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Posts Tagged ‘Elizabeth Lesser’

Did you catch Bill Keller’s piece in the New York Times yesterday? Called “Just the ticket,” it’s a pretty compelling case for replacing Joe Biden with Hillary Clinton for second-to-the-top job when this year’s presidential election rolls around. Now, we love Biden’s faux pas and f-bombs as much as anyone, but–hello!–how could we not jump on this bandwagon? So, without further ado, here’s our top 5 reasons why we’d love to see a Clinton-Obama—I mean, Obama-Clinton—ticket.

5. She’s ambitious. And she owns it. She wasn’t content to wrap up her time as first lady and demurely step aside. In a ballsy move, she ran for NY Senator. In a ballsier one, she ran for president–and nearly nabbed the nom. When so many of us feel our ambition is something shameful, something we should apologize for or even deny, Hillary puts it front and center. She’s taken her lumps for it, but ultimately, she’s proven that a woman can be both ambitious and liked. Which brings me to number 4.

4. We like her. I mean, we really like her. According to Gallup (by way of Keller):

Hillary is the most admired woman in America for the 10th year in a row, laps ahead of, in order, Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama, Sarah Palin and Condeleezza Rice; her approval rating of 64 percent is the highest of any political figure in the country.

An ambitious woman is something to be admired?! I mean, the whole George Washington/cherry tree thing is cute and everything, but how’s that–ambition and likability are not mutually exclusive–for a lesson in the history books?

3. She’s strong enough to cry. Almost four years ago exactly, during a campaign stop in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Clinton became emotional when answering a question from an audience member about how she’s able to deal with the madness of a presidential campaign–and it was in her answer, when speaking of how much she cares about the country, that she got choked up. Again, she took flak for it, but there’s another, monstrously important message in this for the rest of us: tears are not a sign of weakness. They’re often, as Elizabeth Lesser has told us, a sign that our heart is truly engaged. I personally know that to be the case for me, and I love to imagine what the world–not to mention the freaking workplace!–would be like if everyone understood that. Being emotionally invested is a strength; Clinton understands that. And yet…

2. She’s not afraid to laugh at herself. At one of the most humbling moments in her career–when she bowed out of the race and gave her support to Obama–the type of moment when some, um, lesser people might be reduced to temper tantrum (You’re not gonna have Richard Nixon to kick around no more! anyone?), she was strong enough to crack a joke–and not just any joke–one that poked fun at herself: thanking her supporters, whom she referred to collectively as the sisterhood of the traveling pantsuits.

1. She is the total package. She has the skills and the experience, the–as Keller puts it–E.Q. as well as the I.Q. She’s already made enough of a mark that when someone describes something as Clintonian, it’s as likely they’re referring to her as it is her husband, who is, you know, a former president. She handled herself impossibly well during one of the most impossible (and public!) humiliations imaginable–and, rather than opt for obscurity, held her head high and soldiered on, right into one of the most visible positions in the world. And what a tenure: as Secretary of State, she’s smoothly handled her share of dramatic world events. As Keller writes:

She would bring to this year’s campaign a missing warmth and some of the voltage that has dissipated as Obama moved from campaigning to governing. What excites is not just the prospect of having a woman a heartbeat–and four years–away from the presidency, although she certainly embodies the aspirations of many women. It’s the possibility that the first woman at the top would have qualifications so manifest that her first-ness was a secondary consideration.

And what a first that would be.

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What’s the Occupy Wall Street movement–an ongoing, multi-city protest against corporate greed, cronyism and inequity–got to do with gender politics, you ask? I say: everything.

The movement’s rallying cry is this: We are the 99%. As in, 1% of the population holds the bulk of the wealth and the power in this country, leaving 99% of us struggling to find enough of either to survive.

