Women in Leadership: You can’t be what you can’t see

As a female in a traditionally male-dominated industry, the presence of women in my workplace has always been important to me. I am fortunate to have graduated from a civil class with a female to male ratio of 40% and to work for an organization that hires a fairly large number of female engineers; yet I’ve still had very few opportunities to work with women in senior positions. The reality is that, while the number of women obtaining engineering degrees has been pretty steady in Canada at 17-18%, there are still very few women in senior engineering and management positions.

I’ve always been an advocate for more women in positions of leadership, but I recently had a little ‘aha!’ moment about WHY it’s so important for women to be represented at senior levels. I recently watched a great documentary on Netflix called ‘Miss Representation’. It’s about the way women are represented in the media, the effect this has on girls and women of all ages, and the importance of having female roles models and leaders in all industries to combat the misrepresentation of women. The film’s tagline, and my ‘aha!’ moment, is that you can’t be what you can’t see. It’s hard to see yourself in certain careers or positions of leadership if there are no female role models demonstrating that it’s possible.

Before I continue, I just want to acknowledge that I am writing this blog from a position of privilege. I am a white, straight, cisgender, thin, able-bodied, woman. This blog is about the importance of female roles models in leadership positions, but when I say ‘women’, I want to specifically include women of all race, size, class, and sexual orientation. I am privileged because the few female role models I do see generally look like me. I believe women of colour, fat women, transgendered women, and lesbian women (among others) face additional challenges in finding relatable female role models in their everyday lives. I hope I can draw some of these connections in how we are misrepresented in the media.

We’ve all been influenced by the media in some way or another. Magazines, tabloids, and advertisements constantly present us with these images of “perfect”, over sexualized, unattainable women. They’re designed to make us feel insecure about our bodies so that we rush out and spend money on clothing, hair products, make-up, diet plans, and even cosmetic surgery. The images we see on a daily basis create unrealistic expectations about what beauty is, negatively affecting the self-esteem and body image of young girls and women and normalizing boys and men to the sexual objectification of women.

The media places a disproportionate importance on appearance and has a huge influence on how we determine our own self worth and value and the worth and value of those around us. We’re subconsciously taught about how to perceive sex and gender, about the role we can play in the world, and about what we can be expected to accomplish based on our gender. The way we report the news and the characters we write for movies and television reinforce dated ideas about what societal roles men and women can be expected to fill and the value that they can add to the world.

Let’s start by talking about the film industry. Major blockbuster movies and box office chart toppers generally feature male protagonists and supporting male-dominated casts. There might be a few women who either play love interests or serve some role in supporting or motivating the male protagonist, but they generally don’t have a large impact on the plot. For example, in the Batman Trilogy, Rachel spends most of the first movie playing the role of ‘damsel in distress’ and in the Dark Knight, she is pretty much the only female character in the movie. Even though her presence is important to the plot, she does little to progress the story in the first half of the movie and we soon discover that her real purpose is simply to serve as motivation for the acts that will be committed by the two men in love with her in the second half of the movie. Her role only serves to further the development of the male characters. Unfortunately, movies that feature female protagonists or larger female casts are more likely to be dismissed into the category of “chick flick”, where the storyline still often focuses on the pursuit of a man. Even movies with mixed casts can be deceiving about the importance of the female characters.

A useful tool I recently discovered for examining the disparity between the roles played by male and female characters when watching movies is to use the Bechdel Test. In order to pass the Bechdel Test, the movie must contain one scene where there are two women having a conversation about anything other than a man. It doesn’t have to be a long or important scene or add any value to the movie, but it’s surprising how many films fail the test. For example, I was surprised to discover that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II, which has one of my favourite female characters, Hermione Granger, doesn’t even pass the Bechdel Test. I’m not saying it’s a good measure of what films have meaningful female characters (I still think Hermione is great), but it does highlight the absence of female to female relationships in a lot of films. It’s okay for there to be unequal numbers of men and women and movies, but over time, the number of movies featuring majority male casts has been largely disproportionate.

It seems that there is an assumption in Hollywood that both men and women are interested in watching movies about men, but only women are interested in watching movies about women. I find this sad because women are every bit as complex as men and are every bit as capable of leading a storyline that does not center on romance. It’s possible to write compelling female characters that are just as engaging as male characters and that are just as much of interest to male viewers as female viewers. Why are we only catering to half of the population when we write and produce movies?

