This post is the second in a series of post reflecting on women and leadership. You can read the first post, on women and church leadership, here.
Alright, let’s be honest. The first post in this series painted a bit of a bleak picture. Women within Mennonite Church USA have not made up as much ground as we would hope for. But overall, in the United States, women are making some big strides. At the undergraduate college level, women have outnumbered men since the late
1980’s, and The New York Times reported in 2006 that not only are more women attending college, but they are more likely to graduate (and to graduate with honors), to get involved in extracurricular activities, and to seek out internships and other on campus leadership positions.
In another report, Time magazine recently wrote that within a generation, the majority of women who work will “outearn their husbands.” In addition, it is becoming far more common for both partners within a marriage to work: this study found that less than 1 in 5 married-couple families are solely supported by a husband, with women working an average of 22.2 hours per week outside the home in 2010 (as compared to only 0.6 hours per week in 1965). Single women in their 20s are outearning their male peers in most metro areas, and, surprisingly, women outearn men when working part time, making $1.04 to $1 for men. However, when the survey moves to compare pay for full time work, women still lag behind, earning $0.81 for every dollar a man earns.
So, clearly, if we look at the overall trends, things are looking up for women.
However, when one looks at the upper echelon leadership and management positions, within church organizations and across the board, the picture is not so
pretty. As Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, shares in this excellent video (which you should watch!), women still only represent 15-20% of top level management in both business and non-profit sectors. Sandberg theorizes that this is not because of lack of education or fewer initial opportunities, but is due in part to the fact that women are leaving the work force: sometimes by choice and sometimes due to circumstances.
Surprisingly, Sandberg notes that while a successful man is often seen as desirable and likeable, success is not always seen as positive for women. She cites a study which asked respondents to read a story about a successful manager. The stories were identical, but some of the respondents read about manager Howard, while others read about manager Heidi. Surprisingly, people responded much more positively to Howard, and were more willing to consider working for him than they were for Heidi.
This seems to suggest that for women, the path to leadership is not just a numbers game, or dependent on having mentors to help them along the way (although that can’t hurt!), but it is also a problem of perception: both women’s own perceptions of themselves and willingness to claim and name their own successes, as well as a broader problem in how the public at large thinks about successful women leaders.
In their book, Through the Labyrinth: The Truth About How Women Become Leaders, Alice Eagly and Linda Carli explore some of the reasons and attitudes that keep women from positions of leadership. Eagly and Carli note that people tend to associate women with “communal” virtues (interpersonally sensitive, relational, compassionate, helpful, friendly, etc.), whereas men are often associated with “agentic” traits (aggression, ambition, control, self-confidence, etc.). This becomes especially problematic when coupled with the fact that most people in the United States associate good leaders with stereotypically masculine traits. This places women in a double bind, which “. . . can place two sets of expectations in competition – those based on gender and those based on leadership.” Therefore, women risk being judged both for not conforming to appropriate gender roles and also for not exhibiting the skills that many see as necessary in order to be an effective leader. And, overall, people within the United States exhibit a strong preference for male leaders.
And then, coupled with all of this, there is the issue (and gift) of choice. Although much has been done to make it possible for women to remain in the work place full time (there have been across the board improvements in maternity leave, on-site childcare, broader cultural acceptance of shared parenting, etc. ), women don’t always choose to do so. As some of you commented on my initial post, many women have opportunities to lead which they turn down in order to spend more balanced time at home with their families. So perhaps women are not seeking out top tier management positions because they are not willing to make the type of sacrifices of time and energy that these positions have historically demanded.
But there does appear to be movement, even within top tier management, towards greater balance between work and home life. Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook recently publicly “came out” and admitted recently that she is diligent about leaving work at 5:30, in order to be home in time to share dinner with her kids and husband, a practice which she had previously feared sharing about because of possible repercussions at work.
So, what does all this tell us? In what ways do these descriptions match your experiences? As Christians, and perhaps specifically Mennonites, how should we view the quest for power and leadership roles? Do expectations about work and home life balance need to change for both men and women?