Who’s Your Role Model?

We’d arranged to meet in a dark bar in the middle of London to say our final goodbyes.  I hadn’t seen him for weeks, maybe months.  He looked great – younger, more vital, refreshed.  I was a wreck.  I still had no idea how I was going to live alone in a foreign country, carry on with my life and move forward, meet new people, make ends meet with no support from anyone.  My friends and family were literally half a world away.  After some heavy, painful silences and long stares out the window, I tried to find something prosaic, something normal to say, something that would move me beyond my devastation.  I asked him what he was going to do for work when he settled back home (with his beautiful new lover).  His answer was simple but changed my life.  He said, without hesitation, “I don’t know – I don’t really care.  You’re the one who’s so ambitious”.

Fact is, I’d never described myself that way, or really even knew what it meant.   I worked hard at my job as a teacher, and talked about it way too much, but “ambitious” just seemed like such a foreign concept.  Me?  Ambitious?  All I ever wanted was to change the lives of all my students by evangelizing the dark brilliance of Samuel Beckett.  When I reflected on what he’d said, though, it absolutely changed my perspective on my own career.  If I’m the one who’s so ambitious, I thought, then maybe I’d better hurry up and get successful.  I quit my job as a teacher and started working at an investment bank (it was 1999 – they were hiring anyone with a pulse and no criminal record…it wasn’t hard to get hired).

Over the next 12 years,  I threw myself in to my work as if it was my own new beautiful lover.  The company wanted me to go to India for 3 months at a time and work (literally) out of tin shed?  No problem.  Wanted me to take phone calls at 3am, then put on 2 layers of eye shadow and a well-pressed suit and show up to the office 3 hours later?  Of course!  Work 14 hours, come home and then take more conference calls?  You got it.  I learned to love how to navigate the ins and outs of a big, complex, mutli-faceted, pressure-filled, high-performing, extremely demanding company.  I have worked so many weekends it’s become ritual. I have lost friends due to all the cancelled dinners, lack of replies to emails, inability to be responsive to their calls for friendship. I confused being busy with being wanted.  I derived all my meaning from my work.

But at some point in time, being a 24-hour-a-day-machine wasn’t enough – either for me, or for my employer.  All of a sudden, I had to learn how to lobby, how to convince people of things I myself didn’t believe in.  It wasn’t just about doing a lot of work anymore, it was about whom I worked with (and for), whom I schmoozed with, which cocktail events and dinners I went to, and how I interacted with all the big swinging dicks (not my term, read Liar’s Poker) on Wall Street.   And that’s when I realized:  I’m up against something far bigger than me, something no amount of homework could make me avoid:  Gender Bias.  Great.  I never thought “it would happen to me”,  but sooner or later we all get whacked on the head by it.  It’s just not the same for an ambitious woman.

Gender bias is a big problem, especially in my industry.  Big Fucking Banks (henceforth to be referred to as BFB’s, and yes that’s my own term) throw millions of dollars every year towards creating “programs for women leaders”, that basically, well, make sure women don’t throw up their hands after a few short years and say, “nope, just not worth it”.   So now I’m part of developing a program just like this at my own BFB.    Do I believe it’s going to “work”?  Nope.  You can’t change generational bias.  But you sure can try.

So, as part of the new “Women’s Leadership Forum” that my BSB has created, we arranged a meeting where a small group of the top women leaders of the firm could get together and talk.  We talked because apparently that’s what you need to do to change things.  You need to talk.  Nothing like having a 2 hour meeting with a bunch of women, sitting around a table, eating lunch and drinking iced tea, to reinforce stereotypes… you should have seen the glances we got from the men as they walked past the glass conference room walls.

But we did do our homework before this meeting, and planned to structure the conversation around this topic:  “What are the barriers you face as you navigate the path to the C-Suite?”  We looked at some compelling (but dated) research that told us that women are every bit as ambitious as men to get to the top (duh), but that we have a set of very unique circumstances that prevent us from getting there without a whole lotta struggle.  And that’s where I was completely wrong about the usefulness of the discussion.  That’s when the stories started to come out.  It was riveting.

After the discussion, we had to find a way to conveniently narrow it down to three bullet points.  So drumroll please, here are the three biggest barriers that women encounter in their climb to the top that men just don’t have to deal with.  At least as described by me and some of my colleagues.  What do you think?

