Updated: Dec 7, 2020
IF YOU FOCUS ON THE DIFFERENCES, YOU WILL ALWAYS FEEL DIFFERENT.
I know as soon as you saw the title of this post, you probably thought “Just another article about women in leadership and gender equality”, and you might have decided to skip it.
I ask you instead to take a moment and read it, because I am not going to write about gender discrimination, or statistics, or why women should be valued more than they are. I am not trying to talk about the history of women’s rights, or how they achieved their power and equality over the years. I am not trying to convince anybody that women are better than men (or vice versa actually). I simply want to offer a different perspective - my perspective - on a subject that has been addressed already so many times and which too many consider themselves experts on.
I am no expert, I don’t do studies on women’s rights and I certainly don’t know more than others about the real and deep causes of what people call gender discrimination. I am also very aware of how delicate and sensitive this topic is, and how cautious I have to be while talking about it.
I just have a positive contribution to bring to the table, so I hope you will give it a chance.
You would think we are way past this, but when you look around, even in 2020, there is still a strong sense of inequality in terms of how women perceive themselves, or how they are perceived in their roles at work, especially when it comes to leadership positions. We are still dealing with feminist movements and with feminist talks all around us, which I find to be one of the reasons why this connotation is still out there. It is linked to the way women themselves identify their own place and their own competences. The huge amount of dialogue that surrounds the subject in my opinion is what's driving us in the opposite direction.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not referring to any kind of mistreatment or harassment in the workplace - my point has really nothing to do with this - but with the potential that women can unfold when they are powerful and confident enough in their leadership roles.
The truth is I feel quite different than the majority about women’s disparity.
As a matter of fact, I have always worked in environments where I did not feel any sort of gender discrimination, quite the opposite actually: some of the management teams that I joined or that joined me, were mostly or in some cases even exclusively made of women, and we were treated with the same respect and given the same authority as men.
I am not saying it is the case everywhere, and I don’t want to discount anybody’s feelings or experience. Maybe I have just been lucky, but this is MY experience and it might help looking at it with a new open mind.
I read articles that show statistics on how men still occupy a dominant majority of leadership roles in the workplace. Instead of focusing on this, why don’t we focus on the fact that the number of women occupying those roles has been increasing tremendously in the last 20 years and will continue to grow?
I read stories about women rejecting leadership roles, because they feel more comfortable on the sideline - a frightening “intentional invisibility”; women who limit their exposure because they want to avoid conflict; because they believe once they are on the spotlight they will be penalized and judged just for being women with power.
Have you heard of a double standard that defines an authoritative man as strong and assertive, while it defines an authoritative woman as cold and bitchy?
During my research I came across a study that analyzed a list of negative words associated with women in the workplace: words like inept, frivolous, passive, gossipy, panicky, emotional, temperamental, indecisive. While the words associated with men are competent, confident, versatile, logical, practical, dependable; but also arrogant, irresponsible, self-centered.
Why don’t we move past this, forget about stereotypes and tired perceptions, and look at women in powerful roles now? Why don’t we focus on the endorsing words that describe them, such as organized, compassionate, enthusiastic, energetic, humble?
Women and men can certainly be different, they can act differently and they can think differently, they can have distinctive competences and unique styles to bring to the table. So why don’t we celebrate the diverse contributions they both bring, versus constantly trying to establish who is better and who is worse? Why don’t we look at the diversity as a way to balance out the vision of a team or of a business, versus pushing the two further apart?
I worked in teams dominated by men, in teams dominated by women, and in mixed teams, and I don’t particularly believe one combination was better than the other in any way. I don't see women and men, I see leaders. I simply think women and men can be powerful and influential in different ways and diversity is a key point to balance a team and to make it successful, that’s all.
Like others, I disagree with stereotypes, and many people I know don’t fit anywhere in the list below - I would say I don’t either - but if you want to try and match genders and qualities, you might have heard of and be familiar with these descriptions...