How did that happen? A case can be made that this inequity is a result of a totally lopsided definition of power, and a completely unbalanced way in which it is valued and exerted in the world. In a world where, for centuries, men have held the bulk of the power and built the very structures of this society unchecked, it’s not difficult to see how we’ve arrived at this point: what we’re seeing is the result of an overvaluation of the masculine strengths–machismo run a-freaking-mok.

As Dr. Judy Rosener told us, there are significant–and proven–differences in the ways men and women operate when they find themselves in a position of power. (Yes, we know, we’re not supposed to say that out loud! After all, if we’re different, one must be better, and one must be…worse, right?) Chief among them:

Women view power as a means to an end to do something; men view power as an end unto itself. Women negotiate in a win-win manner; men negotiate in a win-lose manner.

In fact, the very definition of what it means to have power is a paradigm that’s now, I’d argue, ripe for a serious shift; one that integrates more of the Feminine aspect into the way that power is wielded in the world. When the word power is understood to mean “Power Over,” all but the most powerful are left to find an unempowered place within the system. Whereas another idea–“Power With”–might emphasize collaboration and the empowerment of others, a system that can foster a real sense of ownership and caring.

We dug deeply into this subject in our book, and the more we learned, the more we became convinced. There’s science to back up gender differences in behavior–and there’s statistics to show what happens in corporations where women are included in the highest ranks, the benefits that are reflected in the bottom line.

For example, did you know that, according to Catalyst, companies with significant numbers of women in management have a much higher return on investment? Or that when work teams are equally split between men and women, they are more productive?

Additionally, women are far more willing to go out on a limb and act as the conscience of their organizations. Yes, it’s long been believed that men are the natural born risk-takers, but according to Dr. Rosener, it depends what kind of risk we’re talking about. The kind of risk that one takes with the encouragement of an audience (think Deal or No Deal… or shortsighted shareholders) is the kind at which men tend to excel. The other, which Rosener calls “moral risk,” is the kind that one takes in spite of the audience’s disapproval. And this is the kind at which women excel.

The thing is, historically, women haven’t had much power or position in corporate America. Only a generation ago were want-ads segregated by gender. So it’s no surprise that, as Elizabeth Lesser, author and founder of the Omega Institute, told us:

The feminine has been left out of what we consider to be the most important way of exerting power in the world [and] it’s not thriving in many women, and it’s not thriving in men.

Nor is it thriving in the structures and institutions built by men.

Of course in the opening salvos of women’s migration into the workforce our strategy was to blend in: We were afraid (and rightly so) that if we came at an issue differently, we’d be seen as weak–or worse, tossed out of the boardroom completely. There was a time for blending in. But we’ve shown we can play their game. The time has come to change the rules.

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Be authentic. What does that even mean, anyway? Not a whole hell of a lot, according to Stephanie Rosenbloom in this Sunday’s New York Times. The word, she says, has been watered down to the point of meaninglessness, like so many white wine spritzers. Everyone from Anderson Cooper to Sarah Ferguson to Katie Couric to Michelle Bachmann to the Pope have claimed the descriptor, generally while in the service of selling themselves. (Sales. What’s more inauthentic than that?)

And, as Rosenbloom’s piece points out and as we’ve written before, we’re complicit in this faux-thenticity, too. Think about your Facebook profile–and now imagine what it would look like if it were truly authentic. Take mine, for example: instead of that cute profile pic of me smiling broadly in New Orleans alongside a status update alluding to a highbrow day of writing, my pic might show me sitting at my computer, in the chair I’ve spent so much time in, I’ve literally worn the finish off of it. And if I were to be authentic about it, today’s status update–rather than being glamorous, pithy, or intelligent–might read: Unshowered. Writer’s block. Dining on a spoonful of peanut butter. Had I documented my status last night, I would have seemed the epitome of uncool, when my neighbor’s band practice inspired not my admiration of his creativity or his nascent musical skills, but a lengthy debate on whether or not to call the cops. (I didn’t. Score another one for inauthenticity. They were more terrible than they were loud–and they were window-rattlingly loud.)