I’m inclined to think that it might have something to do with the fact that the movie industry is almost completely dominated by men. For the majority, our film directors, producers, and writers are men and the number of meaningful (say Oscar-worthy) roles available for men far outweigh the number available for women. Men, understandably, don’t know how to write compelling female characters because they are not female. So it shouldn’t really be any great surprise that our movies and television shows are filled with male heroes in the form of doctors, lawyers, police officers, scientists, engineers, and politicians. Unfortunately, women are filling very different roles in movies and as such, we have a very different expectation about what our female characters, and by extension ourselves, can accomplish.

That’s not to say there aren’t movies and television shows with great female characters. Grey’s Anatomy has a diverse cast of female doctors, Parks and Rec has director and city council member Leslie Knope, Girls has four relatable female stars, and Orange is the New Black is a great example of the success a female creator, writer, and diverse cast of women can have. However, there is a tendency when trying to write these “strong” or “empowered” female characters to simply give them physical strengths or traditional male traits to demonstrate their power. We don’t need to adapt our female characters to the same traits as our male protagonists to create compelling and meaningful characters. Women need characters that they can relate to on television and in movies. The media has become a very important part of our culture and can influence how we relate to one another and interpret our experiences. We should be able to turn on the television and see characters that we can relate to.

We can draw a connection here by looking at the percentage of people of colour that are cast in movies. Similar to female roles, lots of movies may have one or two black actors/actresses, but the majority of the cast, and generally the protagonist, will be white. Producers love to write in that one stereotypical black, gay, or fat friend to pretend like they have a diverse cast and to get a few cheap laughs. What’s equally frustrating is that these characters are often added simply because they’re black, gay, or fat. That one quality that deviates from the norm becomes the entire essence of their character.

Melissa McCarthy and Rebel Wilson are both popular, successful actresses. I won’t pretend like I’ve seen even a portion of their movies, but in many of their roles, being fat is an important part of their character. In Bridesmaids, McCarthy’s forward approach to romance is funny because as a fat woman, we assume her prospects for love are slim and in Pitch Perfect, Wilson’s character is literally called ‘Fat Amy’. Most of the laughs they generate in these roles are directly related to the fact that they’re overweight; it becomes the dominating feature of their personality. McCarthy and Wilson are both great actresses and their comedic value shouldn’t be limited to their size. That said, I was impressed that both these characters had a lot of self-love; they don’t try to change who they are and that makes you love them too.

In the same way, women of colour are not frequently featured in roles where being black isn’t an essential part of their character. Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Lupita Nyong’o are all great actresses that have been nominated for Oscars for their roles in The Help and 12 Years a Slave. But in all cases, being black was a requirement of the casting and necessary to the plot of the movie. That’s not to say the roles are bad, it’s just that we don’t see many people of colour leading movies where the character’s race is unimportant. If the protagonist’s race doesn’t matter, by default, the role generally goes to white actors.

If we move on to politics, the story is, unfortunately, more or less the same. Men dominate the political scene, shaping most of our nation’s legislature and policy; policies that affect everyone, whether male or female, black or white. There just seems to me to be something so inherently wrong that governments can meet and draft legislature that will affect the entire population, when they’re often missing representation from half of it! Even more inconceivable, is the power (predominantly white male) politicians have to dictate policies on women’s issues. Here, more than anywhere else, I believe it’s imperative to have women not just participate in the discussion, but to shape and lead the discussion.

Unfortunately, the media does us few favours when it comes to augmenting the number of women in politics. Female politicians are fighting a completely different campaign during election time and an additional set of challenges if they are elected. When Sarah Palin was selected as the republican VP nominee in the 2008 election, the media quickly framed what the dialogue surrounding her campaign would be and highly influenced how Americans would view her as a political candidate. Her political platform was of little interest to the media, who instead focused on how she dressed, how she did her hair and make-up, and how running for election might impact her family. That’s not to say no one talked about Obama’s sex appeal, but when he talked, we at least stopped and listened to what he had to say. We never questioned Obama’s ability to be both a world leader and a good father.

I’m not saying the election result should have been any different, but Sarah Palin was certainly treated differently, and taken much less seriously, for being a woman. Our news outlets like to pretend that a female politician’s appearance is somehow relevant when they should be educating us on important voting issues. How can we encourage young women to pursue careers in politics or leadership by tearing them down on national television, for reasons completely unrelated to their political policies or views?

