I was honored to have Dr. Susan Howell on my podcast this week and we had a stimulating conversation about gender bias. Take a listen [click here]. Dr. Howell is a psychology professor, speaker, and author of the book Buried Talents: Overcoming Gendered Socialization to Answer God’s Call. Our conversation shed some light on an area that I’m passionate about: gender equality.
I was born in the 70s, and growing up, I was told there were so many things I couldn’t do. I grew up in a church community where women weren’t welcomed into leadership positions. I also heard how I didn’t measure up in sports from coaches who ridiculed me. The cumulative message was overt: Women don’t lead. Fortunately, it is my personality to respond with feistiness. For my formative years, my internal monologue repeated, “I’ll show them.”
I’m reminded of the line from Little Women, when Jo explains why women should have the right to vote, is told “You should have been a lawyer” and she responds, “I should have been a great many things.”
When a person has been excluded, they can become sensitive to hearing messages that say “You can’t do this.” For me, I became convicted to never do this to others and to fight against these kinds of marginalization.
I wish I could say that in the year 2023, we don’t have to contend with these kinds of gender biases, but that isn’t true. The biases may have grown more subtle, but they still exist. The question is: Are we buying into them? Do we believe we aren’t qualified to speak, to lead, to influence the world?
I’m grateful for authors like Sheryl Sandberg who, in her book Lean In, discusses the overt behavior in corporate America that blocks women from advancing. She and others are opening the doorway to talk about inequality in the workplace in a safe way. I’m surprised by the number of female executives I see as clients who reveal the glass ceiling is still alive and well in their companies.
Men and women lead differently, neither is better than the other, but are born of our natural tendencies. Men leaders tend to speak with confidence and certainty whereas women leaders often take a more communal approach. These are broad strokes not meant to pigeonhole but to make a point. I coach clients – whether male or female – to not take the either/or approach. As leaders, we get the option to be strong and sensitive. Fair warning, you’ll need to fight to not let others pull these two things apart.
Don’t mistake my strong presence for being insensitive or unkind. I’ll always try to hold both. I won’t apologize for being assertive, nor for having the sensitivity to remember that people desire to be heard, respected, and cared for.
I write about this extensively in The Life You’re Made For, in the chapter titled “Holding Tensions.” People have an idea in their head that a good leader is strong and confident, even if that means they don’t tend to listen well or slow down enough to hear others. But what if “good leadership” looks like being confident and authentically kind? Those who model this have the responsibility to market and brand this new approach to leadership because it doesn’t fit the current mold.
Here’s what I tell clients. Lead with strength and sensitivity. Your team may be surprised … and that’s okay. Don’t shrink back, don’t let their discomfort change your flight path. Remain and hold the tension. It won’t be long before your authenticity is recognized and your team will grow to love that about you.
I want to also encourage business and church leaders to train the next generation to walk in authentic leadership. Be the boss who can hold the reins between nurturing and correction. This is what great leadership looks like.
Ultimately, we are all human beings trying to figure out what we’re made to do and we will always encounter opposition – whether it is over our gender or something else. But none of it gets to keep us stuck. Don’t give the adversary your attention. Don’t look back, keep moving, and remain committed to finding the unique life and style of leadership that is authentic to you.