Women in Leadership: Success, Likeability and Staying Power

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

Virginia Rometty, First female CEO of IBM

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?



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4 responses to “Women in Leadership: Success, Likeability and Staying Power

  1. This is old school feminism–the kind of feminism that I find to be a crippling of Woman.

    There are different kinds of leadership, different styles of influence. Feminism is NOT a numbers game; for too long it was all about how many women were CEOs and earning top dollar.

    If you are a woman and you want that, great. But there are many women who find satisfaction in other roles. We need to stop acting like being a nurse is Less Than being a doctor. We need to stop saying that one can only lead from the top. Rudders are generally in the stern, not the prow.

    I get tetchy when I see feminist goals presented as you’ve done here. Because they hew to a patriarchal definition of leadership, and reinforce those outmoded value systems.

    One of the greatest aspects of Mennonism in my mind is that we are not Respectors Of Persons. We do not value a rich man more highly than a homeless man, nor do we value a CEO more highly than an assistant. I bring that perspective to feminism as well. It is a perspective that says you are valued because you are a child of the I AM. No other bells, whistles, titles or salaries are necessary.

  2. Hannah Heinzekehr

    Katherine – Thanks for your reply. I knew this one might be a little bit more controversial. And I agree: to be Mennonite does mean that we value servant leadership at all levels, and I certainly believe (as I’ve written about in several previous posts) that stay at home parenting and other “historic women’s positions” need to be valued just as highly as corporate leadership jobs. And that leadership can happen at all levels and is certainly not tied to a salary. But I don’t think that this means that we should stop working to make it possible for women who hold gifts in administration to have access to positions that allow them to use their gifts. This is not a choice ever woman wants to make. I respect that. But it should be an option. Just like it should be an option for a man to be a nurse or a stay at home parent without it seeming odd.

    I also don’t believe that there are stereotypically key female or male leadership styles, but I do believe that we are sociaized by our culture to think that there are appropriate ways that we should behave in leadership roles. As Judith Butler would say, we get taught how to perform these genders, becuase of the ways that we get responded to. I know that, as someone who can have a tendency to be a bit of a blunt, more assertive leader, I have at times felt myself being responded to in very different ways than my male peers were (even at the same level). This is not because our leadership styles are different, but because people have been socialized to respond to those things differently coming from a woman. I believe this still happens.

    That’s why I appreciated Sandberg making the link to sacrifice: if you decide, as a woman, that you ARE called to pursue higher leadership (maybe in a non-profit field, maybe in corporate America-if you figure out how that fits your Menno identity, and maybe in the church), then you might need to be prepared to give up the pursuit of likeability, at least among some people. For me, this isn’t about different styles or talking about how different men and women are (I know the Eagly and Carli book does trend that way), but it’s an issue of access.

  3. Angelina Duell

    Interesting post, Hannah. As you know, I am currently working two jobs (one at a museum home, the other as coordinator of the middle school ministry at my church) and in both situations the women employees outnumber the men, and it is the women who are the positions with the most authority/power. In the latter, where there was one man on staff, I have found that when we would set up for our evening sessions with the youth I would fall into the role of doing the work of setup, while he would greet the youth, etc (even though in a hierarchical structure that should be my role). He once commented on me doing “Martha work” and I wanted to smack him. But I also realized that I had fallen into the role of doing set up (chairs, tables, etc), because I didn’t perceive him as having the skills to take care of these things for himself. Which leads to all kinds of questions about the perceptions of gender/leadership….just thought it would be worth adding to the discussion.

    • Hannah Heinzekehr

      Angelina – Sorry I missed this response earlier. I think what you have described is a fairly common dynamic. With myself, I notice that I often end up taking care of “hospitality tasks” a lot too, even when I am leading a meeting or an event, partly because I think these things are crucial in order to help a meeting run smoothly. But I have noticed that many of my co-workers don’t necessarily feel those same compunctions. In this case, I think we could use an expanded definition of leadership, that would encourage everyone to see hospitality as an important ministry function.

      But you are right to ask questions about how these behaviors currently lead us to be perceived, etc. Thanks for throwing these thoughts out there!

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