Do we expect more from women leaders? Shelley Penn considers the high hopes, burdens and opportunities of leadership – and the importance of self-confidence.
I was invited to dinner with a small group of women architects the other week. It was a semi-social event, underpinned by an interest in issues surrounding gender in architecture and with a pervasive whiff of my forthcoming role as National President of the Australian Institute of Architects in the air. A fairly gentle though serious general discussion turned into a part-optimistic, part-strident listing of things to fix, things to focus on, address and resolve – each item worthy. There was also a subtle sense of judgement pending; the laying out of a challenge, though I’m sure that was not intended. By the end of the night I was exhausted – questioning my ability to meet these expectations and to fill the role. I was also, perhaps, a little angry – guessing such demands had not been laid out in quite this way for my male predecessors.
I know every elected representative is lobbied to varying degrees by their constituents – and others – but do we, and by this I mean women, ask more of our women leaders than we do of men? I remember my sense of great optimism when Julia Gillard became Prime Minister, and suspect I was guilty of the same thing – hoping and believing, because I wanted to, that she would manage well so many things that the blokes hadn’t managed at all. Watching men in government, certainly with hopes and expectations, I know some will be great and some will be weak; all, in other words, human. When they succeed there is cause to rejoice, and when they fail I accept they’re part of the flow of imperfect people who nonetheless strive to make a positive difference.
In her recent article on women in architecture, Dr Karen Burns touches on the theory of ‘gender schema’ as discussed by US professor of psychology Virginia Valian. Burns describes Valian’s studies and cites her findings that we tend to “overvalue men and undervalue women”, affecting “perceptions of competence, the ability of women to benefit from their achievements and to be perceived as leaders.” Burns goes on to note that “we are all participants, no matter how well intentioned, when we assess [our] lecturers… our employees, our prospective employees.”
From one angle, my co-diners overloaded me with an inventory of unrealistic requirements which, unfairly, seemed to set me up for failure, despite their best intentions. From another view, their insistence could be seen as an investment of faith in my abilities. Perhaps what’s more interesting, and ultimately more relevant for me, was my internal response. The theory of Gender Schema also involves the notion that we self-perceive in accordance with the schema. My immediate response to the dinner diatribe was to question my ability to do the job; to resume the default position of self-doubt.
In reality I know I won’t meet everyone’s idea of what I should or shouldn’t do, and that’s quite healthy. It’s about defining my own aspirations for how I can contribute, and then doing my best to fulfill them. But I have to keep up the internal pep talk, and remind myself that those hopes can be high.
Jun 6, 2012
I was fascinated by this very honest account of your experience. I firmly agree that the most important thing is to be quite clear of your own values and priorities, and keep them first and foremost in your mind and your work.
However, after considering this article for a little while, I wonder if there is something further you could take from these women who have shown such passion towards the problems of the architectural world – USE THEM. Note down their names and their passions and empower THEM to do something about the issues that they feel strongest about. You could use this experience not to burden yourself with ‘more to do’, but as an opportunity for finding people with ideas and energy who have recognised a problem and perhaps have some very valuable ideas on how to solve them.
I say this from experience. I was once one of those women who had a lot to say (my personal gripe was the toxic culture of design studio’s) but was looking for someone else to do something about it. One day a woman in my workplace turned around to me and said ‘you are obviously passionate about that topic, you should do something about it’. It changed my perspective – after being taken aback at first, I decided she was right – if I recognised the problem and had an idea of the solution, it was my responsibility to follow that up – I approached my old Uni and began teaching design studios the way I wish I had been taught (in a positive, structured, encouraging manner) – and it has been an amazing, transforming experience!
Perhaps you could be that encouraging voice for these women?
Something to think about. Good luck in your new role!