Women in the Workplace – Lack of Fit

This post is going to require some work on your part. Don’t worry, it won’t be difficult. But before moving on, I’d ask that you open a blank Word document or grab a pen and paper before you read on.

Your first assignment: Picture a CEO. Jot down some of your thoughts regarding the image in your mind. Just a few sentences or adjectives will do. DO NOT overthink this, just go with your first impression. We’ll get back to this later.

Now for a story. Have you heard this? Its an oldie-but-goodie. A man and his son are out one night, driving along a dark, winding road when suddenly a major storm moves in. A deer jumps out of the woods in front of their car, and the father, in an attempt to avoid the deer, swerves and smashes into a tree. The emergency personnel rush to the accident and tragically pronounce the father dead at the scene. The young boy, badly injured, is rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery. As he is wheeled into the operating room, the surgeon looks down at the young patient and exclaims, “I cannot operate on this boy. He is my son!”

How can this be? If you are like most people, the first time you heard this story you were confused. Didn’t the dad die at the scene? Does the boy have two dads? No. In fact, the surgeon is the child’s mother.

Why is it that our instinct is to assume that the surgeon is a man?

Back in 1973, an astute social scientist named Virginia Schein was asking questions about why more women were not being promoted into leadership roles. At that time, Dr. Schein worked as a manager for MetLife in New York. The prevailing answer to her question at the time was that women simply did not wish to be leaders. Dr. Schein believed there was more going on below the surface.

In a series of research papers published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, Dr. Schein asked research participants to list the most important traits of a successful leader.

Go ahead and do this for yourself. You can simply add to the CEO traits you listed above, or if ‘Leader’ brings to mind something new and different, make a new list.

Next, she asked participants to list the most common traits associated with men.

Do this yourself as well.

Then, she asked participants to list the most common traits associated with women.

Again, jot some ideas down.

Finally, she compared the lists. What she found uncovered an uncomfortable truth – the list of the leadership traits and the male traits were very similar, while the list of the leadership traits and the female traits varied significantly. This led to the ‘Think Manager-Think Male’ theory that has been proven in many studies since then.

One of the interesting parts of the initial research – all of the participants were men. Likely she had a problem similar to the one I faced in my attempt to include women of color in my studies – she just could not find enough female leaders to include in her studies.

But it does highlight another problem – the dominant culture will be the group to define the rules of the game. Research seems to indicate that it isn’t that male qualities are the best leadership qualities, but that since men are in leadership, they will necessarily believe that their qualities make for the best results.

Opinions on the “best” leadership qualities have changed since the 1970s. Back then, words like commanding, or assertive, or even aggressive were common. Nowadays, you likely included something along the lines of collaborative, or even supportive, or perhaps even inclusive.

And yet, even with leadership qualities that are more aligned with the female stereotype, I’d ask you to look back at your description of a CEO. Did you picture a man or a woman? Some of you did, in fact, picture a woman, and you are wonderful for that. Most people, however, pictured a tall, white, older male. If you did, don’t worry – you’ve just uncovered a hidden bias! Now you can work on adjusting it.

The impact of the ‘Think-Manager, Think-Male’ phenomenon is significant. It means that when company leaders are looking to fill a management position, their inherent bias toward picturing men in the position will lead them toward male candidates more readily than female candidates. This is true no matter the gender of the hiring manager.

It means that men will be considered for roles they aspire to while women will only be considered for roles they have already proven themselves in. It means that men will be supported despite failures and a woman’s failure will be seen as inevitable.

The solution to this issue is a catch-22. To get more women (or any other minority, for that matter) into leadership roles we need more women (or other minorities) in leadership roles. If the images we see when the letters CEO are uttered are not just white males, but truly reflect the diversity of our society, then we will disrupt the ‘Think Manager-Think Male’ paradigm. To get there, we need to recognize our inherent biases and actively work against them. When choosing our leaders, we need to ensure we are intentionally looking in all directions for the best candidate, regardless of their personal qualities.

For a final assignment, I encourage you to consider ways in which you might stretch your mind when considering candidates for the next leadership role you will help to fill. Write them down. And then when the time comes, use them.

As always, keep it positive!

Selected further reading:

HBR – Alice Eagly: Women as Leaders. Dr. Eagly is an expert on gender and leadership.

Fast Company – The Gender Divide

Psychology Today: Why Women Make Better Leaders than Men

Inc. Magazine: 7 Traits of True Leaders

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Leadership Lessons from the Theater

James and the Giant Peach – Bart’s Bards 2019

I have been having some fun while continuing my job search and slowly but surely putting my consulting business into place. Sometime late last year I made the decision to audition for the theater. It might have been the best decision I have made in the last many months.

