In the eighties, women flooded the male-dominated workplace and had to prove themselves man enough for the job. In order to succeed, they had to play the game and often felt they had to copy men’s behavior. Women even dressed the part with padded shoulders, pant suits, certain kind of haircut, a neck scarf. One woman told me that when she showed up in a dress at her Wall Street job, the receptionist sent her home to change into something more appropriate. Another woman told me a cohort of hers wore two bras so that her nipples wouldn’t show. All things feminine were taboo because all things feminine were associated with weakness, touchy-feely, and certainly not powerful.
Many women benefited and became very successful by adopting a male-approach to their work that is more linear, goal-oriented, and competitive. Personally, I love my masculine side as I know many women do. However, if women feel they have to limit and hide parts of themselves I call them Amazon women because, like the mythical Amazons of old who cut off their right breast to be better archers and warriors, these women often disconnected from their feminine side in order to be successful. Their mantra? Do it all, do it alone, and don’t ask questions. Many women who succeeded this way, at some point in their career, became disillusioned. Not surprising, since they couldn’t really embrace all aspects of themselves. They couldn’t be authentic.
I don’t disparage Amazon women, because this was a creative way to adapt to a domination-based culture. They identified with the dominator rather than the dominated. Also, these women often found themselves in a context where they were the only women at the table. It’s difficult to hold onto a different perspective when you stand alone. We knew back then that we needed more women in positions of power so that their perspective could be heard and valued.
Today, for the first time in peace-time recorded history, women outnumber men on the nation’s payroll, amounting 50.3 percent. And with it, an opportunity emerges for women to change the game and to actualize the power of feminine skills such as relational intelligence, big picture and long-term thinking, empathy, inclusion, and collaboration. From my experience as a coach and researcher, I know that if women are truly connected to their experience as wives, daughters, mothers, citizens, then they see decision-making, power, and leadership in a different way. I call this different leadership “feminine presence.”
We often don’t recognize feminine presence as a form of leadership because it doesn’t have any of the chest pounding, Lone Ranger, “Do as I say” qualities that we traditionally associate with leadership. Feminine presence doesn’t call attention to itself. Instead, it is a way of being that admits not knowing all the answers, but is intent on mastering whatever challenges present themselves, and invites others on the ride. Rather than “Follow me, I have the answer,” feminine presence sets ego aside and says, “Come with me, we can find the answer together” and taps into collective intelligence through collaboration. It is a way of transforming a vulnerability into collective power by evoking and celebrating what others do.
In addition to mastering skills together, feminine presence nurtures the one and the many by respecting the whole person, that they have a life outside the workplace; and recognizing the context in which people live and work. It includes the tree and the forest, the individual and the community, and all their intricate relationships.
It’s time we began to celebrate this different kind of leadership and recognize its effectiveness and the enormous skill and maturity it takes to lead this way. Now that there are more women in the workplace, women and like-minded men can support each other and cultivate a feminine presence that benefits everyone. Let’s shift the reward system and instead of focusing only on the stars, let’s acknowledge the connectors, the big picture thinkers, the empathizers, the collaborators. If not now, then when?
As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom.”
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