High Heels Shouldn’t Bring You Down

“Only one man in a thousand is a leader of men. The rest follow women”-Groucho Marx

I had a lot of trouble figuring out how to focus this post, because there are so many things I want to say about women and politics, about women and the sciences, about women and IR, about women and their careers. And we’ll get to all of that, in due course.  But today, I just want to talk about women and leadership, because I feel like that reaches the most subjects, and I think it’s maybe the central one to look at.

In a previous post, I started to discuss the perceptions women have of themselves and how this holds them back from pursuing leadership opportunities.  As a recap, most girls can identify qualities that are considered to be the qualities of good leaders-~-such as integrity, honestly, intelligence, etc.-~-but only one in five girls believes that she has these qualities or would be a good leader.  As a result, many girls fail to pursue leadership opportunities, and not only are THEY missing out, but we as a SOCIETY are missing out on potential leaders, thinkers, and innovators.

Part of this has to do with the way girls are socialized.  As I already pointed out, just by training women to believe that they are not good at something will cause them to perform worse (studies have proven this to be true with mathematics, for example).  But on top of that, as Peggy Orenstein points out in her book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, when girls are praised during their childhoods they are told that they are pretty, while boys are told that they are strong and smart.  This sends a strong message as to where girls’ value lies, but it ALSO sends a message to children that boys have what it takes, and girls don’t.

There’s more to it, though, than just the fact that little girls are told that they’re pretty instead of being told they are smart.  As Sheryl Sandburg, the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, said in her 2011 commencement speechat Barnard

Above: Sheryl Sandburg has had to fight her way up the ladder in Silicon Valley

College in New York, perception of success differs by gender.  Women attribute their success to “working hard” or people helping them or “getting lucky”; men own their success and attribute it to being awesome.  On top of that, for men, success and likability have a positive correlation-~-for women, it becomes a negative correlation: both men and women dislike women more as they become increasingly successful.  This is a problem, because it serves as a deterrent for women pursuing leadership opportunities AND because it reinforces the idea that women aren’t meant to BE successful in careers, that their place is not at the top of companies or in office, etc.  Other studies, though I forget where exactly I found them, indicate that men find women less appealing as they become more successful in their careers as well, creating another disincentive.  Who wants to end up alone with nothing but an ever-increasing workload to keep her company?

That’s not to say it has to be that way.  During a roundtable at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Gretchen McClain, the CEO and President of Xylum, Inc., discussed the need for women pursuing careers and pursuing leadership positions to find a way to balance their lives.  Part of the problem is that women do more work in the home and are expected to devote more time to things like parenting than men are, which can put a strain on career ambitions because there appear to be diverging obligations.  When men’s rights activists (my favorite…) point out that men “work more” because they take more overtime, they fail to acknowledge the fact that women are under pressure to take care of household duties that perhaps prevent them from taking on these additional work opportunities.

Unfortunately, as Sandburg points out, many women anticipate these future obligations and make choices early in their career because they anticipate leaving and having children.  This is particularly problematic because employers already anticipate this-~-it’s why companies invest less in women and are less likely to hire women.  As Sanburg states, women “lean out” of their careers when they SHOULD lean in: they choose easier specialties, they don’t fight for promotions, they anticipate the choices they will have to make to balance their personal lives before they have to make them.  As a result, when the time comes, the choice isn’t really there: they have already let the opportunities they might have taken pass them by.

One thing she said that really resonated with me was this: “It’s a bit counterintuitive, but the most important career decision you’re going to make is whether or not you have a life partner and who that partner is.”  The choices you make in your personal life DO impact your professional life.  Choose someone who is going to support you, who is going to encourage you, and who is going to help raise the kids so that he’s not always working late and you’re not always changing diapers.

I’m not deep enough into my career to say that there’s some secret to success, but I’ll give you some of the tips that successful women have given me over the years:

  1. Dream big.  If you set the bar too low, you’ll never reach as high as you’re capable of reaching.
  2. Don’t let the world shut you down.  If people start saying you can’t do it because of XYZ reason, don’t listen to them. Prove them wrong.
  3. Don’t lean out too soon.  Give yourself a career-~-a real career-~-so that when the time comes, you have a choice to make.
  4. Take chances.  You never know what’s going to end up working out for you.  I never dreamed I’d be where I’m working now-~-it was a shot in the dark-~-but sometimes things go your way.
  5. Take EVERY opportunity.  You never know what you’re going to learn by talking to someone who maybe isn’t quite like you, or who you’re going to meet, or where this road is going to take you.  And you won’t, unless you try.
  6. This is the big one: don’t tear each other down.  Women are just as critical of other women as men, but the reality is that until people accept that WOMEN can be good leaders, it’s going to be hard for ANY of us to be leaders.
  7. Be confident.  Wearing heels to the office isn’t permission for people to bring you down, so walk tall.  OWN your success, and acknowledge your failures.  Because in the end, that’s what’s going to decide whether you make it or not.

This post is dedicated to Lauren S. and Ariel C.-Congratulations on your graduation. Go make us proud.


~ by Randi Saunders on June 15, 2012.

One Response to “High Heels Shouldn’t Bring You Down”

  1. Catherine De Medici was the one of the first people to wear high heels. Believe it or not, a descendant of hers, Leonard Arthur Meuse was a hero in Seattle!

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