“Women are amazing”

How to Marry a Millionaire

Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable and Lauren Bacall in How To Marry A Millionaire.

Avoiding any criticism of women by saying, “Women are amazing” has the unwanted consequence of implying that women are not like other humans–because humans are not “amazing” in and of themselves. Not all humans, not all the time.

This post explores how putting more women in top leadership positions requires that we accept that women, like all humans, make mistakes, and that some of these mistakes may stifle their leadership potential. Until we are ready to accept that, organizations can bend themselves all they want, there won’t be enough women prepared to lead people. 

Last March 20, during the Commission on the Status of Women held at the UN Headquarters in New York, I attended a panel discussion with the promising title, Accelerating Women’s Leadership. The speakers, four leaders from Catalyst (Serena Fong), PWC (Jennifer Allyn), McKinsey&Co (Kweilin Ellingrud) and UN Women (Purna Sen), shared what their organizations were doing to boost women’s leadership in the public and private sectors.

Their premise, organizations are intrinsically guilty for women’s lack of advancement. Organizations in abstracto hold the entire responsibility for making more leadership opportunities available for women.

My premise, women need to do certain things differently if they want to be fully trusted and hence, get more power in the workplace and public life. Accepting that women are not flawless, amazing entities that never, ever, do anything wrong is the first step toward a gender-balanced leadership in our organizations and institutions.

Certainly, sexism exists. Certainly, institutional help is still much needed to reach equality on all levels of society. Certainly, women have been oppressed for centuries and some workplaces are particularly toxic for women who want to leave the lower rungs.

Diversity and inclusion policies are meant to help women and other traditionally marginalized groups to achieve more in their careers–to be hired more, to be promoted more, to be paid more fairly. Implementing diversity and inclusion policies is, therefore, a safety measure.

But, as Jessa Crispin states in her book Why I Am Not A Feminist, A Feminist Manifesto, putting “safety” as a priority is bad both for women and the society as a whole. First, because it tends to arrest disagreement and debate, by blacking any critique out–”Women are amazing.” Second, because it acts as an excuse for women to “refuse to participate in the world” as it is now. Writes Crispin, “It’s saying, ‘This world is not good enough, and until it bends itself to my will, I’ll have nothing to do with it.’” 

It also implies that ‘things happen to women’ as opposed to ‘women do things,’ which entails that women are considered objects and not agents and therefore need to be protected. And if they have to be protected, how could they take care of anything or anyone else? Hence, how could they be leaders?

So, when during the Q&A, I asked, “Do you think it’s possible that women sometimes unintentionally reinforce certain gender stereotypes, impairing their ability to be perceived as leaders?” I was thinking of those gender stereotypes that portray women as objects.

Jennifer Allyn (PWC) eagerly jumped in to answer. “Women are amazing,” she said.

Vetoing any criticism of how women sometimes behave in the workplace–but allowing and even encouraging fierce criticism of men–does a tremendous disfavor to women’s efforts to become leaders in larger numbers because we can only correct the mistakes we know we make.

And so, when in the name of “safety,” we shut down our critics, we’re missing out on a golden opportunity to see what we could do differently and what we could do better. Even when we believe our critics are wrong, eschewing to confront them will keep our thinking skin-deep.

That’s why I propose that we replace “Women are amazing” by “Women are humans.” Humans who can make mistakes because they can do things. A group of humans who don’t need protection in order to become leaders, but fairness.

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