Women Leaders – a reflection of impact and what holds us back

Part II of “Infusion of the Feminine Element in the American Workplace” (Part I posted on August 14, 2012)

“If you think you would exercise it ethically, don’t disdain power. You must embrace it as the essential currency for making things happen.”

– Kim Campbell, former prime minister of Canada

Think about it: What would our world really be like if more women were in charge? If we had a female President. If far more of our Fortune 500 companies were led by women (2% currently). If half of the positions in the US Senate and House were held by women (presently 16%). And if more women were partners in law firms or federal judges (now only 15%). What difference would it make?

I think more women in these roles would in fact make things better. I’m not espousing women versus men nor insinuating one gender superior over the other (tempting as it may be).  I simply believe that a more even balance of male and female leadership would yield a world with greater cooperation, flexibility, less conflict, increased dialogue, and cultural understanding.

These characteristics and differences contribute in significant, meaningful ways – results that positively impact a business’ bottom line and yield a more diplomatic culture. This isn’t just my opinion, but evidence backed up by countless studies.

According to Catalyst (a research and advisory organization that tracks women in business), “Fortune 500 companies with the highest representation of women on their boards performed better financially – significantly better. Those with the most saw a 53% higher return on equity, a 42% higher return on sales, and a 66% higher return on invested capital. Findings were consistent across invested capital and industries.”

And in the political realm, while the vast majority of current world leaders are male, women have rapidly assumed these roles, now leading some of the largest, most populated, and most economically successful countries in the world. Female leaders work to ensure diplomacy, freedom, justice, equality, and peace. Presently, we live in a time with the highest total number of female leaders serving simultaneously.

These are compelling reasons for balanced leadership in both the business and political jurisdictions. And this peaks my curiosity…what are the key differences with female influence? The following sources offer a few perspectives.

  • Esther Wachs, in her book Why the Best Man for the Job is a Woman examined the careers of 14 top female executives to learn what makes them so successful. Her findings reveal that women have a natural willingness to reinvent the rules, ability to sell their visions, the determination to turn challenges into opportunities – all with a focus on “high touch” in a high tech business world.
  • Dee Dee Myers, in Why Women Should Rule the World, proposes that it isn’t a debate about nature or nurture – it’s both. “New tools have allowed scientists to find structural, chemical, genetic, hormonal, and functional differences in male and female brains. And those differences affect the way men and women process language, solve problems, and remember emotional events. They shape our responses to everything from stress, to love, to the funny pages.”
  • And in Deborah Tannen’s 1991 best-seller, You Don’t Understand! Women and Men in Conversation, she concludes that “boys’ and girls’ early social lives are so different that they grow up ‘in what are essentially different cultures.’ Thus, talk between women and men is in fact cross-cultural communication, fraught with as many potential misunderstandings as communication between individuals from different countries, ethnic backgrounds, languages, or religious groups.”

As a matter of basic world view, Tannen establishes that “men see themselves as engaged in a hierarchical social order in which they are either ‘one up or one down’ in relation to others. Their communication styles and reactions to others’ communications often stress the need to ‘preserve independence and avoid failure.’ Women, on the other hand, tend to see the world as a ‘network of connections,’ and their communications and interpretations of others’ communications seek to ‘preserve intimacy and avoid isolation.’”

Whether male or female, I think most of us realize that dominating leadership style is becoming less and less popular, replaced with a growing presence of leadership that exhibits flexibility, empathy, openness, and valuing differences. The role of women is helping to build understanding around these values that really matter and make a difference.

I’ve been fortunate to grow up surrounded by strong women – my mom, sister, aunts, and countless mentors. As a result, I’ve always thought that women are very capable leaders – not because women are better or the same as men, but because the many ways women and men are different.

So, I wonder, why don’t women take the lead more? What holds us back? I’ve given this a lot of thought lately and drawn conclusions based on my own experiences as well as accounts shared by Myers and other authors writing on female leadership.