Today our society just doesn’t seem to value or respect the female voice. Any woman who has the courage to speak out about politics or inequality knows they’re up against a media industry that cares more about their appearance than their voice and social communities that just don’t respect them. When a young girl was raped in Steubenville, reporters lamented the lost future of her rapists rather than the trauma she was experiencing from being sexually violated and the ongoing emotional pain of having to relive that trauma throughout a trial. When female blogger Anita Sarkeesian speaks out about violence against women in video games, male gaming communities attempt to silence her through intimidation and threats of harassment. And when five black American, transgender women are murdered during the first 5 weeks of 2015, it gets virtually no media attention.

These actions demonstrate to young girls and boys precisely how little we value the voices of women. How can we expect girls and women to speak out with so many people screaming at them to be silent? If we can’t be what we can’t see, then what I see is a serious lack of female role models. It can be easy to think that women have progressed so far since the days when we were forced to fight for the right to work and vote, yet on average, women are still paid less than men, promoted less than men, and generally respected less in the workplace.

I’ve often heard the argument that women simply aren’t interested in the higher paying professions and leadership positions that men traditionally hold. I’m sorry, but I’m just not buying it. Yes, modern feminism respects that you have the right to choose whether you want to focus your time and energy on pursuing your career or follow the traditional path of being a mom and homemaker. There is no right or wrong choice and women should feel comfortable and secure in choosing either path. But I just don’t buy that women are not interested in these higher paying, management positions and I think there are other factors at play in why we typically see fewer women in these positions.

First of all, there’s the fact that we make women choose. Do you want to pursue a career or do you want to pursue a family? We generally don’t put this responsibility on men and it’s very unlikely that a man’s choice to become a father will ever have any effect on the trajectory of his career; it’s assumed a man can have both. However, even if a woman has no intention of having children, her employer is more likely to be prejudiced against her. Whether subconsciously or not, when hiring and promoting women, employers often take into consideration the likelihood of having to pay for maternity leave(s) and other family related benefits and anticipate that female employees may be less dedicated to the company once they have children.

Women tend to get stuck in middle management positions and get passed over again and again for leadership positions. We tend to favour working with those that are similar or like-minded to ourselves. Since men already dominate our boardrooms, it’s easier for companies to just keep promoting men. Men and women do think and act differently; but I’m of the opinion that it would greatly benefit companies to have both perspectives at the highest levels of management.

However, I think some of the biggest challenges in climbing the career ladder up to senior management are historically ingrained gender norms and the perceptions of gender the media has instilled in us. Men have always been assured of their value to society. They have traditionally been viewed as providers and the voice of authority in family, work, and politics. Media influence teaches boys and men that their voices are valuable and deserve to be heard, whereas our society is more likely to try and silence female voices. As a result, I do think that men are more confident. They’re more willing to speak up in meetings, to put forth ideas, or directly ask for a raise or promotion. Women bring immensely important viewpoints and ideas to the table, but they’re more likely to hesitate before sharing and be judged more harshly if they fail.

We also interpret the actions of men and women very differently. I recently saw a great comic illustrating the double standard between how we interpret the same action from a man and a woman. The comic features a man asking for a raise and his employer thinking “what a go-getter”, and then a woman asking for a raise and the employer thinking “what a pushy bitch”. We respect confidence in a man, but we view a confident woman as pushy and an unconfident woman as a pushover. Those women that have made it to a leadership positions face just as much of a struggle once they get there. From what I understand, it often involves having to make sacrifices in your personal life, working twice as hard, and having to adapt your attitude and personality to that which suits the man’s world you’re immersing yourself in.

We can’t be what we can’t see. It can be hard to relate to the female characters on television because there are no women writing relatable characters. Likewise, it’s hard to envision a future for yourself in management or politics when there are few role models demonstrating that you can have that future. Let’s not make excuses for why there are so few women in leadership and let’s not take our inspiration from the media. Instead, let’s look for the already amazing role models in our lives, build them up, and then become role models ourselves.


One thought on “Women in Leadership: You can’t be what you can’t see

  1. Lots of food for thought here. Yes challenging for women to rise to management for sure as I have seen it in my own organization and profession. I have been in my current position for 17 years and in all those years there has been one woman in supervisor role never mind in management. And sorry to say that she was pushed out the door very quickly by male management.

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