Is 2012 the Breakthrough Moment f or Women Leaders?

After a week in which women debated Anne-Marie Slaughter’s contention about Why Women Still Can’t Have It All, a wave of powerful articles challenging Slaughter are finally appearing. Dana Theus says that women who are at or as near the top as Facebook COO (and its latest board member) Sheryl Sandberg and Slaughter need to woman up and “own this power they have to choose how to spend their energy, and talk about it in powerful ways that honor people’s choices, then we’ll begin to build a culture that honors, supports and encourages the ‘balance of powers‘ needed at the top.”

And Gayle Tzemach Lemmon says we should be teaching girls they CAN have it all—even if they can’t.

I believe that following Theus’s and Lemmon’s advice would change everything. And more importantly, this is the moment to do so.

It’s the moment when women can lead and live without limits.

Why am I so confident?

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Because I’ve seen women make stunning progress—helped make some of them happen, in fact—so I know breakthroughs can happen. But they don’t ‘just’ happen. And this auspicious moment won’t last forever unless women ourselves commit to make it so.

Will women make the breakthrough moment when gender parity in leadership becomes normative—or will we continue on current trajectory? Signs point both ways.

  • Discriminatory laws have been mostly eliminated.
  • Women earn 60 percent of college degrees and make up half the workplace.
  • Many glass ceilings are smashed.

Many men too think it’s women’s moment. In his foreword to Enlightened Power: How Women are Transforming the Practice of Leadership, David Gergen wrote: “Think of all the words we use to describe old style leadership: aggressive, assertive, autocratic, muscular, closed. When we describe the new leadership, we employ terms like consensual, relational, web-based, caring, inclusive, open, transparent—all qualities that we associate with the feminine style of leadership.”

The business case for recruiting and retaining high performing women leaders is unassailable: when women are included, the quality of decision-making improves and companies make more money. Sustained gender diversity in the boardroom correlates with better corporate performance.

Yet women have been stuck for years at 18 percent of leadership positions across 10 sectors. Women are no further along the corporate ladder than they were six years ago! Why? No, it’s not only because women are still regarded as the family caregivers; increasingly, men are sharing those tasks and yet insidious cultural barriers and implicit biases remain.

Still, no law or formal barrier is keeping women from attaining top leadership roles, and no one will walk us through the doors to leadership except ourselves.

My intent isn’t to blame, but to inspire women and give practical power tools to leverage this breakthrough moment. When women run for office, they are elected in the same percentages as men. But they are only half as likely even to think about running. And when they consider it, they wait longer than men to take the plunge.

This same dynamic occurs in work, politics, and personal relationships. You can’t win if you don’t run, and you can’t get into the C-suite if you don’t put yourself forward for the position. Paradoxically, I’ve spent most of my career working for power for others. This is gendered behavior regarded (and rewarded) as laudable—being nice, putting the needs of others first, self-sacrificing, not caring about such male prerogatives as earning a high income or having a power title.

It’s hard to change a culture while you’re living in it. And women who assume power positions by adopting male models of power and leadership and fail to bring other women along or help change the culture don’t advance the cause of equality.

Thinking Differently About Power

Many women express reluctance to take on power positions (and even avoid programs with the word power in the title), feeling power suggests dominance. Few women love power. Since women have borne the brunt of abusive power-over, many women eschew power even when they have it.

Women need to define power in terms that work for them. Once they define power as the power to accomplish something for others, or for the good of us all, women are more willing to use their power. The use of power is legitimated, taken out of the realm of the power-over realm.

When I propose this definition to women, I see tension relieved. Power-to makes one powerful. Power-over is passé; power-to is leadership.

Kim Campbell, first female prime minister of Canada, said: “Power exists. Somebody will have it. If you would exercise it ethically, why not you? I love power. I’m power-hungry because when I have power I can make things happen.”

By defining power not as power-over but as power-to, we shift from a culture of oppression to a culture of positive intention to make things better for everyone.

The breakthrough comes when negative connotations about power give way to a vision of a world where women are equal opportunity leaders and doers, and where both genders can lead with integrity.