I first began to notice it during business school. Although women remain a minority in MBA programs, the women I became surrounded by were ambitious, smart, globally minded and investing in their careers. By most measures, these are the women with the most potential to break glass ceilings and take their seat in the board rooms. The women we need to move the world closer to gender parity in business and government.
My particular focus was on entrepreneurship, creating something of your own. But as I began to look around my classrooms and extracurricular groups, I noticed those smart women I knew from my program were absent. As I began to dig into what was preventing more women from participating, I conducted a series of interviews and focus groups and began to hear the same repetitive phrase, “I need to develop my skills first."
If only she had more experience/skills/ideas then she would explore her entrepreneurial interest. It wasn’t that she wasn’t interested — many women I interviewed told me about their long term plans to start something of their own or their startup ideas they’d never revealed to anyone — but they had placed requirements on themselves to indulge their interest, requirements with definitions and metrics so unclear I was not convinced they could ever be met.
If these women, these successful, smart, experienced, and ambitious women were consistently feeling a need to be “more” before they could pursue their true ambition, then what could we expect about the future of female entrepreneurship? I became more concerned.
In comparison, I began to notice the men in my program didn’t share this same philosophy at all. They tended to dive in, to experiment, and to believe they were ready whenever they felt like it.
As I explored the question in other environments, I began to hear that sentiment everywhere and in every industry.
Mid and senior level women in big corporations, working to progress women within their own organizations, cited a lack of specific skills as a reason that women’s voices are not as appreciated in their companies. More training, teaching, and skill development is the solution to gender imbalances in the corporate world, they all argued.
Senior women who made it to the top, c-suite leaders and serial-entrepreneurs validate some of this sentiment.
“You do need experience before you can try it yourself,” one venture capitalist told me, a serial-entrepreneur herself and mother of three.
“Work hard and overcome your challenges, everyone has them,” another senior exec advised me.
“Women will always need to work harder than men to get to the same place,” has become a mantra we women have become coerced into taking as fact.
Popular literature and new movements bare the same tone. Baked into the arguments of Lean In and The Confidence Gap we hear that women need to push harder to imitate the men they hope to replace with experience and skill set.
This point of view might lead you to believe that the desire to develop more skills can be attributed to a characteristic lack of confidence in women. But I wonder if the root of the issue has more to do with an assumption that the key to success requires a honing of skills, traits, and style that men used to reach the same position.
That future scenario is a frightening one to me. What if we achieve gender parity (which still isn’t supposed to happen until 2095) and when we get there the world doesn’t look that different than today? Because women got there by imitating the old way of doing things (the male way). And other women are made to believe they can’t progress unless they take on that same skill set and behavior.
We see this play out in every industry. Women are told to work on their communication skills, to promote their own work the same way a man would tout his achievements.
In broadcast, women are given vocal coaches and are subject to critiques to make their voices lower and less feminine. The recent criticism of “vocal fry” and “upspeak” in women’s voices is the current example of a world telling women their natural approach is wrong.
In fact, it’s no secret that men (and women) love to tell women what to do and how to be in every part of their lives. Too often, that advice is counter to the authentic approach a woman would reach on her own.
The internet is flooded with “5 steps to success” and how-to articles on everything from negotiating your salary to going on a first date. Since women are much more active online and on social media, it’s no surprise this style of content has become the norm. It’s the way we’ve been taught to interact with the world. Women are constantly told someone else knows better about what she should be doing in her life than she does herself.
And when a woman does do something different, like a former first lady running for president, for example, there are plenty of opinions about style.
I was struck recently to read Maureen Dowd criticize Hillary Clinton for being too masculine and then being too feminine. Although her criticism was laced with stereotypes and a perpetuation of the idea that women leaders are in need of molding, her closing point was that Clinton’s campaign will be best served by speaking from her authentic self.
I hope that for Hillary Clinton, too, both for her as a woman and for our country. If women can rise to places of power with authenticity, they will be more powerful, and bring forward a new world that empowers others.
What if, instead of waiting for the right moment, and focusing on what we lack, women began to act on the strength of what they already possess? What if all those women who said skill development needs to come first began experimenting in building their own ideas? We’d see a lot more female business owners and entrepreneurs and more innovation brought to society.
What if instead of changing women, we looked at changing the system, improving the way we measure value within a company? What if instead of training women to speak differently, we trained society how to listen better?
It’s already happening in some places. Here we will seek to amplify those stories, discuss opportunities for advancement of ideas in other places, and expose the complexity of women. With sharing, discussion, and inspiration we’ll empower more women to access their own authenticity, so we can all get about to the work of progressing the world.