When women lead … between a rock and a hard place

By Jane Whitfield

We’ve seen it happen again and again. A woman speaks up and she’s ignored or labeled as too aggressive. When a man says virtually the exact same thing, he is appreciated for contributing to the conversation. If you think this has changed over the past decades, perhaps you are mistaken. It is the sad truth that women are still routinely subjected to levels of personal and professional scrutiny that most men will never endure.

Our society may just not like a woman who acts like a boss – even if she is one. Research has found that women experience repercussions when they act assertively at work and are more likely to be called emotional, abrasive and aggressive. Conversely, male executives enjoy positive acknowledgement when they take charge. In fact, studies shows that men and women are equally capable of successfully completing the same task, but if  both act assertively, women are rated less effective than their male counterparts. Additionally, men and women can achieve the same results, yet men are seen as more successful despite the same outcome.   

No one feels this pressure more than working mothers. Award-winning journalist, author and lecturer, Flint Hill resident Ann Crittenden thinks that women have generally broken through some barriers and are seen as capable leaders.  But that when it comes to motherhood and leadership, she explains, “Mothers are where women hit the wall.”

In her words, “One of the biggest obstacles is the question of divided loyalties. I think we have this, in whatever the corporate culture; there is this conviction in almost all organizations, that loyalty should be to the organization. Fully, totally, and first and foremost. And there is always the sense that a mother, as opposed to a father, has divided loyalties. That her loyalty is going to be to her kid. And from that I think follows a lot of obstacles to taking women leaders seriously.”

Many in our society believe that the characteristics of a good leader are considered to be the opposite characteristics of a good mother. Women find themselves being asked to choose between the two, each one having considerable consequences. Am I a bad mother, but a good leader? Or am I a good mother, but a bad leader? I know this paradox all too well, having been an executive for most of my career and mother to three children.  

Women are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Given that women are more than half of our population and nearing 50 percent of our workforce, presenting this type of false choice benefits no one. We all lose when the contributions of women are undervalued.

Women, and especially mothers, who pursue positions of leadership are often faced with challenges unlike what men experience. Let’s keep this in mind next time we are tempted to criticize a woman’s success.  Let’s make an extra effort each day to applaud the strong women we see and encourage our daughters to rise to positions of power and change the world.

Jane Whitfield is president and chief executive of Whitfield Consulting Group, a leadership consulting firm serving the corporate, philanthropic, and nonprofit community. She was formerly President & CEO of the PenFed Foundation, a national nonprofit serving veteran and military families. She lives with her husband Sal Abbate and their dog Wesley in Amissville.

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