1. Lack of access to networks.  Sure, the old boys club a la “Mad Men” in the 50’s may be a thing of the past, but subtle things show up every day.  I remember a senior managing director (a man) once said to me that he just “doesn’t feel comfortable asking a woman out to a business dinner”, and to a certain extent, he has a point.   It’s just easier to grab dinner with Mike or James or Jonathan than have to deal with any weirdness of the “optics” of sitting across the table at a dimly lit restaurant from Jane or Mary or Wendy.   And then there’s the issue of how the husbands of career women deal with this stuff.  One time I’d arranged to have dinner with an older man, a professor of leadership at MIT, whose insights and professional connection would have greatly helped my “brand”.  My husband had warned me that this man must’ve “had other intentions”, though.  Given that a) my husband had never met the guy, b) my husband is, after all, a loving and protective husband; and c) in my belligerently idealistic mind this should absolutely not be “allowed” to be the case, I shrugged off his advice and went along for dinner.  Sure enough, Dr MIT drank way too much and made an embarrassment of himself.  I never talked to him again.  As a result, I tend to be skeptical when a male colleague suggests dinner over lunch, or coffee, or just a plan old meeting.  Sometimes I’m completely wrong, but I don’t like to tempt fate.  Still, it does limit the number of dinners I get invited to.  And that’s where the important conversations tend to happen.

2. Gender-based stereotypes.  My first female boss told me once, “You have to decide which you want to be:  The Mommy, The Bitch, or The Flirt.. because that’s how you’ll be labeled and it’s better to know it and have control over it before it controls you”.  In my career I’ve been labeled 2 out of the 3, mostly behind my back but sometimes to my face.  Being called a bitch is something that becomes oddly prosaic when you’ve lived in New York City for ten years.  I got called it this morning at the post office, for example, when a young woman thought I’d cut in front of her in the line.  Being called a flirt, though (or worse, a slut), is just plain hurtful.  I have spent many, many years trying to navigate my way through the mislabeling that comes with being intellectually curious, open, friendly, and genuinely interested in others, but also being a woman.  Strangely, many times it’s been another woman doing the labeling, which is even more hurtful.  Why do we do this to each other?

3. Lack of female role models.   And here’s where it gets interesting.  Yeah, yeah, it’s a cliché and has been heard many times before:  it’s lonely at the top.  Especially for women.  Especially in my industry.  And the lonelier it gets, the lonelier it gets.  So whom do we look up to, to help us define how we should behave?  Hilary Clinton?  She’s the one that comes to mind immediately for me (she’s resilient yet human; has dealt with a philandering husband and carried on to create her own brand and success; she travels all over the world, navigating sensitive political situations with grace and sensitivity even though she must be eternally exhausted from jetlag; and doesn’t get one iota of the attention and fanfare that her husband does.  (side story: my dentist, who “does Chelsea’s teeth”, told me he ran in to them last summer at the Hamptons.  He waxed lyrical about how great Bill looked, so young and energetic since losing all that weight, and then promptly added that his wife hadn’t fared so well, the ole lady, as he called her.  I wanted to bite his hand.)) Or there’s Oprah.  Christine Lagard.  Indra Niri.  Carly Fiorina (wash your mouth out!).  The prime minister of Australia (whose name I can’t even remember). Our mothers and grandmothers.  Not a huge bank to chose from.  And I don’t know about you, but my grandmother’s best leadership ability was managing to convince everyone to eat meatloaf once a week.  Hardly a commercial animal.

So all of this reflection on role models and stereotypes got me thinking… maybe I’m short-changing my compatriots.  We here at Mother Sugar are a global and varied community, with exposure to political figures, cultural icons and other VIPs that may not have appeared on the front pages of each other’s papers.  So, when you think about a “woman role model”, someone who defines leadership and being a woman, who comes to mind?

25 thoughts on “Who’s Your Role Model?

  1. First I want to say I really enjoyed reading this, and that its an incredibly thought provoking question. One that I’ve thought about a lot since yesterday, and I came up with exactly none. I will grant you Hillary and a few women from history, Madame Curie, Coco Chanel etc.

    I work in a technology field, where there are less than 2% women in the industry, and less than .05% at my level. Not only does the old boys club still exist, its still flourishing. At least in my industry. Its a hard thing to say without sounding bitter, and I’m not really, I just know I will never have a penis so the best I can do is be better, smarter, one step ahead and always on my A game with them.

    I dont have a good answer really, but I know its a great question. Which leads me to think that perhaps we have to become our own role models. The problem is as women, overwhelmingly we dont support each other very well. A lot of times we are really our own worst enemies. Until we learn to respect and empower one another, I’m not sure anything will ever really change.