Writing in the New York Times Magazine, Peggy Orenstein once confessed that, while spending some glorious time with her little girl listening to E.B. White reading Trumpet of the Swan, a nasty thought intruded: How will I tweet this? She admits that the tweet she decided on (“Listening to E.B. White’s Trumpet of the Swan with Daisy. Slow and sweet.”) was “not really about my own impressions. It was about how I imagined—and wanted—others to react to them.”

Marketing folks might say we’re branding ourselves in our profile pictures, our status updates, our tweets. We say that maybe we’re feeding the iconic self, the self-image we’ve constructed, which, in ways big and small, is the face of our great expectations. (She’s kind of a tyrant, too.) So why do we do it? Are we so desperate for approval that we’d rather pretend to be someone else than our, ahem, authentic self? Women, after all, are raised to be pleasers. Do we feel guilty about veering off the pre-approved path? Where did we become convinced that the faux is any more acceptable than the real? And why, oh why, do we so readily buy into the idea that the images everyone else is presenting are any more real than our own?

Why is it so hard to embrace the idea that, as Wavy Gravy–he of LSD and ice cream fame–put it, we’re all just bozos on the bus, so we might as well sit back and enjoy the ride?

…which is well and good in theory, but who wants to admit to being a bozo? We have images to uphold! And whatever your role, the performance is remarkably similar. Someone asks how you’re doing; you say fine. You ask her; she says fine. Fine, then! We worry what other people think (though we’d never admit it), and, of course, we want to be happy, confident, competent, and successful. So we pretend we are. And, compounding the issue is the fact that the happy, confident, competent, successful self is the self everyone else shows to us, too, which compels us to keep our dirty little secret under even deeper wraps. If she (and she and she) has it together, what the hell is the matter with me??

It’s the open secret Rumi wrote about (and to which Elizabeth Lesser makes beautiful reference here), yet, centuries later, we still feel compelled to keep. And that’s understandable. Who wants to admit to being afraid, uncertain, overwhelmed, clumsy, neurotic, or prone to saying the wrong thing? The thing is, though, all of those things are part of the human condition–and those things and the good things aren’t mutually exclusive. And so why should claiming them be a negative? On the contrary: I think there’s a promise of something pretty awesome that comes when we’re able to own it all. The sky doesn’t fall, but, like the curtain hiding the Wizard of Oz, the blinders do.

And then what might we see? Well, for one thing, maybe a willingness to own our complex, dualistic, not always delightful but utterly human nature can make our choices a little bit clearer. With no one to impress, no images to uphold, we’ve got a lot less to factor in. There’s a freedom there. And power, too: because when we are willing to come out of the I’m Fine! closet, maybe our friends will join us. And that, I’d bet, would make for one hell of a party.

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So says Carina Chocano, anyway, in Sunday’s New York Times: enough with the “strong female characters,” she writes, give ‘em to us weak.

Strangely, I think she has a point.

And while I take issue with her choice of words, I think there’s a lesson in here for those of us in real life, too. Where Hollywood offers us “strong female characters” who, as Chocano suggests, are “tough, cold, terse, taciturn and prone to scowling and not saying goodbye when they hang up the phone”–showing us that “in order for a female character to be worth identifying with, she should really try to rein in all that gross girly stuff”–real life offers women a similar unspoken message.

When women first entered the workplace, our strategy was pretty simple: if you want to be accepted, abide by one single, golden rule–blend in! We aimed not only to play like the boys, but to look like them, too (one word: shoulderpads). To this day, countless career guides instruct women never to cry at the office, and to keep those pictures of the kids out of sight, lest you be seen as less than serious. Emotional. Womanly.

Notice I didn’t use the word “weak.”

