The Ontario Progressive Conservatives elected their 26th consecutive male leader recently. Call them consistent. Or conservative. Fifteen of the 16 party presidents have also been male. Welcome to the 19th century.
Perhaps it’s misogyny. Or myopia. There has been some movement: Christine Elliott actually drew the most votes this time, so the party was open to a female leader, except its electoral system – designed to recognize the importance of the party’s rural roots – denied her victory. Just like Hillary Clinton.
In both cases, we were losers as well. Politics, for all its failings, helps to set our collective mindset on leadership. And with it still leaning heavily male, as a society we lean heavily male.
Sure, there are other examples of leadership around. I’ve just finished reading Harvard historian Nancy Koehn’s fascinating book Forged In Crisis, which tells the story of five courageous leaders: Ernest Shackleton, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a theologian who fought against the Hitler regime), and environmentalist Rachel Carson. Only one held elected office, but all were leaders. At the same time, only one is a woman, even when a female historian looks beyond political leadership.
We look to business as well for examples of leadership. But what names come to mind first of great business leadership? Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Alfred Sloan, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, perhaps? Certainly Meg Whitman and Sheryl Sandberg have been hugely successful, but I wonder if they come immediately to your mind or only when you think “female leaders” rather than “leaders.” And the statistics on the percentage of the Canadian C-Suite and boards that is female nudges up but a tad each year.
Given our examples of top leadership and our political leaders are primarily male, we will see leadership as inherently male – or more suitable to men. That’s why when asked to draw an effective leader, people draw a man . Fifty-five years after Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, arguably igniting the current feminist wave, we have not made much progress in changing the image of leadership.
To our mind, a leader is confident, determined and aggressive, traits we identify more with men than women. Not collaborative, humble and caring, traits we identify more with women than men. So we look for the former traits even after research studies on effectiveness lean toward the latter. It’s instinctive, subconscious thinking, much as many people pick a premier.
Instinct seems to be telling Ontarians that Kathleen Wynne and Andrea Horwath are not good leaders, but that Patrick Brown, prescandal, who had accomplished little in his life, and Doug Ford, who has run the family business and helped an out-of-control brother mess up as mayor of Toronto, seem promising leaders. In Alberta, Rachel Notley is treated with contempt that seems out of proportion to her perceived situation. Misogyny? To some extent. And, of course, in some respects, ideological or because of their parties’ policies. But it’s also a less nasty but still hurtful mindset of a male leadership mystique we instinctively accept. Those men are seen as better leaders because unconsciously we believe leadership is inherently male.
So what do we do?
It was a tradition of the federal Liberal party for decades that they alternate between a French and English leader. What about starting to alternate by gender?
Oh yes, I forgot. That would mean we would not necessarily be selecting the best person. But alternating by linguistic-geographic birth worked quite well for our natural governing party. They found some acceptable leaders.
This is not really about politics, however. That’s just a high-profile example. It’s about your business, university and non-profit. After 55 years, what we have been doing is not working. We need alternation or quotas – or strong leanings in those directions – with the possibility of exceptions only when those guidelines can’t possibly be met. We need deliberate thought about the impact of our tendency to select men over women on the psyche of our country, not the unsuccessful talk of more opportunities and mentors that has led nowhere. Justin Trudeau’s quota for his cabinet has worked well – some of his female ministers have emerged as some of his best – but because it’s a quota, nobody will commit to following him. Maybe your organization should. After all, the research is showing traits most often associated with females are better than we realized. Maybe it will help rather than hurt.
It’s actually a major national project – a profound cultural shift – and since the alternative “strategy” of laissez-faire and hoping for the best isn’t working, maybe we need to stop doing the same, futile things. If your instinctive sense of leadership is male, you should worry.
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