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I had the pleasure of spending this week with one of my favorite peer groups, the Truman Scholars Association. The Truman Scholarship is an award given to college juniors who are committed to careers in public service, and who have demonstrated “leadership” potential. It’s also an incredible network of passionate, hard working people whom I have a lot of respect for. So there we were at the TSA conference- JAG lawyers and Capitol Hill policy wonks and nonprofit leaders and social entrepreneurs, and young bucks like me- gathered downtown for discussions and speeches and panels, “leadership” a theme running through them all.

One of conference discussions that has been heavy on my brain was the Women in Leadership panel. In the beginning of this panel, there was a lot of discussion about representation. Why women are underrepresented in the top level of nearly every sector, what we could do about it, and all the wonderful differences having women in leadership can make. But towards the end of the discussion, variations of one question began to gurgle around the room: What then? What when we’re in the room, in the leadership positions, but nothing else changes so it still sucks? What when women make up half or even a majority of leaders in a field, but everyone is still compelled to operate under the same patriarchal codes of what “leadership” and “professionalism” mean?

One panelist, who works on Capitol Hill, conveyed the story of two different colleagues informing the office that they had to go home at a certain time to attend to their children. One colleague, a man, announced that he had to leave early so that he could drive his son (and the panelist noted, for the men it’s always their sons) to his Little League game. He was met with smiles and coos about wonderful and beautiful that was. Two weeks later, another colleague, this time a woman, told the table she would have to leave at 5:00 to pick up her child from daycare. The atmosphere in the room became steely; two other women at the table openly rolled their eyes and others whispered about professionalism.

And so I asked: What do we do when confronted with male supremacy in workplace cultures that narrowly confine the definitions of leadership and professionalism?  When “feminine” characteristics, behaviors, and responsibilities that any of we women happen to identify with or participate in, from speaking softly and having a gentle handshake to wearing floral prints and leaving that meeting  a wee bit early to bake cookies with our daughter’s Girl Scout troop, are deemed unprofessional, what do we do? When we are told we need to lower our voices an octave when giving a presentation in order to be taken seriously, what should be our response? Should we never mention our kids and drop down that octave out of self-preservation, or should we resist by boldly being our true “feminine” selves in the office and pointing out double standards about “professionalism”, whatever the consequences?

A speaker on the panel then offered some very valid push-back. She noted that the characteristics and behaviors I described as feminine were harmful generalizations, and asked “Are things like authoritative communication and firm handshakes really “masculine”? Aren’t they just components of good leadership that we should encourage in everyone?”

My answers to those questions are no, and no.

I think the first question is representing that like… it’s all bullshit, right? Gender roles are not real, except for that whole thing where We think they’re real and have socialized ourselves to make them real and organized our society so they actually matter a whole lot. I totally agree. For every type of professional characteristic, there are both women and men who possess it.

But some things have been associated with masculinity for some reason. And in a male supremacist society, whatever is associated with masculinity is better. And so in my opinion, because of this we just think that many of the characteristics and behaviors that are associated with masculinity represent better leadership. I offer you these insignificant but telling examples.

  1. The decibel level and forcefulness with which one speaks has nothing to do with the quality of their leadership and shouldn’t impact people’s perceptions of their leadership ability. Speaking softly and carefully and pausing for thought can have just as impact, sometimes even more, as speaking more loudly and decisively. In fact, some of the most moving and powerful leaders I know do just that. Have you ever heard bell hooks speak? She sounds like a church mouse. But if you actually listen to anything she is saying, ever? …wow. My friend Loren? She is one of the most phenomenal leaders I know, and she speaks lowly, calmly, and somberly. I actually hope that no one ever tries to “teach” her to speak some other way because her way is powerful. Or how about my Truman class’ very own Chelsea Takahashi? This young lady is quiet and as un-ostentatious as they come. But I value that, and I sure am glad her Truman Scholar selection committee valued that as well.

  2. Handshake grip is arbitrary. Let’s recognize that the valuation of “strong” handshakes in the professional world stems from the valuation of qualities associated with masculinity. What if we also valued other things as evidence that one will be a good employee or business partner or whatever? I love a good strong handshake upon meeting someone. I also love when people greet me by gently and lovingly sandwiching my hands between theirs. And hugs! What if I waved my magic wand and decided that from now on recruiters should judge candidates by how warm their hug is? (Hint: a lot of people, probably disproportionately male, would not get successfully recruited lol). All three of these forms of touch could be viewed as professional ways to start or seal an interaction or agreement. But they are not. Why? Male supremacy.

Anyway, the point is that there are a lot of perfectly valuable professional characteristics and leadership styles possessed by both men and women. But some of them have been deemed masculine and therefore more valuable, while some of them have been deemed feminine and therefore less so. So we should stop that nonsense! It hurts women who conform to patriarchal standards of leadership and professionalism because when they are too successful at it, they are “bitchy” and “cold.” It hurts women and men who don’t, many of whom are actually incredible leaders, because they are seen as weak and unprofessional.

This brings me back to my original question: what should we as women do when we find ourselves working under the reign of patriarchal office cultures?

I guess my answer is to do what you have to and do what you want. Keep your job. Meet your office’s expectations of professionalism. But if you are in the position to do so, push back. Another Truman Scholar in my class does this particularly smoothly. Last year when we were in DC for our Truman summer, she refused to wear suits. She insisted that nicely tailored structured sundresses with a jacket or cardigan counted as business attire as much as suits did, and regularly wore them to events, for example meeting Clarence Thomas at the Supreme Court, that we were told were “suit mandatory.” And if anyone asked her why, or if she needed help acquiring a suit, she politely informed them that suits, with their emphasis on broad shoulders and narrow hips, were designed specifically to accentuate masculinity (and therefore, in a male supremacist society, “power”) in bodies, and that colorful dresses and skirts are her business professional attire. Additionally, make an effort to value the whole spectrum of leadership styles. The loud, the quiet, the out front, the behind scenes, the authoritative, the communal, the firm, and the gentle. If for no one else, do it for the men with squeaky voices😉