to work on their self-confidence. Why is it that so many young men assume they can do things that they clearly can’t (like math), while so many young women assume they cannot do things they really can (like math)? Ladies, we are heavily involved in raising both these young men and these young women. What are we doing differently; what could we be doing differently? We can’t blame this on men. Certainly not on men alone.
- Mentors for women don’t need to be women. It’s important for young women to be able to see women in leadership roles, so that leadership is seen as an option for women as well as men. But a good mentor is a good mentor, man or women. Myself, I have been blessed with good mentors throughout my career, people who have encouraged me to take on responsibilities I never would have considered on my own, and they were all men.
- Women, for some reason, are far less likely than men to seek out a leadership role, at least outside a female-centric domain. It must have to do with the self-confidence thing. If we want more women to take on leadership roles, we have to identify women we think have what it takes and then encourage them, mentor them. (“We” means both men and women.) Those women with the most potential often take a lot of encouraging; it’s worth the effort.
- Just as women are more likely than men to doubt their worth in taking on a leadership role, they are, sadly, often judged by a different standard than men. They may be considered “bossy” instead of “a born leader”, emotional instead of empathetic, and on it goes. By the same token, women who are not used to working in a mostly male domain (which was definitely my domain) are sometimes intimated or put off by some of the “jovial” behaviour of a group of guys. There are ways for us to smooth these cultural differences. Goodness, they must exist within most households!
There’s plenty of work to do. But it only takes a few people who see special potential in a young woman to then take the time to help her gain the confidence and the skills to put that potential to use.* Those few people and their successful mentees will add up. And there is nothing more rewarding than watching those you have mentored or encouraged spread their wings. That’s when you know that our future is in good hands.
*[Of course, this is equally true of seeing special potential in young men who do not have the natural confidence of many and who are equally in need of that time and encouragement.]
Image Credit: Tufts Dental School