How the #MeToo Movement Affects Leadership Development

Considerations for leadership development messages to women.

Posted Sep 26, 2018

Debbie Pan/Pexels
Source: Debbie Pan/Pexels

Forgive me, blog. It’s been nearly a week since my planned goal to publish on a Thursday. But I’ll be honest, it’s been hard. Between the hurricane, work travel, and what is going on right now in politics, it’s been a bit much. 

We were fortunate in getting through the hurricane, but my heart aches for the families who have not been so fortunate. Work travel keeps me busy, but it’s enjoyable. But then there are the politics. Oh, the politics….

For every leader, there are times when some kind of crisis, whether at work, or in the news or politics, is upsetting and strikes on something personal. When that happens, we are not only juggling the usual demands and work-life tensions, but also our reactions to these events, and how we engage as leaders during those times. 

Over the past week, I’ve started to feel quite demoralized about it all. Specifically, this. ‘Nuff said? And this is coming from a person who is a perpetual optimist. 

In my last post, I focused on how we juggle and prioritize work-life conflicts in the face of crisis. Here, I want to take it one step further to focus on how the interaction between our past experiences and current environmental situation can affect leadership development for emerging and underserved women.

In particular, given the current climate, I’d like to use the example of a situation with which women, in particular, have become all-too familiar. One that has unfortunately become a continuous source of emotional/mental exhaustion (frankly for both men and women, no matter what your perspective): the recent #MeToo movement, previously Hill/Thomas now Ford/Kavanaugh scandal, future [insert new sexual misconduct issue here].

When it comes to leadership development and success, some really interesting research and learned lessons have emerged focusing on some common pitfalls women encounter more often than men, at least in the corporate world. And for women who have experienced trauma, the challenges can be even more difficult to overcome.

Let’s first consider the situation for women who have either overcome, or not had to endure, significant traumatic events. 

According to Nancy Parsons' (2017) research on mid-level and corporate level women leaders, compared to men at the same levels, one of the biggest risks that many women have that keep them from being perceived or considered to be strong leaders is having a “Worrier” profile. The “Worrier” is someone who, in the face of a major conflict or crisis that requires quick decision-making, instead slows down, avoids making an immediate decision, and starts seeking and gathering more data, overanalyzing and studying the situation. Despite how reasonable this sounds as a strategy – to not be too reactionary – it may backfire. According to Parsons, it creates a perception (perhaps inaccurate) of indecisiveness, lacking courage, failing to adapt to changing or immediate demands, and dropping out at the time they most need to engage. 

This leadership style is also similar to the problematic “Perfectionism” and “Overvaluing Expertise” habits described by Helgesen and Goldsmith (2018) in their new book, How Women Rise. Women with these habits spend too much time doubting themselves and/or lean too heavily on needing to know everything before they feel confident enough to make a decision. This diminishes their success in portraying themselves as a knowledgeable, capable leader. 

While these behaviors are certainly also seen in men, they are less common among male leaders. In fact, Parsons finds that male leaders tend to score higher on factors that have a profile of egotism, rule breaking, and upstaging behaviors. These behaviors are, of course, never really interpersonally desirable; however, they are nevertheless seen as more “leader-like” because they keep men “in the game” and engaged. 

So, in general, women who generally err on the side of being overly cautious are recommended that they let go of needing to be perfect or feeling like they need to know everything, and instead take some calculated risks to step forward and show they can lead. 

This advice most often comes from research on women leaders who have successfully been promoted to leadership roles within male-dominated corporate business environments. In those environments, the cultural expectation is to “stay in the game”, make quick and strong decisions, take risks, demonstrate you personally hold full control of the situation, and be swift and aggressive. 

This all makes perfect sense.

Now let’s consider the situation of women who have experienced past discrimination, stereotyping, harassment, lack of opportunity, and other mechanisms designed to hold them back. 

(And let’s be honest, a large portion of women fit into this category).

Is the message we are sending these women that they need to “just suck it up” or stop being such “worriers”? You can see that this is a tricky dilemma when it comes to women’s leadership development. 

On the one hand, the reality is that women who work in male-dominated corporations must engage in the expected leadership styles in order to get ahead and be considered seriously as a leader. Presenting as a “Worrier” or “Perfectionist” will not help their cause in being perceived as a leader in that culture. 

On the other hand, women who have endured harassment and discrimination in their personal or work lives sometimes learn that the only way to protect themselves from getting hurt again is to put up an emotional wall (Ruderman & Ohlott, 2002). 

