Sometimes colleagues wonder why I take courses, workshops, or training in subjects in which they believe I’m already well-versed. One associate put it this way, “Why are you taking this course – you could teach the subject yourself?” The answer is that I love learning and am always searching for better ways to convey knowledge. Sometimes, the best lessons come from what NOT to do.
I signed up for a presentation class with the idea of gaining additional experience in front of a video camera – always a good source of practice. I sent the organizer a text version of the topic on which I wanted to speak: the growth in women-owned businesses, yet the challenge that those businesses stay small, with few employees, tiny revenues, and low growth ambitions. The point of my presentation was that we could expect more women to achieve board of director roles when more women addressed the causes of women’s own low self-expectations in business. It’s enough of a challenging topic that it is being debated in headlines by the likes of Sheryl Sandberg and Ann Marie Slaughter.
So, how did the trainer counsel me to present this complex challenge effectively to my target audience? He referred me to a YouTube video presentation by a woman researcher speaking on the topics of “vulnerability” and “shame.” He suggested I follow her example of revealing a personally dramatic experience as she did – talking about her breakdown and therapy sessions. He pointed to the large number of “hits” on her YouTube video page as evidence of an exemplary speech.
The lesson for me was that guys get told to “Be Like Mike” and aspire to follow persuasive and ambitious role models. Women are advised to “Be Like Oprah” and show how they are weak, vulnerable, and full of shame. Or shame-worthy. Or anything BUT persuasive, admirable, outstanding examples of intelligent life.
I have nothing against the woman researcher/speaker, her many fans who love listening to her tale of misery. I DO strenuously object to the trainer’s blatant gender stereotyping: the failure to look and listen to individual women and recognize their talent and aspirations; the propensity to package 100% of women into pink princess gowns, waiting helplessly on the sidelines for that magic kiss from a stud-ly Ken-Doll Prince Charming to save her from her vulnerability and shame.
Gender stereotyping deprives women of the training and conditioning they need to grow businesses effectively in a competitive marketplace. Ultimately, gender stereotyping of women reappears in the arguments that poor, pitiable, vulnerable women can attain top tier company board of director roles IF, and ONLY IF, and ONLY WHEN these same Ken-Doll Prince Charmings in the boardroom enact quotas to save the poor princesses from having to earn a board role on the merits. Quotas are a gender stereotyping statement implying that women couldn’t possibly achieve a board role without the gift of preferences from the knights in shining armor in the boardroom.
Once a woman receives the imprimatur of a “quota-directorship,” she would henceforth be identified as a “preference director.” She would not be seen as a peer either by other female directors who made it into the boardroom on the basis of their talent and accomplishments OR by male directors who saw her as vulnerable, weak, and needy of special treatment. The Scarlet Q will always be her mark of public shame.
Women cannot be both leaders and decision-makers of boards or companies – whether of their own or of others – by cowering in the back of the room, hiding from the learning, experiences, and the growth that the open marketplace has to offer.