    • Jeanette: already you kind of are somewhat of a role model to me! (I’m only partially joking). Technology is a field even less diverse than banking. You are on the final fronteer! Funny though, when I think about the old boys club, I don’t tend to think of technologists… I think of bankers, lawyers, management consultants and the like. I guess I am prone to stereotyping too. By the way, for what it’s worth, the guy I mentioned in the first paragraph, my ex, was a technologist. The wheel turns…
      And I agree we do have to become our own. I realize after I wrote this that there is one woman with whom I work who is somewhat of a role model to me. I must make sure I tell her.

      • My particular industry is specifically video games. I work on the largest MMORPG in the world, with over 11 million active users at any given time.

        To find women in this industry is nearly impossible, if you do they are someones admin, or maybe they write code. They are even rarely if ever in marketing.

        The old boys club in this industry isn’t like the old boys club of the banking industry, they are younger, less well dressed, richer than midas, generally incredibly arrogant, but rarely as smart as they think they are. They spend their days congratulating themselves on being masters of the universe.

        Which again may sound bitter, but honestly, I’m not. I might be further ahead in my career if I were willing to be ruthless. But I choose mentorship instead, and what I’ve found is while I am not the “mommy” leading people lots of times looks/feels like being one. I hate the idea of mothering these people. I prefer “Shepard” 😛

        I applaud you for being able to rise in banking. Its an incredibly difficult field. Plus you’re an excellent writer and incredibly articulate so you obviously have a LOT going for you!!

  2. I’m so glad you posted and that you posted on this. Did you know in high school that a few of us on this blog started an official feminist club? Who knew that in my case this would lead to a long career working in women and diversity leadership (or that we’d have a ‘reprise’ of sorts here on Mother Sugar!).

    • I’m glad you found value in the discussion. I spent quite a few years organizing those forums. Many of the guests were cynical, some grateful, some unrealistically enthusiastic. I always hoped we’d turned a few cynics by the end. What your group came up with is (sadly) not new, and there are reports galore in the universe detailing those same barriers. I know it doesn’t make them go away. But I do think forewarned is forearmed, so I’m glad it was useful for you.

    • While I’m always gobsmacked to hear stories of how bad the real world can be (no, apparently life isn’t like my diversity rose colored glasses), I’m grateful too to be brought to earth. After reading your post, hubby and I had a long discussion about the bitch/mother/flirt trifecta. How those are really defined, how women get categorized, how we get reduced so easily. Our conversation was too long to post here, but he had me questioning why we reject the labels, that maybe we need to unpack them and consider what they might really mean, what value could be lurking there.

    • Have you read the book Necessary Dreams by Anna Fels? The book looks at how ambition is cultivated in gender, and how critical it is. Totally worth looking up. I think realizing your ambitious was the first step to breaking any kind of barrier. Some women want to be successful but refuse to embrace their ambitions and that can be really problematic. We so badly need to be modest that it gets in the way of so much. My favorite example has always been the classic: A man does a great thing and he broadcasts it. A woman does a great thing and thinks her boss should find out without her saying. Or, a man has no problems negotiating more for his salary, a woman thinks someone should just pay what she’s worth. Discussion groups go on about the research, but ask the manager what they think when the employee posts on his/her achievement, asks for more, takes a risk? Wow, what great management skills! Must be great managing the client. What good negotiating skills. How proactive. These are the skills that one needs to do one’s job. If we transcend gender and think about skills instead, we may not change the world, but maybe we’d get along better in it.
    Okay, getting off my soapbox.

    • Because of the direction of my career I’ve been lucky, having been introduced to many excellent women role models with respect to leadership and their career. Why am I qualifying? We always want our women leaders to be great leaders, great mothers, great beauties, blah blah. But our man leaders? Do we ask about their fathering skills, their ethics? Not really, we’re too easily satisfied by their public profile, their business- so I apply the same to my women. It’s only fair. Truth is, I’ve always worked for fabulous supportive, intelligent, fierce women. I’d have gotten nowhere without them. And it’s been women who’ve stuck their neck out for me. I do agree though that these role models aren’t so obvious, but I think that’s because simply there aren’t enough women leaders. Period. Forget about going one step further and grouping them as good or bad. But maybe like Jeanette suggests, the point is to transcend role models altogether- take a little of this and a little of that to make our own individual mold. (don’t underestimate that persuasive grandma and her savvy acumen). If women were always waiting for another woman to show us how it’s done, we wouldn’t have gotten very far. We may never find the woman who we ‘want to be’ in all aspects, but then have we ever found a man who we utterly want to be? (incidentally, I did some work with this incredible partner at mckinsey on this stuff and have a whole dvd of fabulous women leaders that always leave me feeling high… i’ll have to make you a copy).