Speaking of that, here’s a little more from Chocano:

‘Strength,’ in the parlance, is the 21st-century equivalent of ‘virtue.’ And what we think of as ‘virtuous,’ or culturally sanctioned, socially acceptable behavior now, in women as in men, is the ability to play down qualities that have been traditionally considered feminine, and play up the qualities that have traditionally been considered masculine. ‘Strong female characters,’ in other words, are often just female characters with the gendered behavior taken out. This makes me think that the problem is not that there aren’t enough ‘strong’ female characters in the movies–it’s that there aren’t enough realistically weak ones.

But what if those qualities that have been traditionally considered feminine weren’t weak at all? What if they were just a different kind of strength–a form of strength that the culture has conditioned us to see as weakness, when it hasn’t managed to condition it right out of us?

Sounds outrageous, huh? Little wonder, said author/speaker/Omega Institute cofounder Elizabeth Lesser, when we spoke with her while researching our book: over the course of human history, the feminine aspect, in a Jungian sense, “has been left out of what we consider to be the most important way of exerting power in the world, [and] it’s not thriving in many women, and it’s not thriving in men.”

Then she brought up something really interesting: In a meeting, when someone cries, it’s perceived as a sign of weakness. But when someone yells or bullies or gets angry… well, not so much. But really, the responses represent two sides of the same coin: the feminine and masculine reactions to feeling diminished, or attacked, or frustrated… and neither is especially productive. One just happens to be The Way Things Are Done Around Here. Unsurprising, when you consider who’s been building and populating those boardrooms for the bulk of their history. And given that de facto culture, it’s really no wonder that so many women feel forced to squash parts of themselves.

Granted, it can feel like we’re still a long ways off–like the women who play like the boys, the “strong female characters” are the ones who are getting ahead. We talked about it during our conversation, and Lesser offered a pleasantly positive spin. “They’re more viable, at this stage of evolution, toward a more feminine structure of leadership and power… Social evolution happens in stages, and it’s always a lot slower than the people on the edge would like it to be, so I think that these are the least scary women within the paradigm of patriarchal leadership. The women [who] are truly in touch with their feminine–the women who are courageously speaking from an authentic voice, as opposed to trying to be like one of the boys–that’s going to take a little longer, but I still think it’s a really good step.”

And, you know, any big journey begins with a single step.

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So, as you may or may not have gathered, Undecided loves us some Elizabeth Lesser. She’s an author and co-founder of the Omega Institute and the Women and Power Conference, and I had the pleasure of interviewing her for the book. We had a fantastic conversation about one of my favorite subjects: my belief that women and men are different–and that our differences might in fact be our strengths. Simple though it may sound, it’s a tremendously controversial topic, because for a long time, the belief (or maybe just the fear) was that, if you said women and men are different, then you were, by extension, saying one or the other is better. That’s not what I think, and that’s not what Elizabeth Lesser thinks, either. And I think what she had to say about it all makes for one of the book’s highlights.

She’s wise and she’s funny, and so I thought I’d share this clip I recently came across of a TEDTalk she gave. It’s called “Take the other to lunch,” and it’s about opening up yourself to other people (even Republicans). And I think there’s a pretty solid lesson within about self-acceptance, too. Because if we can calmly allow other people to just be who they are, no matter how it might not fit with our own ideas, maybe we can allow for that same kind of nuance within ourselves.

Check it out:

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You can just imagine my glee when I flipped through this week’s Newsweek to find an essay headlined “Who You Callin’ A Lady?. The deck read “The soft bigotry of high expectations.”

Holy jumpin’ Undecided, Batman! Isn’t this what we’ve been talking about in this space for months?

Enter the buzzkill. I realized that the essay, written by Kathleen Deveny, was just one more knee-jerk apologia for University of New Mexico soccer player Elizabeth Lambert’s reprehensible behavior in a game against BYU.

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last month, you know that Lambert was suspended from her team for what might generously be called dirty playing (check the ESPN video below): She tripped players. She threw punches. She took players out with no ball in sight. Ugliest of all, she threw an opponent to the ground by yanking her by the ponytail and snapping her head back.

