As I have been watching the history of how women fought for over half a century to be able to vote, I was struck by the myths men created about what would happen to the world if women gained that right.
William T. Sedgwick, a well-known professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, believed that no good could come of letting women vote.
“It would mean a degeneration and degradation of human fiber which would turn back the hands of time a thousand years,” Sedgwick said in 1914. “Hence it will probably never come, for mankind will not lightly abandon at the call of a few fanatics the hard-earned achievements of the ages.”
Those opposing the suffrage movements both in the U.S. and in Britain were sure that a woman was not physically or mentally strong and therefore could not vote. From their brains to their toes, every part of a woman was a disqualification. Women didn’t have the smarts, or the energy, or the courage, or anything that would enable them to be proper voting citizens.
You might be shocked on the one hand or perhaps fascinated on the other by the number of ways women’s physiology would become impaired or damaged by thinking through and acting as a voting member of society. The Atlantic has a wonderful article listing all of a woman’s problems, from how their brains had diminished functioning when they menstruated to how their lack of strength or energy would limit them. As Lyman Abbott, an American pastor, wrote in The Atlantic in 1903, “If women couldn’t defend the nation through physical force, they shouldn’t be allowed to determine its policies with the ballot.”
Our society has not eliminated the fear of women having a voice outside of the home, having the right to vote, being valuable on boards of directors, or leading companies large and small. The fears, however, cannot keep up with the progress women are making. There is a sea-change taking place, if only we can see it. For example, women represent over one-half of the U.S. workforce, over 40% of the attorneys, more than one-half of the doctors and dentists, and over 60% of the accountants. Those scary myths of what women can and cannot do are being smashed by what women are demonstrating they can do so very well. The obstacles remain, but there is evidence the tide is turning.
As an anthropologist, I am watching women shatter these myths that have kept them from achieving the leadership needed in our society, today and into the future. It is time for everyone to rethink what women can do and how we should enable them to do it. Our society needs it more than ever as we recover from this pandemic and restore the vitality of our economy and our cultures.
One obstacle ripe for dismantling is this: Men create most corporate cultures with a male leadership approach in mind. Unfortunately, men communicate a myth about women that emphasizes their soft sides, not their decisiveness, strength, and ingenuity. Women might lead differently than men, but they can achieve remarkable results. They are talented, collaborative, and focused on the “we” not the “me.”
The latest statistics on female CEOs at Fortune 500 companies spark hope and disheartenment all at the same time. Women now hold 37 of those jobs, which is a record. But that’s a mere 7.4 percent of the total. Further, the percentage of women on board seats has increased from 17.7% in 2018 to 20.4% in 2020 among Russell 3000 companies. The percentage of women in the 100 largest companies is now 27.7%.
Why aren’t women already further along in breaking down barriers that were talked about decades ago? Here are a few reasons:
- The system often forces talented women to give up before they reach the top. Regardless of what women achieve, business leadership and society deem them to be less worthy of leadership roles and success. Women find that the way forward is blocked, and at times they jump off the proverbial ladder rather than continue to fight to get to the top in companies, in government, and in male-dominated cultures. The good news is that in many cases, they launch their own businesses or move into running non-profits.
- The narrative society tells about women distorts reality. Around the globe, and through most of human history, men have controlled societies, along with the myths and narratives surrounding those societies. But times are changing. Organizations from the Women’s Business Collaborative to groups like Women TIES (Women Together Inspiring Entrepreneurial Success) are helping change the culture’s narrative about women. And, women are helping other women as mentors, role models, coaches, and teammates. The idea of that tough woman boss is changing as those women lead others collaboratively.
- More role models are needed. Momentum in changing the culture is hard to sustain without strong role models, communities of women, and a media that changes the narrative. With that in mind, I have written a book that showcases female role models who will encourage younger women to push forward into dangerous territory where they can be the talented success stories they want to become. As Marian Wright Edelman once said, “You cannot be what you cannot see.”
Men and women see things through different lenses. One more thing I have noticed when I apply an anthropological lens to the different leadership approaches of men and women when solving problems is this: Their world views are very different. Men think they climbed the Empire State Building and saved the damsel in distress while saving their clients millions of dollars. Women think they mobilized a group of talented people who never let the client fall into distress in the first place.
Maybe the times are indeed changing. Ronald Ericsson, the biologist, wrote, “Women live longer than men. They do better in this economy. More of ’em graduate from college. They go into space and do everything men do, and sometimes they do it a whole lot better. I mean, hell, get out of the way—these females are going to leave us males in the dust.”
Commentary by Andi Simon, Ph.D. Here’s what you’ve missed?
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