We have a super high-quality community theater just down the road from our home and since I am always looking for ways to scare myself, to reach outside my comfort zone, this seemed like a perfect idea. My goal was simply to do the very best I could at the audition. Honestly. I had no true expectation of being cast. I had been out of the theater for at least 15 years. I simply wanted to strap on the tap shoes and go out there and give it my all.

Imagine my surprise when I was cast! I had an amazing time doing the show, met some incredible people, and reaffirmed my personal love for the stage. After that show I did another, and am now collaborating on a youth summer production. My heart is happy when it is in a theater.

Given that I am now spending so much time there, I have had the opportunity to reflect on what it takes to put on a full musical theater production. It is amazing! And truly, it takes leadership at all levels.

I now believe it would be an incredibly powerful exercise to have leaders go through the process of producing some type of live event. There are significant leadership lessons at every step for those in corporate America.

Here are some examples from both on stage and behind the scenes:

Actors: These folks are clearly necessary for a show to go on. Whether they play the leads or are part of the ensemble, there is no show without actors. Imagine the situations they are faced with:

  1. Personal responsibility. There is very little help on stage when lines, blocking (where they move, stand, etc), song lyrics, choreography is forgotten. It is all up to you.
  2. Crisis management. Sometimes your co-star will forget their lines and you have to help cover. Sometimes your costume rips right before you are to go on stage. Sometimes the microphone battery dies right in the middle of your song, or a prop is missing, or the lights don’t come up when you expect them. You have to deal with all of these potential situations.
  3. Communication. As an actor, it is your responsibility to deliver the story. Do it well and the audience comes away inspired and entertained. Fail, and the efforts put forth by everyone involved in the production are for naught.

Crew: The crew is made up of the folks handling the lights, the sound, the props, and moving the scenery during the show, among many, many other things. These folks bring the story to life. Some situations they deal with, many of which are similar to those of the actors:

  1. Personal Responsibility: These folks, and there are rarely enough of them, have to move fast and have to know exactly what they are doing. If someone has to move a piece of furniture, it is up to them to move it. Quickly. Exactly. No one is there to help (they are busy moving other things).
  2. Team Work: Often the crew has to work together to pull off intricate changes in scenery, props or lighting. There has to be a high level of trust on the team to get the whole job done.
  3. Crisis Management: When the batteries of a mic run out, or the spotlighter suddenly calls in sick, or the stage wall that is supposed to open suddenly gets stuck, it lands on the shoulders of the crew to handle it. There is no one to call, no one to hand the problem off to.

Costumer/Hair/Make-up/Props: These folks own their own fiefdoms under the direction of the director. They are all behind the scenes, but their work has a significant impact on the outcome of the show. They deal with:

  1. Limited Resources: These folks have to make the most out of everything they have. A good friend of mine spent money for some expensive fabric for one show exclaiming that she would find a way to use that fabric in every show to follow. And she has! The Props professionals (in community theater certainly) source all of their needs from donations, thrift shop finds, and creative reuses from past shows.
  2. Conflict Management: I can’t tell you how many times, as an actor, as a costumer, as a bystander, I have dealt with conflict over costumes, hair, and make-up. One child wouldn’t go on stage because her “makeup wasn’t as pretty as everyone elses.” In another case, an actor was furious about her wig. Or an actor refused to wear the hat.
  3. Crisis Management: In the last show I worked on, an actor walked right into a tube of red lipstick right before she was to go on stage. It took quick thinking to grab a stole from the back and whip it over her head to hide the stain as she rushed on. Pants rip, suspenders snap, shoes get lost….backstage can become a near war zone during some shows!

Producer/Director/Coreographer/Designers: These are the folks that make up the official leadership of the show. Their challenges are rather clear:

  1. Setting the vision: The director is charged with providing the vision, and the producer and others for supporting that vision and helping to communicate it to the cast and crew.
  2. Creating the culture: Each show has its own vibe. Some shows are packed with more drama behind the scenes than in front of them, and some are extremely uplifting. This can be largely attributed to the culture created by the show leadership. I have been very fortunate to have been involved in the latter in nearly every case, but have heard plenty of horror stories about the former.
  3. Decision making: This oh-so-important quality comes in spades for these folks. From casting the show to determining the look and feel of the stage to the rehearsal schedule and everything in between, these folks are making and communicating hundreds (if not thousands) of decisions before the show opens its curtains.

Pulling off a live production is a monumental feat. It calls for leaders at all levels to do their very best. It challenges each participant, whether on the stage, offstage, or behind the scenes, to exercise their leadership muscles.

It seems to me, every corporation might do well to produce a live show. It would certainly throw many people outside their comfort zone, would help to grow some very necessary leadership skills, and might even expose some leadership gaps that can then be corrected!

It also goes to show that leadership lessons can be found everywhere. As they say in the theater, The Show Must Go On!

As always, keep it positive, and share a smile if you’ve got one!