Let me back up. Both my daughters played soccer, at various levels. They attended a high school where women’s soccer was a feeder for top level university programs across the country. For years, members of the women’s soccer team at the university where I teach have made their way onto the rosters of the national team and the Olympic team. I’ve never played in a soccer game, but I’ve watched probably hundreds of them: Lambert goes way beyond dirty. Don’t want to take my word for it? Listen to former Olympian Julie Foudy.

Which is why I am so dismayed to see Lambert thrown up as a feminist icon, with her behavior a symbol of how society’s high expectations for women hold them back. The issue is real, but when you use Lambert as the poster girl, well, suddenly, the argument starts to disintegrate.

In fairness, Deveny makes some good points. When she gets past comparing Lambert’s suspension — and the media storm that surrounded it — to the reinstatement of football player Michael Vick, she gets onto less shaky ground:

The difference is that we expect bad behavior from men—on the field and off. (In some ways, men justify our low opinion of them: they are 10 times more likely to murder, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.) But we expect better from women. We didn’t fight this hard to be involved in organized sports just so we could act like a bunch of dumb jocks, right? We want women to be honest, compassionate, and nice—you know, like our moms.

So what’s the harm in expecting the fairer sex to play fairer? It’s what George W. Bush might call the soft bigotry of high expectations. If we insist on holding women and girls to higher standards than men, we set them up to disappoint us. It makes me worry about my 9-year-old daughter, and not because I hope she will someday pull hair with the best of them. I think she is sometimes held to stricter behavior standards than her boys-will-be-boys classmates. Those higher expectations follow us onto the job, where women are allegedly not only better behaved and more honest but cheaper—you only have to pay us 80 cents on the dollar! So why aren’t we represented at the highest levels of business? One problem is that women aren’t supposed to be aggressive or self-promoting—that’s nasty male behavior—even though it’s often rewarded. And yet if professional women are too nice and cuddly, they don’t seem decisive or tough enough to be leaders. “The ‘women are wonderful’ effect does have a terrible downside,” says Alice H. Eagly, a psychology professor and coauthor of Through the Labyrinth: The Truth About How Women Become Leaders. “If you’re too nice, you’re seen as not really appropriate for high-level positions.”

Good points. (Except that bit about Mom. Since when is Mom a synonym for soft?) But maybe we need to start thinking beyond her message. If it is true that women are held to different, and higher standards, maybe it’s not the expectations that do us in, but rather the institutional structures that support them. Playing like the boys for the past several decades really hasn’t gotten us that far. Could it be that what needs to be changed are the structures — not the women?

A few months ago, in a post on the differences between men and women and how we need to embrace them, Shannon quoted a speech by Omega Women’s Institute founder, Elizabeth Lesser:

We’ve had centuries of power and leadership where men have been at the helm. There’s some real serious gaps in representation in the world. And also the world’s in trouble. What would happen if women became empowered and could lead from their core basic values? Not just let’s put women into a structure that is about up-down power, like I have power over you. But what if women could actually influence the way power was wielded in the world, from a core feminine place. … The conversation we need to have now is no longer about women assuming positions of leadership within the existing power structure, it’s about the power structures themselves, it’s about how to go about assuming power, how to change the structures.

Which is why this whole l’affaire Lambert has me so dismayed. It’s not that she was castigated for playing like the boys — it’s that she was playing like the very worst of them.

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The other day, one of our Twitter followers sent me a link, with a “What do you think?”-type note. (Using 140 characters or less, natch.) A click landed me on Harvard Business’ blog, and a post entitled “Why Are Women So Unhappy At Work?” The piece (written by a man–just for the record) quotes the findings from an earlier post by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, the founding president of the Center for Work-Life Policy. In that post, entitled “Are Your Best Female Employees a Flight Risk?” Hewlett writes:

We found that in the wake of last year’s financial crash, high-powered women were more than twice as likely as men–84% compared with 40%–to be seriously thinking jumping ship. And when the head and the heart are out the door, the rest of the body is sure to follow.

