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The Fear Behind Women in Power

From property to power—a look at resistances to women's rights

Women have come a long way. Or have they? The famous Virginia Slims ad campaign created by the Leo Burnett Agency claimed so in July of 1968 with the launch of their legacy “You’ve come a long way” tagline. The ads captured the progress of the women’s movement and often portrayed successful women working happily in their careers. Just 48 years prior to the ad launch, the U.S. Constitution was ratified with the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote. Today, 48 years later, a woman is running for President of the United States. Progress is being achieved. Albeit slowly—and with a few costs.

It’s not difficult to step back and notice that as women’s careers escalated so did the divorce rate. Research shows that there is higher divorce rate among children of divorce, setting up a reinforcing cycle. Yet I don’t believe women are to blame for this. Women want and deserve equal treatment, respect, and safety. Women are not chattel, yet they’ve been treated like property for centuries. Today’s young women may not realize the sacrifices made by the generations of women before them to attain safe and equal treatment. More important, today’s young women—and men—may not realize that progress must still continue.

While I have specialized in gender dynamics and even give talks on ‘resolving the gender pay gap’ and ‘understanding the hidden differences in the way men and women work,’ I was still taken aback when a yogi, Rolf Gates, vulnerably disclosed in his book, “Meditations from the Mat” that he has to work on letting go of an “irrational fear of ‘women’s lib.’” He described that he struggles with seeing life as a zero-sum game (if you win, I lose), so his fear of being powerless heightens when he witnesses that women are outnumbering men in law school. That deadly competition between the sexes is real—and sadly many men are unaware that they have unconscious fears about women’s power. The conscious people, like Gates, work hard to find it, own it and release it.

Part of the difficulty is that men are more wired to be hierarchical and see things in win-lose scenarios. It goes back to those innate hunter skills that allow a man to singularly focus on the killing their prey—and to beat the other hunters to it first. Women, on the other hand, are more hard-wired to be more multi-tasking and collaborative and seek win-win solutions. It’s part of the mothering need to solve multiple children’s issues while also cooking meals, cleaning, and keeping an ear out for danger. The wonderful thing in our evolution and growth is that gender norms are changing a bit and with increasing role-reversals, a bigger bridge between the sexes is built. Even so, the greater majority of men and women reveal pretty entrenched male-female neurological patterning.

So what does this mean for the women’s movement and society overall? First, it illuminates the need for men to take Gate’s lead and uncover their own fears and biases about women. It is also important for women to understand male fears so they aren’t caught off-guard by subtle forms of sabotage. Some ways men unconsciously and/or consciously sabotage women is through sexualizing, dismissing, controlling, teasing, criticizing, interrupting, psychopathologizing, humiliating, abusing—and measuring women against a male standard.

The result of such sabotage that can be seen today is:

  • Women still get paid less than men on average (79 cents per dollar to men in 2015, up from 60 cents to every dollar in the 1970’s, suggesting equal pay to be achieved by 2059 at this rate of growth – Please note a pay gap still exists when accounting for disparities such as women clustering in lower paying jobs, taking off for childbirth, etc.)
  • On average women’s income over a lifetime after a divorce is still lower than a man’s even with child support and alimony payments
  • Women make up the majority of support jobs and only 4.4% lead S&P 500 companies
  • The majority of workplace bullying is men bullying and/or harassing women
  • On the home front, 2 to 4 million women are assaulted each year by their partner in the U.S. with 5 million children witnessing abuse each year
  • Popular movies, music and video games support and reinforce abuse of women

If you’re wondering why the topic merged into abuse, it is because believing one is superior is at the heart of all abuse. So if men are wired to believe in a zero-sum game and then feel threatened by women’s power and status—and believe they are better than women—abuse is born. It can be physical, mental, or both. To understand the other helps, yet as Anne Wilson Schaef points out in her book, “Women’s Reality,” men make up the dominant culture so women are motivated to understand and know a man’s way of being while men don’t need to make the effort to understand a woman’s way of seeing and experiencing the world. Therefore, when men insult a woman for being sensitive, for rambling, for crying, for seeming distracted (when she’s multitasking), for being overly concerned with what other people think and what they are saying, for being crazy, for not being men, then a form of abuse and annihilation is bound to happen. It is happening. Right here and right now. Worldwide and in this progressive country.

Yes, women have come a long way, however, there’s more ground to cover. Looking at the coverage of our female presidential candidate is interesting. Regardless of where you stand politically, take just a moment to ponder the type of characterizations thrown at her. She has been ridiculed for not being sensitive and touch-feely enough to being called a witch, a power-hungry demon, a lesbian, a liar, and most currently had her sanity attacked with accusations that she has brain damage and has suffered a concussion. I am not sure I have seen this level of base attack on a presidential candidate. The discussion is no longer on legitimate policy initiatives. It’s a full frontal assault filled with abusive slander and we, as America’s children, are watching. Perhaps the opportunity that can stem from it is for us to talk to each other and discuss how we see things differently and genuinely explore and try to understand the other person.

In the next 48 years, I hope (and pray) that women will be safe to be themselves and lead in a feminine way that reveals the enormous gifts that come from being wise, empathetic, collaborative, strong, inspiring, resilient, nurturing, sensitive, protective, and creative. I pray women and men and transgender people and all humankind will honor and respect and appreciate each other’s differences—where we can truly be equal in our differences.