‘We (men) are expected to lead’, one of the male participants exclaimed. As a woman so immersed in working with women’s leadership development programs I found myself somewhat taken aback. It was impossible for me to imagine a woman saying anything like it. For women the reverse could be said to be true: we (women) are not expected to lead. It was one of those moments when you are left in no doubt that gendering processes are alive and well. A moment when socialised gender roles, so often implicit become explicit. And, in this case, open for discussion.
For the men in the room this statement ‘we are expected to lead’ was made by way of explanation, part of a conversation in which they were explaining some of the pressures they feel as men. They were talking about the cultural expectations that men be the breadwinners; with all the resultant focus on their career success where, as one man put it, ‘only acceleration is visible’. This can be constraining, limiting their capacity to imagine and explore alternatives to linear onwards and upwards career trajectories. There were other expectations of them too – about managing others and about taking on male styles of leadership.
We had a full agenda, so we moved on, hurrying a little through this feedback from the single gender conversations – where men and women had, separately, identified challenges for themselves and their gender counterparts. Now I wish we had stopped. We probably could have spent the remainder of the afternoon reflecting on that statement. How do these expectations translate; into applying for promotion or leadership positions, into meeting behavior, into interactions between men and women in the workplace, and so on? How do men support each other to meet these expectations? And what about the women? How does the consequent lack of expectation for women to lead play out in the workplace?
When women have leadership aspirations that have not been matched by opportunity, recognition or support, this statement might be hard to hear. “If you don’t want to lead, step aside and give me the chance” is a response I can easily imagine. It takes a while, at least it did for me, to get a sense of the burden of this expectation. The expectation of leadership and success had in some cases constrained choices and possibilities, effectively boxing men into linear career paths. What seems like male privilege might sometimes be burdensome, depending on your gender perspective.
I have another example of this but from the other point of view, where Tim identified what seemed to him to be female privilege. Tim, some time ago now, expressed to me his jealousy that women were so much more easily able to work part-time. I was a bit taken aback at the time, reflecting on my own experience where this had felt like a frustrating necessity rather than a privilege. Indeed part-time work is associated with many career-limiting consequences for women. It has taken me some time to reflect on this ‘privilege of part-time work’ as seen through the eyes of a man. And as I listen more carefully to how women talk about part-time work, indeed some are expressing their capacity to have the best of both the work and domestic worlds.
My response to Tim was also a good example of how, despite my immersion in gender work, I responded on the basis of my own experience. This ‘sample size of 1’ as I like to call it, is always a danger when doing gender work. Everyone becomes an instant gender expert based on their own experience. The only way out of this difficulty is to be reflective on one’s own responses/reactions, open and inquiring of the experiences of others, and to draw on the considerable amount of data and rich body of gender research that is available. This 'sample size' problem reinforces the need for the dialogue that underpins true partnership.
In our workshop the women, in their own discussions, had correctly identified many of the gendered expectations that men face, but hearing directly from the men made all the difference. These opportunities for open conversation between men and women - conversations in which we can all be honest enough to speak of our true aspirations and frustrations - hold rich promise for developing gender insight and together working to build more gender equitable, inclusive and humane workplaces.
We are entering a new phase in the movement for gender equity; a phase in which no-one should feel either locked out of, or locked into, opportunities for reason of their gender. For my part, I increasingly imagine a future in which people of all genders can thrive with more choices and less constraints.