Notes from the Perimeter

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Woman Thing

For me, it was all about the ladies a couple of weekends ago. Two events and one article got me thinking about the evolving leadership role of women – who we are as leaders and why there aren’t more of us.

On Friday I attended a daylong session of the annual W@M! Conference. W@M! stands for “Women, Action and the Media” and it was indeed a shout-out to women activists, journalists and garden-variety feminists who came together at MIT’s Stata Center (the new building by Frank Gehry that looks like the fantasy of a demented child) to talk about how to promote progressive ideas and ideals and get more women’s voices into the mainstream.

On Sunday night I attended the New Hampshire Democratic Party’s 100 Club dinner. This 50th anniversary of the 100 Club – somebody quipped that the name came about because when the event began it was doubtful that 100 Democrats could be found in the entire state – was a celebration of firsts: the first woman US Senator, Jean Shaheen (who had been the state’s first female governor); the first female US Representative, Carol Shea-Porter; the first women to serve as State Senate President and House Speaker, Sylvia Larsen and Terie Norelli respectively; and the first time in history the state chose a woman to stand as the Democratic candidate for president, Hillary Clinton.

Meanwhile, a surprising article I had just read in preparation for yet another gathering of prominent women occupied my thoughts. “Women and the Vision Thing,” by Herminia Ibarra and Otilia Obodaru, published in the January 2009 edition of the Harvard Business Review, examines the questions: Why don’t more women reach the top of their professions? What’s holding us back?

At first glance it would seem that nothing is. After all, according to a survey quoted in the article, women tend to score higher marks than men in just about every leadership component: energizing, designing and aligning, rewarding and feedback, team building, outside orientation, tenacity, and emotional intelligence (page 5).

The problem is what George H.W. Bush famously referred to as “the vision thing.” Rightly or not, women are perceived as being less effective than men in key components of the critical skill of visioning, which includes the ability to perceive opportunities and threats and inspire constituents to follow their lead. When circumstances are uncertain, women are less trusted than men to devise successful strategies and manage risk.

Ibarra and Obodaru offer some explanation for this startling disconnect. Women who work in collaboration might simply not get credit for the vision they engender. Also, women tend to value grounded-ness and action based on concrete data while men are more willing to portray a rosy future strong in optimism but perhaps weak on the particulars. The authors note the difference in the styles of candidates Obama and Clinton: his charismatic but somewhat vague vision compared with her practical, if unexciting, focus on policy and experience. Furthermore, women don’t entirely trust the vision thing when it seems to be more style than substance.

The article concludes by urging the aspiring woman leader to get up on her high horse and down with the vision thing. Obviously society needs it, wants it, and responds to it. But I came away from the article, from W@M! and the 100 Club, with another reaction.

While I want women to aspire to leadership roles in business, politics and as opinion-makers, I don’t want us to give up our peculiar form of integrity – centered, specific, collaborative – in order to be more like the men who currently occupy those seats of power. To say that women aren’t visionary is simply to fail to see how we are. “One man—one dream” might be compelling but the strength of women (one of many) is that we understand the power of the collective vision, and more often than not, we know how to get there. Perhaps what needs to change is our basic understanding of vision: to learn to be inspired by what’s inherent in the woman thing.


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