On April 24, a Top News blurb on the front page of the Star Tribune caught my eye: “Variety: Gender bias and leadership: Without realizing it, most people associate ‘leader’ with men.” And indeed, there was the article — atop a review of the Children’s Theatre Company play “The Lorax,” and one of three articles on the Variety cover that day.
I was immediately annoyed. First, the fact that this topic shows up in the Variety section and not Business tells me that the issue is interesting, but not serious. And second, while the content of the article itself is commendable, it adds to a fundamental problem with the discourse about women and leadership: all talk, minimal action.
Here’s the gist of the article: The story covered a journal study that asked people to draw a picture of a leader. Men drew men, women drew men — even those who drew genderless leaders usually spoke in male terms about their figures. Later on, the article “revealed” that it’s “taking charge” that is the real characteristic of a leader — yet even when reading the same “take charge” script to a group, the male readers were more likely to be perceived as leaders. Not the female ones. The article ends with the statement: “How can this problem be overcome? One reliable way to help people to see more women as leader-like is to expose them to more women in actual leadership positions.”
This can’t be new to anyone, given the times we live in, the stories brought forward via #MeToo, and the hundreds of books, business articles and programs on women and leadership. Are people really just figuring this out now? Please say it isn’t so.
Maybe highlighting some current statistics will help: The percentage of women in Congress? Nineteen percent. The percentage of women running Fortune 500 companies? Five percent. The number of female CEOs in Minnesota’s 100 largest publicly traded companies? Six. The percentage of women in the Minnesota Legislature? Thirty-two percent. Have these numbers risen over time? Yes. But have we stalled? Yes. Those same percentages have increased by very small margins since 1996 and projections for future growth are grim.
Having worked on economic issues for women and girls for nearly my entire career in a variety of capacities, I am going to weigh in with my own advice:
1) Stop looking for proof from scholarly journal articles and other sources to demonstrate what has been true for much longer than the 25 years I have been in this field: As a society, when it comes down to it, we question women and their ability to lead.
2) Determine action you can take that does not include telling women to ask for more, be more bold, stand up, blah blah blah. Instead, carefully examine your role. Where do you have opportunities to propel women into leadership? Where do you have opportunities to examine the policies, programs, and structures in your workplaces and communities that will result in more women leading?
3) Don’t say, “But it’s not me!” It is you. And it isn’t you. Social constructs both have a life of their own and are also the product of the decisions and choices of a million different individuals (men and women, by the way). Do your part (and more) as an individual, sibling, parent, community member, etc., while simultaneously working to change the institutions around you. We can do both.
4) Star Tribune, own your role in this. If you were serious about this article, which is primarily focused on women in the workplace, you should have put it in the Business section. Consider your own place as a community institution and how you perpetuate bias through placement of articles.
I don’t write this as someone who has figured it all out, though I have tried and I won’t stop trying. I am shoulder to shoulder at home and at work with women and men who are serious about this issue and more. I am both frustrated (and tired!) by lack of action, yet I am committed to change. Part of that commitment means insisting that as a society, we take our contemplative deliberations on issues like women and leadership and transform them into action. We must.
There is nothing left to wait for except for us.
Amy Kramer Brenengen is a project director at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and a former director of the Office on the Economic Status of Women at the Minnesota Legislature.