This opinion-editorial was first published on The Drum.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about entrepreneurship, it’s that to successfully lead and grow your business, you have to be assertive, decisive, and frank. But this is where the trouble lies. These are all adjectives that reflect strength, power, and courage — and the cold hard truth is that rarely are these words used to describe women in a positive light.
Time and again, in various sectors and markets, in boardrooms and in classrooms, in the West and in the East, women have and continue to be subject to sexist and disrespectful narratives. We’re told we’re too loud, too confrontational, too demanding — there are too many to list.
I was raised in New Zealand — a country that has boasted three female prime ministers — and I grew up thinking men and women were equal, with equal access, equal abilities, and equal opportunities. And yet, now living and leading a business in the international hub of Amsterdam, I’m confronted with the fact that this isn’t always the case.
Over a year ago, I launched a boutique communications consultancy. While I’ve been lucky to find partners that embrace and encourage female leadership, in many instances I still come up against a wall. It’s never outright. it’s subtle. But I find it troubling because it’s a breed of sexism that’s prevalent across many circles.
In my early 20s, I read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and spent years applying this philosophy. However, I’m realizing that it’s not the magic trick I thought it was and others are expressing this frustration, too: Michelle Obama recently criticized the philosophy, stating on her book tour, “...it’s not always enough to lean in, because that shit doesn’t work all the time.” Cindy Gallop has scrutinized Sandberg’s book, arguing that what’s needed is more than women adapting a new type of behavior — a structural and cultural change needs to occur.
Laura Visco, deputy executive creative director at agency 72andSunny and cofounder of the movement Invisible Creatives, challenges this notion, too. She told me:
“This 'Lean In' mentality isn’t right; it's blaming women for not being more assertive at work, instead of challenging how a leader should look, sound, and act.”
A recent Mckinsey report on advancing gender equality in The Netherlands, a country which scores well on many indicators of gender equality, reveals that even it still falls short. The report shows that the Dutch labor market scores as the lowest across Western Europe when it comes to female representation in management positions. The report concludes that “women’s potential on the labor market remains significantly untapped.”
To solve this issue, the following solutions are highlighted: a stronger childcare system, creating more positive notions of working mothers, and creating greater financial incentives for women to work more hours. However, nowhere does it address the invisible challenges women face as they climb the ranks; the subtle, cultural, and social challenges that prevent us from rising.
When speaking about with with Leah Forsyth, managing director at creative agency HarrimanSteel, she explained that a supportive work environment made all the difference for her:
“Earlier in my career, I was told that to be taken seriously I had to leave my emotions out of it. In my role today, I’ve realized the opposite is true. HarrimanSteel is an agency that values when I share my emotions because it shows passion. I finally feel confident to share freely without censoring myself and because of doing so my career and the business has benefitted.”
It’s clear that something needs to change.
What I’m suggesting, however, isn’t radical; it’s quite simple. Along with structural initiatives, we need to flip the script. We need to change the narrative around women and strength. We need to reframe our perceptions of female leaders and consider the following:
She’s not bitchy, she’s assertive. She’s not pushy, she’s proactive. She’s not conceited, she’s proud. She’s not greedy, she knows her worth.
As women, we bring a whole other range of attributes to business than our male counterparts, but we also need to be supported and not personally criticized when we demonstrate attributes for which those men are praised. Because, if we continue to criticize women for acting in this way, this invisible barrier will keep us from achieving our, and our company’s, full potential. And the boy’s club will continue.