“Leaning In” Is Just the Beginning

Women are speaking up to address the gender gap in associations, which is good news. But effective solutions demand that the men in power pay attention as well.

Running an organization is tough enough without the unsolicited fashion advice.

Last week, the New York Times‘ Adam Bryant, who conducts regular Q&As with executives, put a spotlight on the particular challenges that women leaders face. In talking to four execs, including one from an association, it’s clear that there are plenty of divides between how male and female occupants of the corner office are treated.

Jenny Ming, a clothing-chain exec, speaks of colleagues being surprised she could make a tough decision. Ad executive Sharon Napier talks about being nudged to downplay her successes. And Dr. Dara Richardson-Heron, CEO of YWCA USA, recalls an early performance review where “the manager said that he did have some feedback for me—that I was always so buttoned up in terms of the way I dressed, and that it was making other people uncomfortable.”

 “Men also need to see that women can stretch into new roles.”

Richardson-Heron put the brakes on that quick: “I said to him, ‘From this point on, I want you to judge me on my performance, not my appearance.’ I said it in a very respectful, very clear way, but I think he was shocked. He knew not to cross that line again.”

Of course, that’s not a surprising story.

But what to do about it? As I’ve mentioned before here, associations do better than the corporate sector when it comes to promoting female CEOs, but sizable inequalities remain in terms of compensation, board participation, and leadership at the largest associations. As one counterpoint to that trend, AssociationsNow.com’s “Spotlight on Diversity” series recently featured the American Society of Radiologic Technologists, where female executives have formed a “Lean In Circle” to discuss shared issues. As a method for boosting confidence among female workers, it’s been a success: “Women in the office are more willing to take risks, more willing to speak up, more willing to state their positions, and this is going to sound crazy, but they’re learning how to fail,” says ASRT chief communications and membership officer Ceela McElveny, who started the effort.

This is all to the good, and addresses what’s understood as a key barrier to women’s success in the workplace. “Association women leaders need to fully step into their power, rely on their communication skills and broad stakeholder relationships, and say what has to be said,” says career coach Carol Vernon, who presents on workplace issues for women in associations.

But—if you don’t mind a guy saying this—I think there’s a problem with this dynamic of speaking up and asking for better leadership roles. It risks presuming that women are forever the supplicants to power and men are forever the ones empowered with bestowing it. Vernon gets at this when she points out that women’s talents for communication and collaboration can rankle (male) leaders who have set assumptions about how communication and collaboration happens—or even if it should. “This can cut the other way, due in large part to how men and women have been socialized,” she says. “There can be backlash when a women leader goes against the majority and challenges the collaborative status quo.”

That isn’t to say that ASRT’s effort isn’t meaningful or effective, just that it’s one element involved in addressing a larger problem: the cultural assumptions about who “naturally” has power and who doesn’t. (You’ll know the Lean In movement isn’t working if five years from now we’re still hearing about women who are leaning in to speak up to power—instead of actually having power.) So speaking up for its own sake isn’t a strategy. As Richardson-Heron put it: “One of the things I see sometimes is that women mistake words for voice. … It’s important for women to know that having a voice really means having a track record of success and accomplishments, so that people want to listen to what you have to say, because you’re saying something of value. So use your voice, but use it strategically.”

This is something that men need to think about as much as women. As Business Talent Group’s Jody Greenstone Miller told the Times, “I think both men and women can proactively help women feel comfortable about stretching. Men also need to see that women can stretch into new roles.” That’s a challenge to male leaders to mindfully recognize the challenges female employees face, and to actively police their assumptions about what they can and can’t do. Leaning In is all well and good, but it’s only effective if the guys lean in to get the message themselves.

What does your organization do to help support women in leadership roles? Share your experiences in the comments.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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