A recent study found that women account for 51.4% of middle managers in the U.S. but only 4.2% of Fortune 500 CEO’s. Based on our experience, the CEO statistics will continue to improve, but only incrementally, until women recognize that the boardroom is not the schoolroom. To be successful, we must now do the very thing we were always taught not to: be disruptive… Consider disrupting yourself when it comes to these five areas — areas where the skills you honed as a high-achieving student are likely doing you a disservice in your career.
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Suzy D’Enbeau (Kent State University) suggests some key “Takeaways” on the story:
Exploring different strategies for women to be successful in the workplace is nothing new. In fact, I have to admit that I am frustrated (and a little bored) reading yet another article on how women can change themselves to enhance their value and potential for leadership in organizations. That said, this article raises a number of critical issues, most notably, I think, the stereotypical construction of what it means to be a woman in the workplace. These strategies are premised on the problematic generalization that women are passive, timid, do-gooders who want to please their bosses and have little hope for advancement. In fact, according to the authors, women are not capable of successfully making the transition from higher education to the workplace; women are not capable of understanding that our bosses are not our teachers; and women are not capable of understanding that we are not working to get straight As on our report cards when we enter the workplace. Accordingly, we have no one to blame but ourselves for not holding more Fortune 500 CEO positions.
I would like to think that we, as women, are capable of more than this. Why are these articles always addressed to women? Why not write an article addressed to (white, middleclass, heterosexual) men and suggest ways that they can change their behaviors so that women and non-dominant populations are more likely to become and find success as leaders in organizations? Why is it that these articles never seem to suggest (feasible and realistic) ways that workplace cultures, values, reward structures, procedures, policies, decision-making processes, etc., can change? Ok…I don’t have the answers. But I do have some takeaways:
1. Avoid gender-oversensitivity. That is, avoid reducing workplace communication, interactions, and cultures to male and female, masculine and feminine. This reductionist perspective obscures other important identity aspects such as race, sexuality, (dis)ability, and so on. Moreover, this perspective only works to perpetuate problematic stereotypes that reinforce workplace inequalities.
2. Seek out moments of resistance that could lead to opportunities for transformation. The authors note that our culture has yet to evolve. As such, within the current gendered context, women are faced with a double-bind that positions feminine identity ideals in opposition to professional and leadership identity ideals (e.g., women are perceived as either too tough or too soft as leaders). However, my own research on feminist leadership demonstrates that individual women can communicatively redefine what constitutes an ideal female leader to transcend the double-bind. For instance, feminist leaders can emphasize working towards a higher purpose (to appeal to feminine work meanings) to rationalize a strict organizational hierarchy that privileges individualism and competition among employees (to appeal to masculine work meanings). All this is to say that to reduce workplace cultures to a double-bind for women ignores the innovative and creative ways in which we can and do adapt and transform these cultures.
Despite my initial frustrations with this article and my suggested takeaways, I am still left with more questions. In graduate school, my feminist colleagues and I had an ongoing debate. Is it better to focus our efforts on changing the (corrupt) system or should we teach ourselves how to navigate, negotiate, and manipulate the system to our advantage? Should we disrupt the system or disrupt our own behaviors within the system? My answers to these questions change all the time. But it does make me wonder: if women were to employ these strategies of “disruption”, would they actually work? Possibly. Who benefits? And towards what ends? Our answers to these questions will surface the underlying assumptions we hold about gender/ed constructions, meanings of work, and possibilities of workplace transformation.