Are There Signs We Are Ready to Embrace Female Leadership?

KacyMighty Kacy Catanzaro (ht. 5 feet, wt. 100 lbs.) just made history on American Ninja Warrior as the only woman to complete the course at the Dallas finals. Her jaw-dropping performance, beating out many men in the process, is an inspiration to women and girls everywhere.  Her video, shared below, has had nearly 6 million hits.  While many were moved by her discipline and achievement, I found it touching that so many men at the event cheered her on.  A piece of pop culture can be an indicator of where and who we are.  It made me wonder if we are ready to alter our perceptions of what women can achieve – in every facet of our society.  Or is this, like so many other examples, an anomaly?

Changes that threaten to break past "anomaly" status are everywhere:

The Church of England has voted to ordain women as bishops.

The Dalai Lama spoke to the value of female leadership and intimated that the next Dalai Lama could be a woman.

Malala Yousafzai who campaigns for the urgency of girls' education and survived a Taliban bullet to the head for her activism, just turned 17.  Her birthday, and great courage, were celebrated around the world.

Janet Yellen is now the Fed's first female chair in its 100 year history.  Heading the Fed is a job second only in importance to the Presidency itself.

Christine Lagarde, the first female head of the International Monetary Fund is in the fourth year of her leadership of the IMF. “[C]limate change, income inequality and gender participation in the workforce — issues that only a decade ago would have hardly surfaced at the fund — have now become a focus of its analysis.”  Yet as reported by the Washington Post, she speaks to a world of men.  There is not one other woman on the IMF's board.

Lagarde confirms what too many women already know, that women are chosen for leadership positions only when the organization is in dire straits and "in need of a woman to sort it all out."  Jill Abramson, first ever female Executive Editor of the New York Times found that out the hard way, when, after successfully steering the company through a tough digital transition and doubling their revenue, she was unceremoniously dumped, allegedly for her “brusque management style.”  Name one man who would have been let go for that reason.

Mary Barra recently became the first ever female CEO of beleaguered auto giant GM, yet the company is in the midst of many disastrous recalls due to problems dating back long before Ms. Barra's promotion.  Speculation persists that GM chose a woman to be the face of the company only to throw her under the bus after the crises have been weathered.  But the fact that women are now beginning to be a bit more commonplace in these positions is a feat in itself.

At the same time, we fight regressive or violent social behavior in too great numbers.  Stories of sexual assault and a horrifying lack of investigation at many top U.S. universities are being reported with alarming frequency, belying the notion that women are now being treated with greater respect.

Rebecca Traister’s latest article in The New Republic voices the frustration of many women tired of being judged by a male metric:

“This comfort with group assessment of femininity in turn reminds me of the ease with which women’s choices regarding their bodies, futures, health, sex, and family life are up for public evaluation. Women are labeled as good or bad, as moral or immoral, by major religions and “closely held corporations,” whose rights to allow those estimations to dictate their corporate obligations are upheld over the rights of the women themselves by high courts.”

We still see these types of “evaluations” in every movement of Hillary Clinton, for example, from drivel about her latest hairdo to judgments as to whether or how much she should be paid for a speech – again, no one quibbles over a man’s earning power.

The good news is that more women are choosing to reinvent their lives and goals despite external judgments.  If we are called upon to, as Ms. Lagarde puts it, “sort it all out,” how refreshing to bring our own unique skill set to solve problems in a new way.

In the Senate, it was women, after all, who forged compromise recently to help end the government shutdown.

In the private sector, Palo Alto Software CEO Sabrina Parsons offers the opinion that, despite Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg's famous advice to the contrary, "Leaning In Doesn't Work."

While Parsons expresses gratitude to the feminists of the 70's and 80's who exposed and fought terrible working conditions and discrimination against women, she claims the answer is not for women to don a power suit and pretend to be men.  Palo Alto Software therefore has become a model whereby women – and men – can enjoy a more flexible working schedule and office environment in order to raise children, or take care of an elderly parent.  Technological advances via the internet make flexibility possible while employees can still excel and take on new challenges.

A number of female entrepreneurs have famously rejected the all or nothing corporate paradigm that often forces a choice between career or family.  Instead they have found a creative path to have both and succeed on their own terms.  Are these yet further indications that we as a society are willing to embrace another way of doing business?  Are we more willing to see a female face at the helm?

Parsons maintains women don't have to imitate an antiquated business model in order to get to the top.  For that matter, she makes it pretty inviting for men to throw that business model out the window, too.

Slowly, women are abandoning the idea that they need anyone’s permission to change the way they do business or the kind of challenges they pursue.

It is also worth asking whether the regressive behavior and commentary we see from some politicians and media blowhards is a reaction to the threat of the encroaching female.  Clearly, then, there is no benefit for women in waiting for permission any longer. And as women make more progress and grow in power, it also begs the question whether men will see that as a mutual benefit or become more reactive.

It is certainly the hope that as women accept themselves and each other in new roles and become less shy about stepping up to them, the rest of society can catch up, realizing there is more to be gained by both sexes, no matter who is inventing the widget.

Despite current political and media environments where women still lack an equal voice at the table, pop culture moments like that of gymnast Kacy Catanzaro offer an unlikely but inspiring shock to the system, putting society on notice that women no longer define themselves by anyone’s limited view of them -- and that strength, discipline, smarts and accomplishment can come in unexpected packages.  If ever there was an invitation to keep an open mind...

Enjoy Kacy's performance...

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Anita Finlay is the bestselling author of Dirty Words on Clean Skin.  Sharing the untold story of Hillary's 2008 campaign, Dirty Words exposes media sexism in a society not as evolved as advertised.  "The book tells it like it is for women aspiring to power."  #1 on Amazon's Women in Politics books for 16 weeks.

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