  1. Women are often given the same responsibility without corresponding authority. We have less power – office, rank, money. As in Myers’ case, the President made the job of Press Secretary less important than it had been previously, and, as a result, it made her less effective.
  2. We don’t negotiate. We’re simply not socialized to do so. According to Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever in Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide, “Whether they want higher salaries or more help at home, women often find it hard to ask. Sometimes they don’t know that change is possible – they don’t know that they can ask. Sometimes they fear that asking may damage a relationship. And sometimes they don’t ask because they’ve learned that society can react badly to women asserting their own needs and desires.”
  3. We have to fight to be a part of the conversation. Being in the room is not the same as being in the conversation. Women are often treated like they’re invisible. For example, I experience the following situation far too often, and I’ve witnessed the same among my female colleagues: I’ll be at a meeting, and I offer up a comment or perspective, and the conversation continues as if I never spoke. Moments later, a man says virtually the same thing, and his point is acknowledged by several in the group. What the hell! I admit that, as women, we often fail to state our thoughts and ideas forcefully enough – I certainly can be guilty of that. But there’s no way that can account for the frequency with which this happens.
  4. Sometimes, a woman simply being in the role can make it seem less important. “In fact, women devalue whole sectors of the economy just by showing up,” Myers states. “Studies show that both men and women attach less prestige to certain professions if they have more women – or are expected to have more women in the future. Not only can the presence of women devalue certain jobs, but also it’s often not until the job is devalued that women are even hired. It’s a no-win situation.”
  5. As women, we have to take the world as we find it. We know that the American culture, systems, and structures are a white male establishment. While it is changing and evolving, anyone functioning in the American workplace must work within that dynamic. “When women in positions of authority conform to traditional female stereotypes, they are too often perceived as ‘too soft’ to be effective,” states Myers. “And when they defy those norms, they are considered ‘too tough,’ unnaturally masculine and out of sync”…a bitch, in other words. There are so many ways for women to lose at this game.
  6. Women lack access to informal networks. In 2005, the research organization, Catalyst, talked to 950 top executives – both men and women. Fifty-five percent of women said they wanted to be CEOs – virtually the same as the number of men. So why don’t more advance? A quarter of the women said they lacked operational experience, but nearly twice as many said that it was because they were shut out of the informal networks – golf, poker, men’s clubs – where information gets exchanged, relationships get established, and careers get launched. Over time, these little differences become a significant cumulative divide.
  7. People are more judgmental about a female’s performance and less forgiving of her mistakes than they are of her male counterpart’s. People wonder: Can she stand up to her opponent? Can she think on her feet? People simply assume men are tough enough, but women have to prove it. It’s a fine line with great expectations and little margin for error.

Given these thoughts and others, in the end it’s not necessarily the lack of intrinsic aptitude that keeps more women from pursuing careers in fields like physics and engineering; rather, it may be that their different realities compel them to make different choices. It’s time that those realities are recognized as every bit as relevant, important, and valuable as men’s.

While many variables contribute to holding us back or interfering with our path to success, I conclude too that we – as women – have to get out of our own way. Regardless of the environment in which we operate and the tendency sometimes to blame, we are part of our own problem. I believe this most often when we don’t take or claim our power. Or when we fail to be courageous and stand up for our peer female professionals and confront inequities in the moment, head on. And there are those situations where we act too masculine, not allowing for the time and texture of the feminine accent.

Clearly, men and women are different. And because we’re different, women will bring a varied mix of experience, values, and points of view. We will expand the range of what’s acceptable and what’s possible. It’s in our economic, social, and political interest to create a world that’s freer and fairer. Where everyone has their power and is allowed to use it. Where everyone is judged by their performance – and their potential.


  • Myers, Dee Dee. Why Women Should Rule the World. New York: HarperCollins, 2008.
  • Wachs, Esther. Why the Best Man for the Job is a Woman. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.
  • Tannen, Deborah. You Don’t Understand! Women and Men in Conversation. New York: Ballantine Books, 1991.
  • Babcock, Linda and Laschever, Sara. Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide. New York: Bantam Books, 2007.
On Knowing When

On Knowing When


For years, I’ve observed athletes, politicians, corporate executives, and colleagues maneuver through their careers advancing, transitioning, or retiring. I’ve admired those who always seemed to know when to make a change, and I’ve often felt frustrated by those who didn’t.

There are those who ride the wave until it crests. They stay in a job, continuing in a role that fits, delivering a great impact and return on their unique investment of creative talent. Then, with the same finesse with which they rode that wave, they ride smoothly to the next wave or opportunity. No matter where they are, their presence and leadership imbues their organizations with energy, enthusiasm, and inspiration – during their tenure and after.

Then there are those who never seem to “know when.” They advance and develop, making great contributions to their enterprise and the people it serves. Some receive numerous accolades for their achievements. Five years pass, then 10, 20, and even beyond, and they stay put. I know that a rare few can continue at the top of their game for extended periods, approaching their work with as much fresh energy, passion, and creativity as ever before. More often than not, however, this isn’t the case.

Staying in one spot for too long leaves them comfortable yet stale, feeling burned out and empty. Their flame went out years ago, and because they don’t “know when” – or more likely they do “know” but hold themselves back with fear and doubt – they engender that same lassitude within their environment and culture.

Over my 20 year career, I’ve always wondered, “How do those who know when, know when?”

