Exploring Leadership in the News with Steven Pearlstein and Raju Narisetti

The Leaderboard

Most Read: National

From the Blogosphere

Jena McGregor

Jena McGregor

Staff writer Jena McGregor teases out the leadership issues in the day’s news.

Tom Fox

Tom Fox

Guest contributor Tom Fox, of the Partnership for Public Service, writes weekly about issues in the federal workplace.

Lillian Cunningham

Lillian Cunningham

Lillian Cunningham is the editor of On Leadership and writes features for the section.

Leadership Administrator

Gail S. Williams

Gail S. Williams directed the Leadership Alchemy Program at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.
» All Posts by Gail S. Williams

Valuing the feminine approach

Question: The female workers' suit against Wal-Mart is in oral arguments at the Supreme Court, and could become the largest job discrimination case in history. What do you see as the biggest barrier for women in the workplace, and what will it will take in order to really tip the scales?

Let me start by saying that there is no simple answer to this very complex question.  Certainly, there is a cultural component–how women are historically viewed in our society, including what’s seen as their appropriate role in the workplace.  With that as context, my perspective is that each of us views the world and others in it based on our unique set of experiences.  I think of these as a set of filters.   Most of us are unaware of our filters and the judgments they engender.  The actions we take are based on what we observe–again, through our filters. And the culture in which we exist is the source of these as well as many of our beliefs.

Another point to consider is that, to a great extent, men hold the majority of positions of power at all levels of our work organizations.  As a general rule, men are encultured to see the world differently from women.  They have different expectations of not only what should be done but also how it should be done.  Merging this with my belief that there is almost always more than one right answer or one right path, I recognize that women often approach a task in a different manner.  How they approach the job may be different, yet the desired outcome is often the same.

In my experience, many of the women who rose to middle- and executive-level positions in my workplace did so by acting more like men.  Earlier in my career I subscribed to that approach, until one day I realized that I was paying a very heavy personal price.  I was one person at work and my true self at home.  This realization occurred after I reached the safety of middle management.  Once I changed my approach at work to align with who I am as a woman and how I see the world, I was happier and still successful.  In fact, I had more energy, since I wasted less time trying to be someone other than who I really am.

So, to answer part two of the question–what it will take to tip the scales–simply stated, it will take a cultural shift where people believe there is more than one right answer and where the feminine approach is valued as much as the male approach.  Also, we need to adopt a culture where people routinely, and consciously, examine their belief systems.  This will hopefully lead to a less judgmental and inclusive workplace where we observe, examine and value others for their contributions.  This shift can be enabled, albeit only in part, by having rich and candid conversations on the topic.  It can also be enabled by having more women in executive, senior and middle-level positions throughout our organizations.  A topic for another day.

Gail S. Williams  | Mar 29, 2011 11:32 AM

Read what others are saying