The oxymoron of female leadership.
Ralf’s words are still ringing in my head: “it is so great that you as a girl are serving as the student representative for our school!” I am seventeen years old, he has been the previous representative and I have just been elected as his successor by the student council of our German gymnasium. And I am just utterly surprised and actually gobsmacked. Often before I had been the class representative, I tended to speak up on behalf of others and engaged a lot on school politics (and in the peace movement – these were the 80s!). So to me, running for the position of spokesperson was the most natural and logical choice and I had never considered my gender to be of relevance in that matter. I had had learned that my passion for soccer playing was an unusual choice of sport for a girl – but I interpreted that as a prejudice with some legitimacy because of the differences in physical strength. The comment of Ralf was fundamentally different: it put something “unusual”, “exceptional” on my desire and ability to assume a leadership role. And in that moment I learned that what I want to do and how I behave is interpreted by others through a lens of gender stereotypes. And I decided in this moment, that I will make note of these expectations, consider them and continue to follow my ambition, my inner voice. And as long as I am entrusted a leadership role – through a vote or through an assignment of a hierarchy – I will step up to it if I want it.
There were countless “Ralf” moments throughout my career, and that of other female leaders. And again and again and again I chose to observe, consider – and do it anyway. No prejudice must have the power to limit my choices . So, if you are a female leader, be aware of the difference of “what you want” and what others are comfortable with. Make your very own choice and learn to navigate the eventual tensions. As a male leader who wants female talent to lead – become aware of your gender-biased expectations and take care that they are not limiting these awesome women.