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Imbalance of women in leadership positions

By Anna Campbell

Highlights of my personality (excluding the term "bossy")

We have one of those “delightful” stories in my family, which comes to light at special occasions. It is the story of a long road trip and is used to highlight some “features” of my personality. My parents start by describing the usual backseat bickering and then move on to describe the relentless whingeing from yours truly at my lack of comfort and the unfair apportionment of space in the backseat. When my parents actually turn around to view what is happening, they see me on the left hand side, taking up approximately two thirds of the backseat, while my two brothers, one older, one younger, are quite literally squeezed into the remaining third! 

Of course, this story has been used to highlight what I would describe as my “assertive and strong personality”. Back in those days, the term “bossy” was more frequently used. “Bossy” was a term I hated back then, as I still do now. So I find it most interesting that Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and author of “Lean In”, is attempting to ban its use. Of course this has many fuming: “it is political correctness gone mad again”. But before you roll your eyes -as quite a few in my office do when these types of topics come up- please think about what she is actually trying to do. 

“Banning” the use of the word bossy, is really a symbolic gesture asking us to think about how we raise our daughters and how we think about and treat women during their careers. In her book Sheryl highlights that despite the fact that there are equal numbers of women graduating from Harvard Business School, very few will move into positions of leadership, often due to societal pressures placed on women-by themselves and others. These pressures are often reflected in the language we use and the subtle messages we give to women who challenge our image of a female’s role as a “carer and nurturer”.

The real question

In last Saturday’s ODT, the question was asked of a couple of female leaders in our city “is there still a glass ceiling for women in the workplace?” In my view, the term “glass ceiling” is dead as it implies women can’t actually “breakthrough”. The Helen Clarks of this world show quite obviously that talented women can and do make it to the top. The real question to ask is: are there any inherent issues in society and the workplace which cause the severe imbalance of women in senior executive and board positions that we see now? Take a look at most professions in New Zealand and you will find imbalance, numbers of females entering medical, scientific and business professions often equal males, but they don’t make it into senior positions. These imbalances are the norm and are to the detriment of decision making and leadership of companies and societies.      

There is no doubt that women (and many men), have challenges when they choose to balance bringing up children with driving their careers forward. I and many others, live them on a daily basis. We tend to think of those challenges as being physical challenges, childcare and who does the housework and yes, those can be tricky, but the bigger challenge is still society’s subtle belief that women are unattractive and unlikeable if they are driven and assertive and not being nurturing, caring and supportive.

Role models vital for change

Women can be and should be able to be both, driven and nurturing. One should not cancel out the other. When my son was hurt on the rugby field this weekend, I was like any other mother, holding myself back from running onto that field and smothering him with love. I want to feel that, but I still reserve the right to be driven in business and I would like to see a lot more women taking that track. 

We must keep raising these issues, no matter how much eye rolling from colleagues it causes. For many women, it takes a special role model to pave the way, and that is why we need more women to “take their seat” at the board table, or within senior executive teams so that others know it can be done and it can be done often by friends and colleagues, not just occasionally, by the “breakthroughs” like Helen Clark and Theresa Gattung. Role models are vital for success, I know when I have days of self-doubt, the values instilled in me by my own strong, driven and nurturing mum are what push me through. I only hope I can be the same role model for my daughter -some things have changed though- I will never let anyone call her bossy!