Women are humble, while men are assertive.
Women are invested in people, while men are invested in performance.
Women are compassionate, while men are dependable and reliable.
Women are organized, while men are level-headed.
Women stand on the side to give space to others promoting effective cooperation, men take charge and influence others.
Women have strong emotional intelligence, men are logical and practical.
Women unlock their subordinate’s potential and create high performing teams. Men are confident, self-aware, and not afraid to work towards self-benefit.
Women inspire by transforming beliefs, they know how to create a unified vision and culture, by aligning meaning and purpose. Men take initiative, they are analytical, and they drive results.
Do these definitions sound familiar? What do they have in common? They all give the impression that women take care, while men take charge.
They make us feel like women tend to stay off radar and intentionally avoid visibility.
What transpires is that women can learn from men not to be afraid to step up and make themselves noticeable, be more ambitious, more self aware, and braver.
Should women act and think like men? No, I don’t think so.
In my humble opinion, what creates a sense of inferiority is not the fact that women are - or are considered - not as confident or as assertive as men. It is this constant talking about gender differences and female weakness that creates a feeling of inadequacy.
Why don’t we stop making a big deal about the diversities?
Why don’t we eliminate the idea that women and men are on separate levels?
Why don’t we erase the gender concept in the workplace?
I came across a very interesting theory that goes hand in hand with my vision: it’s called “gender blindness” as opposed to “gender awareness”. It depreciates the idea that certain strengths or weaknesses are associated with a gender or the other. It’s the failure to recognize that the roles and responsibilities of females and males are imposed upon them in a specific context.
Women who believe in focusing on gender differences, will always feel the differences.
Women who believe in focusing on similarities, will feel greater power and will benefit for their own success and development, from downplaying the gender idea once for all.
This is my experience, that shaped the way I think and act.
Maybe as I already said it was luck, but I’m confident your workplace can make a huge difference in the way you perceive yourself and your role. If you feel stuck in a world where disparities of any kind - not only gender related - influence the culture, you are probably better off removing yourself from it.
Within the companies I previously worked for, I never felt a peculiar treatment towards myself or my female colleagues; I never perceived any discrimination of any sort; I have never been exposed to the awareness of being a woman leader versus a man leader.
I don’t identify with feminine traits and behaviors, as I am sure many of us don’t.
I am assertive, confident, determined and ambitious just like any other successful leader. I can be result driven, but I am also very compassionate and highly focused on my people. I can be emotional and temperamental, but I am also logical and practical. I am humble, but also confident, sometimes too much? I am assertive and self-aware, but also conscious and respectful of others.
I am all of this and much more, I am not a woman versus a man, I am a person with good and bad traits, with strengths and weaknesses, who managed to become a leader in the business she loves.
I don’t focus on the differences because I never experienced them.
And for this I now realize I have to thank the organizations where I grew and where I became who I am, because they promoted the power of all people, instead of teaching me to make myself more valuable than men.
To all my wonderful, successful and incredibly strong women colleagues, friends and mentors from the past, present: and hopefully future: Theresa Amaya, Susy Roberts, Lorraine Green, Caroline Van Kessel, Yvonne Van Der Klaauw, Kimi Nakato, Emma Thomassen, Rachel Martinez, Ratna Steden, Mytte Staps, Josine Dams, Nadja Kraal, Veronika Novakova, Emmalee Hollingsworth, Ilka Solomon, Anouk Schepers, Nancy Ieracitano, Megan Linsen, Tien Nguyen, Tina McLelland, MaryClaire Campos, Kristin Crawford, Joan Penny, Lauren Hartman, Sara Vakili, Pamela Orsi, Paola Sichirollo, Bo Van Strijland, Cornelia Samara, Federica Villanova, Silvia Ammesso, Francesca Ghersinich, Kate Kirkland, Elizabeth Woody, Merel Hummels, Marta Marangoni.