Hewlett goes on to cite examples of what various companies are doing in order to keep their ladies on board. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t long before the subject of passion came up:

Intel created workshops aimed squarely at retaining one of its most at-risk populations: mid-level female engineers. Exit interviews revealed that many of these talented technologists were leaving not to spend time with their family but because they no longer felt challenged by or passionate about their work. In the 21st century, talented people of both sexes often feel stymied by a traditional vertical career path that follows a straight line up a narrow ladder. Rather, they’re interested in and open to lateral moves and a variety of “work style” options, such as flex schedules and telecommuting, as long as these options are intellectually and professionally challenging and/or satisfy personal obligations.

That’s surely a part of it. Now, consider this, from Russell Bishop, via the Huffington Post, still rumbling with riffs on the Paradox of Declining Women’s Happiness study:

The implication seems to be that if you were to gain more in terms of physical world success you would naturally become happier… My theory is that over the past 40 years, as American society exited the “Father Knows Best” or “Leave it to Beaver” mentality of the 50s and 60s, we seem to have increasingly equated success and fulfillment with jobs, career advancement, position title, bank accounts, and other symbols of success. If you were one of those statistical women who took on job, career, or economic goals as your “symbols” of success, you just might have wound up sacrificing what mattered most in hopes of greener pastures at the eother end of job, career or economic goals. What if you won the race to the top: a better job, increased paycheck, more “toys” than the boys? Did you bargain for all that comes with it? Did you anticipate the sacrifices you would have to make to get there? How are those trades looking now?

An interesting take. Going back to the original post, the one our Twitter friend sent, author Sean Silverthorne writes:

Unfortunately, Hewlett doesn’t answer my burning question: Why are women more likely than men to consider jumping ship? Certainly there are career opportunity questions. If women believe they don’t have as good a chance as their male colleagues of advancing, of course they should be considering options. But a 2x factor suggests something much more deep seeded. Something about the nature of work in the modern company.

His post earned a slew of responses, citing reasons for our wandering eyes ranging from discrimination from the good old boys’ clubbers, to a need for more corporate support for work/life balance, to female “dogs in power that insist on running a place like a sorority.” No woman wants to take part in the proverbial workplace pissing contests–and even if she did, she’s not properly equipped. But this comment really made me think:

I also think there’s a fundamentally different paradigm that can exist in female-oriented workplaces and it takes us away from the whole aggressive, money and progress-oriented approach to work–it is collaborative, nurturing, fun approach which while achieving goals and earning a living isn’t centered or structured the same way–it’s like a circle not a hierarchy and goes to the heart of our culture.

Lest you think that sounds a little too kumbaya to actually work, consider these points, enumerated by Hewlett:

  • Research demonstrates that companies with significant numbers of women in management have a much higher return on investment
  • A study has shown that when work teams are split 50-50 between men and women, productivity goes up. Gender balance, the research posits, counters ‘groupthink’–the tendency of homogenous groups to staunchly defend wrong-headed ideas because everyone in the group thinks the same way
  • Another study–out of France–showed that firms in the CAC 40 (the French euivalent of the Dow Jones) with a high ration of women in top management showed better resistance to the financial crisis. The fewer female managers a company has, the greater drop in its share price since January 2008.

So, clearly it behooves everyone to keep women engaged, in the game. But if a whopping 84% of us are thinking exit strategy, what’s the answer?

I kind of think they all touched on a part of it: Hewlett pointed out the need for passion and challenge at work; Bishop noted the inevitable let-down that comes from chasing–and then catching–material things; and Silverthorne offered a tease, earning comments that allude to something deeper, something about the very way in which workplace structures are organized, a la Elizabeth Lesser’s suggestion I first wrote about here:

The conversation we need to have now is no longer about women assuming positions of leadership within the existing power structure, it’s about the power structures themselves, it’s about how to go about assuming power, how to change the structures.

But in order to change them, we’ve got to stick around.

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