It was 2008, and I was in my fifth year as President & CEO of the United Arts Council of Greater Greensboro and my twelfth with the organization overall. I found myself experiencing a sense of restlessness. When I first noticed it, I had no idea what it was or what was causing it; I had never felt anything quite like it before. I knew that above all else, it was persistent. I tried ignoring the sensation, passing it off as a nagging ache and drowning it with my work priorities and busy schedule. But it was like a kid sister continuously tapping on my shoulder.

So, I decided to stop fighting it and instead tuned in to it. I would lie awake at night, tossing and turning, and ask, “What is it? What are you trying to tell me?” I would go for a run, and as the day’s stress melted and my mind freed, I wondered: “Is it something to do with my family? My spouse? Work?” And on it went in my day-to-day activities and thoughts over several months. I’d query, wait, and try to listen.

I wish I could tell you that I had a clear and direct sense of “knowing when” (and knowing what), but it was more a steady growing awareness. Things would happen like meeting new people, having an unexpected outcome with a project, and seeing barriers spring up in one place while opportunities grew in another. Small shifts and events I originally thought to be unrelated and random, when considered in aggregate, were actually pointing me toward a new course.

Accompanying this emotional journey was a more tangible recognition that I had accomplished the major goals I had hoped to achieve for the United Arts Council: debt elimination, significant revenue growth, re-focusing of organizational priorities, creating a new business model, and shoring up board and staff leadership.

Eventually, the two paths intersected, and it became quite clear. I knew what. I knew when. And when was now.

I felt satisfied that I had completed what I had set out to do for the organization. Over those twelve years, I had offered my very best in leadership and service to the organization and its greater mission. The professional experience of leading the organization and its people was the highlight of my career to that point. It simply was time to depart and transition into what would come next…at that point, I had no idea what that would be. But I knew one thing for certain: I didn’t want to follow a traditional career path, moving on to lead another nonprofit arts organization.

“We say we are scared by failure, but what frightens us more is the possibility of success. Possibility is far more frightening than impossibility; Freedom is far more terrifying than any prison.”   –Julia CameronAfter much reflection and consultation with mentors and a career coach, I determined that the right course for me was to complete my tenure at the Arts Council and then take some time off. Clear my head. Explore some creative pursuits. And allow myself the space and time to renew my energy and shape what would come next. So I committed to a year-long sabbatical, and that journey began in December 2009.

During my sabbatical, I came to believe it’s less about truly “knowing” and more about the courage to tune in to that “knowing,” trust it, and follow it. What prevents most from taking the leap is fear – a doubt in one’s own “personal capital” and self-worth.

Author Julia Cameron, in her book Artist’s Way, wrote that: “We say we are scared by failure, but what frightens us more is the possibility of success. Possibility is far more frightening than impossibility; Freedom is far more terrifying than any prison.”

After spending many years in a particular career or post, it’s easy to slip into the mindset of feeling trapped, but secure. You’re good at what you do, you’ve done it for a long time, and you’re compensated well. It’s natural to want to avoid stirring things up. Change will be challenging, most likely require making tough decisions, moving out of your comfort zone, learning something new, or even beginning a new venture. It’s easier to stick it out – you reason – despite your energy having fallen flat and your passion dimmed.

Possibility, potential, and capacity – tapping into those requires taking a leap of faith. I do recognize that deciding to tune in and take action on “knowing when” requires attention to many variables – timing, financial, family, etc. – all of which have to be considered. But jumping into the unknown is the only way we grow, develop, and realize our potential. If we don’t leap, we’ll never know what could be, or how much happier and more fulfilled we could be.

I am convinced that somewhere along the career track, everyone will experience this sense of “knowing when.” When you do, tune in to it, and take action on your instincts.

  •  Pay attention to the signs. When you sense burnout, boredom, or restlessness within yourself, move toward it, not away from it. Question why you have these feelings and what you could do to restore enthusiasm, energy, and passion.
  • Consult with mentors, advisors, or a coach. An outside-in perspective offers an invaluable process of reflection, goal setting, and charting a course.
  • Trust in yourself. If you don’t, no one else will. Inventory your greatest attributes and skills; consider these your key leverage points.
  • Take action. If you don’t, how will you ever know “what could have been?” Making a significant change can seem overwhelming. Take the big picture and break it down into smaller pieces. Outline actions to take for each that will advance you closer to your ultimate goal.


about-leadershipAbout Jeanie Duncan: Jeanie is President of Raven Consulting Group, a business she founded that focuses on organizational change and leadership development in the nonprofit sector. She is a senior consultant for Raffa, a national firm working with nonprofit clients to lead efforts in sustainability and succession planning, executive transition and search. Additionally, Jeanie serves as adjunct faculty for the Center for Creative Leadership, a top-ranked, global provider of executive leadership education.