Feisty girls, women and power

I was a feisty little girl.  With a mixture of pride and amusement, my father still tells me how fierce and fearless I was when I drove bumper cars at the fair. I spoke up easily about injustice when I saw it. I got angry when I felt like it. And at the age of eight I was the obvious choice to represent the preparatory school and speak at the high school assembly.

But it’s been difficult to unleash these memories. In fact if I didn’t have my parents’ account of my youth or photographic evidence of little me flashing my eyes at the world, I probably wouldn’t believe it. Because it’s not long before popularity and fitting in become far more important than speaking up and accessing our power. Very soon we learn that holding a contrary opinion is a sure way to be excluded and labelled as odd. Very soon feistiness becomes a distant memory buried in the pages of a dusty album.

It turns out that this kind of confidence is not unusual for girls in their early years. In her 1993 book, Fire with Fire, Naomi Wolf talks about how our five year old selves are naturally feisty: we dance in public, we wear what we like, we speak up when boundaries are crossed and when we disagree.

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I still believe that women’s leadership brings something new and necessary to the world. We care more about people and peace and sharing prosperity. It’s right and overdue that these conversations are becoming more prominent and less alternative. But there’s a missing piece in the conversation. In fact it’s so conspicuous in its absence that it almost feels deliberate. And that is the conversation about power: how to excavate it from beneath the layers of social constraints and when to use it; how to understand the rules of power that are still affecting our lives and dictating how we live.

There’s a reason that we’re working too hard and not getting the recognition we deserve. There’s a reason someone else gets the position or the promotion. It’s because we’re not taught about power and don’t know where or how to decode the rules. In our anxiety to be liked and patted on the head we didn’t notice where they hid the manual.

Power and influence are where I’ve been focusing my attention in the last few months as I’ve been putting the finishing touches on the WeLead Women’s Leadership Program (the pilot launches in May). I’ve never been clearer that there cannot be leadership without power and influence. The women in my network are tired of being distracted into thinking that we need to spend even more time on personal branding and self-awareness. While we’ve been watching Brene Brown, it seems that the other half of the world is still studying Machiavelli. If we really want to change the world, we need to stop pretending that this isn’t so. It’s time we learned how to understand the rules so that we can really change the game.

But far more important is that you commit yourself to getting back in touch with that feisty girl you once knew.

We need her.

With love and power
Debby

 
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If you’re really serious about gender equality here are some things you shouldn’t say

handsfromamySentences like this:

“I don’t believe women support other women”

“All my mentors have been male”

“I’ve always preferred male company because I know where I stand with men”

“women compete with other women”

I could go on…

I am lucky to know many powerful women around the world who do amazing things for other women every day. I know so many generous women that I can’t possible list them all. (although I will probably tag some of them on Facebook because the chances are good that they will share this post. And I really want it to be shared)

We have to stop spreading news about how women don’t support each other

In fact I think it’s one of the most sinister forms of misogyny around because it perpetuates a message that as a gender we are stingier, nastier and basically just not as nice as men. How can this be useful? How can this be scientific?

It negates the powerful generous women who have been doing so much for other women for years. It also gives too much airtime to the women who don’t.

I commend all the women supporting women right now – those of you who are mentoring, coaching, advising and helping just because you can. I am privileged to know quite a number of you. But there are also many of you I haven’t met and probably never will. You don’t do it for the credit or recognition. You do it because you’re generous and you like to help just because you can. You are to use a well-known Yiddish word a mensch. Which translated today means “a person of integrity or honour” But of course in its original German literally means a man. See how much work we still have to do?

I’m not negating the hurt that we’ve all felt when we’ve been let down or unsupported by other women. But it’s crazy to make this gender specific. I’ve been hurt and let down by men too.

And is it reasonable to expect unconditional support from a sisterhood just because we belong to the same gender? Men don’t do this. All they do is choose better friends.

How about we do the same?

“Do you really think we’re part of a supportive congenial network and that you are the only ones who suffer with politics?” a male friend once asked me

The difference is that men know that politics is part of organisational life and that’s that.

Some time ago I compiled a 5-step checklist to help girls to create healthy friendships.  All of the steps are equally useful for women of all ages so I’m repeating it here:

  1. We need to change the narrative that happens around girls and girlfriends. Yes there might be mean girls who bring your daughter down but focus on the friends who support her too.
  2. In the same way that Hollywood idealises romance, unrealistic images are often painted of “best friends” . I have some wonderful women friends in my life but none of my relationships bear much similarity to the kind between Anne Hathaway and Kate Hudson in Bride Wars. Celebrate the small acts of kindness and support you get from your friends and your daughter will start developing more realistic expectations too
  3. Teach your daughter what it means to be a good friend so that she “becomes the change” rather than waiting for the perfect friend. Praise her for loyalty, courage, compassion and practical things too like remembering birthdays and phoning a friend when they are sick to offer homework help
  4. In my work with women leaders I ask them to reflect on who they turn to in times of crisis when they refer to the PHD (pull her down) factor. The answer is invariably “my women friends”. But sometimes we neglect these friends in our busy lives – something of which I am often woefully guilty. But in the tradition of appreciative inquiry practice, what we appreciate appreciates. Our relationships need time if they are important to us.
  5. Remind your daughter to choose friends who are worthy of her and her energy. Whether they are male or female, we need to encourage affirming relationships in our lives while we limit the toxic ones. This way we’ll have more time to spend with the people who deserve us and who we deserve in return.

Our #WeLead Circles are rich opportunities to experience female generosity and advocacy so please do drop me a line if you’d like to experience what it’s like to be surrounded by a dream team of powerful women who hold you accountable for achieving your goals.

But I’d like to throw out a challenge for women outside of our #WeLead community too. Send me stories of the women who’ve supported you. Give them the public recognition they deserve in a comment below or on my facebook page. (The best shout-out will get a prize.) Lets create a new narrative together