Worrying about future negative judgment, overanalyzing a situation to make sure they have evaluated all the risks, making sure they are “covered”, can actually be pretty adaptive coping mechanisms. Why would anyone want to “stay in the game” that may be the very game causing the harassment and discrimination?

The good news is that most women do develop a “thick skin” in reaction to these negative experiences, and many of the greatest leaders have found ways to not only overcome but also become fighters (which can be perceived as a great leadership quality). 

So, in general, for this group, if the experience was in the past, then taking calculated risks to step forward and show they can lead is still useful advice… with the caveat that this might not guarantee they will be able to overcome the bigger systemic issue at play. 

The key is to focus on helping these women feel empowered, understood, and supported, rather than victimized.

As a last example, let’s consider the most problematic situation: Women who have endured one or more past traumatic experiences, perhaps even work-related.

This is not as unusual as you might think. A large portion of the population have experienced at least one traumatic event and between 9-15% of women ultimately develop Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) at some point in their lives as a result of ongoing sequelae of these events (this rate is 2-3 times that of men). The types of traumatic events that women experience more commonly than men involve situations related to interpersonal betrayal and harm (most often interpersonal violence and sexual assault) .

Women who continue to suffer the effects of these traumas in everyday life learn to avoid thoughts, feelings, people, and situations that serve as triggers of the traumatic experience. 

Some people develop a “fight” response which may or may not be adaptive in the corporate world; others develop a “freeze” or “flee” response – adaptive for a traumatic situation but not always effective in the corporate world. 

In this case, coaching them to “suck it up” or let go of their worry won’t necessarily help – at least not immediately. And, of course, there is a serious problem when we tell women who may have endured these negative experiences that they have developed “maladaptive” coping skills, when in fact they were pretty adaptive from a larger systems-level perspective.

These women first need a caring supervisor or mentor to reach out, let them know they are supported, and help them seek professional care if needed, well before doling out more general advice.  

Regardless of the situation, I would argue that there is one approach that would help a company address the needs of most of its people in the most efficient, effective, and sensitive manner. 

Start with a Systems Level Solution

Start first at the organizational level. Why? A strong assessment of the company culture, outcomes, and internal success in the retention of entry level, emerging, and underserved women leaders will quickly reveal any systematic patterns that need to be addressed. 

Companies can be results-driven and competitive and also be great places to work where individual needs are supported, stress is acknowledged and addressed head-on, people are supported to be their best, and women can be empowered to be leaders. None of these are mutually exclusive.

Once these are addressed, it is then easier to identify individuals who need more support.

At the individual level, we must help women stay in the game, whether that be through the identification of typical pitfalls that can be addressed through coaching, mentorship, and training or through additional support systems to help the most marginalized and vulnerable employees overcome systemic obstacles that are impeding success. 

For companies focused on retaining entry level, emerging, and underserved women leaders, this sends a powerful message that they care are willing to really invest in supporting them. Kate Scott, Organizational Development Director for PTC, an industrial Internet of Things software company, makes the point that “while external and internal factors impact everyone, a supportive organization that recognizes the whole person will help women deal with these difficult situations better, be more effective and productive leaders, and stay in the workforce and in their organization longer.” 

Additionally, there is actually a good return on investment (Ruderman & Ohlott, 2002) when a company invests in addressing these issues of diversity such that people feel less invalidated and there are fewer discrimination and harassment costs.

Finally, Ruderman and Ohutt (2002) suggest that companies reconsider messages that emphasize traditionally masculine norms (e.g., work is primary, competition is good, individual achievement is all that matters). Despite how outdated these are (and few men really still buy into these “macho” ideals),most organizations still operate from a “survive” rather than “thrive” model. This model is totally misaligned with modern employees’ interest in work-life balance, self-care, and maintaining good mental, emotional, and physical health.

There are many things women can do to take care of themselves and balance boundaries with “leaning in” as well. But, that’s a topic for another post. I have already fallen into the perfectionism trap spending an extra week worrying about whether I’ve covered all I should for this post, knowing there is so much more, worrying whether I’d do it justice. But now it’s time for me to stop worrying and just take the leap and put it out there.

References

Parsons, N. E. (2017). Fresh Insights to End the Glass Ceiling: New Research and Solutions to Make the Glass Ceiling a Thing of the Past. Leader Voice Publishers.

Helgesen, S. & Goldsmith, M. (2018). How Women Rise: Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back from Your Next Raise, Promotion, or Job. Hachette Books. 

Ruderman, M. N., & Ohlott, P. J. (2002). Standing at the crossroads: Next steps for high-achieving women. Jossey-Bass Inc., Publishers.