This should be a great season for women’s leadership: for the first time in history, a woman is a major party’s nominee for the US presidency. And yet, for every time I see my daughter’s eyes shine with possibility as she witnesses Hillary on the campaign trail, I have also experienced a moment of despair, as I wonder what lessons about women’s leadership she is internalizing.
The public discourse about women’s leadership advancement is not particularly encouraging. Though it’s been more than 50 years since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination on the basis of sex, we are far from achieving leadership parity. Women comprise half the workplace but hold only 18% of top leadership positions across all sectors. Women make up 20% of Congress, hold 17% of board seats in Fortune 500 companies, and under 5% of CEO positions. We earn 78 cents on the male dollar. And those are just the stats. Women’s leadership is undermined daily in the social responses to women exercising their power. When we speak up, we’re seen as aggressive and shrill. When we play nice, we’re passed over for promotions. Rather than prove that we’re qualified, our credentials are often held against us. There are so many daily examples of these dynamics in this campaign season that I don’t even know where to begin.
There is no lack of theories about the obstacles to women’s leadership: they are structural (sexism); they are internal (lack of confidence; the failure to “lean in”); they are social (the old boys’ network). They are, of course, all of the above. So what are we to do?
As the executive director of the Jewish Women’s Archive — a national non-profit organization devoted to sharing the stories and elevating the voices of Jewish women— I spend a lot of time thinking about women’s leadership. After all, as the head of a feminist organization, it’s not just my job to be a leader, it’s also my job to encourage other women to step into their leadership. My own leadership journey was meandering, marked by surges of ambition, ambivalence and fear. I didn’t hear enough of women’s leadership stories to find one with which I could identify and take guidance. Though determined to achieve, I frequently lost my footing as I embarked on the rocky path of modern working family life.
Despite the dangers of scaring off women, I believe that we best serve the cause of women’s leadership when we are transparent about its challenges and pleasures. We need to make explicit the non-linear process of becoming a leader day by day, week by week, year by year. As my math teacher used to say, we need to show our work. It’s the only way to learn.
As a historian, I’ve taken guidance from so many women who broke ground in the past century. From Congresswoman Bella Abzug, famous for her bold hats and bolder politics, I learned that it can be effective to telegraph instead of hide your differences. She took risks — on her first day of Congress demanding a date for withdrawal from Vietnam, and later giving up her seat for an unsuccessful Senate bid — but never let failure stop her. From labor activist Pauline Newman, who in 1907 at age 16 led the largest rent strike in New York City, I learned the power of harnessing the skills and networks of your friends, even if they are traditionally disenfranchised. Newman worked for more than 70 years as one of the only women in the male-dominated leadership of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, so she created an alternative family of women activists, including her partner, Frieda Miller, with whom she raised a daughter. From comedian Gilda Radner, I learned that it can be powerful to embrace one’s vulnerability. Her insistence that she could be funny and beautiful reminds me that we can resist society’s tendency to limit women to supposedly mutually exclusive categories. And Gloria Steinem has taught me that mentorship is a two-way street, and we can learn from people of all generations.
Perhaps most importantly, each of these women was willing to share honestly about her frustrations, setbacks and sources of strength. If they hadn’t, I wouldn’t know their powerful stories. And those stories provide an important counterpoint to the usual media headlines, which often distract from the real, day-to-day process of leadership.
What if we allowed the chinks in our leadership armor to show? And what if the media enabled honest conversation about leadership that didn’t threaten to undermine women’s authority? Though we might risk losing credibility if we articulated the two-steps-forward-one-step-back nature of learning how to lead, I believe we gain something equally powerful: authenticity. It’s messy, to be sure, but ultimately productive. By sharing our own stories, we can help others overcome their own insecurities and learn from our mistakes and successes. I appreciate that, despite the limitations of what’s possible on the campaign trail, Hillary has begun to give voice to the evolution of her leadership, including the bumps along the way.
I don’t know exactly what my daughter is learning from Hillary’s campaign and its reception, and she – at age nine – probably doesn’t yet, either. But I do know that she’s perceptive enough to recognize that the slogans and stump speeches don’t fully describe the dynamics at play. Rather than make her guess what’s going on beneath the surface, I hope that she will come of age in an environment in which authenticity is valued over image. We’re far from that reality, but we can move in that direction by giving voice to our own experiences and journeys.
Judith Rosenbaum, PhD, is executive director of the Jewish Women’s Archive.