My husband and I were walking through Old Town Alexandria recently and our conversation veered towards work. Out of nowhere he says, “Isn’t it weird how when men are successful leaders, everyone admires them and talks about how much they respect them, and when women are great leaders, people just think they’re bitches?” (Sorry for using French so early!) Dear husband of mine, it’s not just weird, it’s unfortunate and wrong.
I read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In a few years ago and, since Nick isn’t a reader, I imparted as much of Sandberg’s wisdom as I could to him. On our walk, I reminded him about the Lean In movement and the unfortunate “bossy” tag we give women in leadership positions. I asked him how he would describe me and my leadership style. He used words like fiery, intense and “a little bit rage-like…” Whatever that means (though I envisioned a female version of Bernie Sanders). We laughed, and then I got serious. Not exactly what I was hoping to hear from the #1 man in my life.
Oddly enough, earlier that week, someone used some very different, very flattering adjectives to describe me: energetic, upbeat, approachable, and always smiling. Jackpot! …those comments came from a woman. Then, the very next day, another female coworker called me the “team mom.” I can hardly tell that story without choking on the words. I can’t win.
My husband is a wonderful man and great husband. He’s always proud of me, encourages me, isn’t afraid of my need for the spotlight, and he believes in me. He cheers me on to success and dares me to continuously do more, and do better. I adore that about him. But when he started describing my leadership style, I wondered if my husband, my biggest cheerleader, is using these descriptors, do other men view me that way?
Recently, after some recurring and tense interactions, my (male) boss confronted me so we could work it out. We calmly worked through the “whys” and addressed how we could work better together. He let something sneak into the conversation that made the recent frustrations on both ends make much more sense…“well, let’s face it, you’ve basically been running the team.” Bingo. It was a compliment, and yet maybe a warning. My leadership skills were too much for him to handle, and were overpowering my boss’ own management style. (Team mom, or faux boss?)
So what’s the deal?! How do I break free from the perceptions and the descriptors, that my male and female counterparts are attributing to my leadership style? I don’t have the answers yet, but I’m making some strong observations and hopefully will start to really stand on my own two feet as a leader. I do know that I’m grateful to be a part of history where the expectations of women have changed and we feel and are a part of real progress. I’m grateful that we can participate in a dialogue around the challenges we still have to overcome…and that we can do it over a glass of wine or bourbon, neat.
– Ashley Respecki