    • I think we have to be careful about putting the blame on ‘women not supporting women’. We tend to have such incredible expectations on women and most of them are just trying to get by. Do we really believe they’re responsible for the barrier? I’d hazard a guess and suggest that a) the minority always gets disproportionate attention on what they do. Especially when it’s bad. When it’s good= it’s exceptional. b) we might be sensitive to those we think should know better and c) men might not make such a vocal fuss about our barriers because they are not threatened. When the men start with the labels, it’s the first clue we’re getting close. But it’s easy enough to see how a woman might be threatened by another. Does my way of life imply something is wrong with yours??? It’s stupid of course- the world is meant for moms and career and those in between an all along the spectrum (certainly here on this blog!). But I can empathize.

    O crap, I’m getting preachy. It’s one of my favorite topics. Keep going, keep talking. For whatever ails you. And own those two out of three labels, girl. don’t be held hostage by them. Make em yours.

    • BEZ (which I googled by the way and could only come up with a hotel in Amsterdam, so I can only guess it means something like “Sweet and Sour?”)… I guess I know what you mean now when you describe this blog as “an extended conversation amongst friends”… that’s quite some reply! I love the bullets, by the way, especially since they are followed by a tome… Very cheeky. Got me.

      You started a feminist club? What did you do for activities? That concept seems a bit foreign to me as I went to an all-girls school. For some reason feminist clubs don’t have such an attraction when your whole school is about promoting young women’s success. Then again, it’s not like I learned how to live in the real world by going to this school. I could raise my hand and talk in class when I wanted to; my voice was as loud as the next person’s. It was only when I left school that I realized I had absolutely no idea how to relate to, talk to, interact with or respond to men. But that’s a story for another post.

      I haven’t had time to really go over your response in enough detail (it’s like Thanksgiving Dinner… enough to chew on for days…) but I will ask you to opine on something very specific… you said you and your husband had a really long conversation about the “trifecta” as you call it. And then you kind of implied that you had learned to think differently about whether those labels were necessarily a bad thing after all? Do I have that right? If that’s the case, and pardon the passionate voice here, but let me spell it out the way that I see it, or pictured it at least when I first thought about it. Tell me what you thought… and why, maybe, thinking this way about women might be not the best…?

      Mummy/Mommy: close-to-middle-aged lady, slightly overweight, wears ill-fitting black pants suits and probably glasses that were once fashionable but are no longer. Job is mostly to enable men to do the leadership thing (think COO, CAO, Chief of Staff, etc). Does all the shitty work no one else will touch. Always super busy, but has to leave at 5 or 6 in the evening to go home and do her other job. Often seen as the “mother hen”, people go to her when they want to bitch and moan about something. Very non-threatening, which is both a good and a bad thing.

      The Bitch: Basically Merryl Streep in “The Devil Who Wears Prada”. Doesn’t trust a soul, relies only on her own sheer determination and force of will to get anything done. Has no patience – will kick people out of her office and cut people off mid-sentence. Both men and women are terrified of her, especially younger women. She is very lonely and sad in the rare moments she is not working. This is usually when she drinks a single glass of red wine while having a bubble bath. She must be this way because deep down inside she’s a terribly insecure little girl.

      The Flirt: Younger, attractive and stupid. Does a lot of sitting on desks, smiling and flicking of hair. Wears a lot of tight skirts. Asks for things by smiling and saying things like, “Oh, you would do that for me? Really? Thank you!!” and, “I really feel like you can teach me a lot about this stuff… I really want to learn from you!”

      So, I’m curious…
      1) What images appear for you when you think of these labels?
      2) Do you think the labels are accurate? (maybe you thought of some others that don’t appear in this list!)
      3) What do you mean by “unpacking” these labels and how on earth could that be powerful and potentially positive to a woman’s success and overall impact (if in fact you did mean this)?

      • If someone were to try to label me within those 3 catagories, I would probably be the “mother” though I am not overweight, nor do I wear unfashionable glasses, or ill fitting clothes. When leading my team I probably come across as 1, but lets put it in context, most of them are male, socically awkward, and need someone to mentor them.

        When dealing with the executive audience, I am much closer to number 2. But I dont think Im a bitch because if I were there is no way Id be able to get these people to respect me or listen to my ideas, and “buy in” is incredibly important to my work. I have been known to cut people off, and throw them out of my office when I am too busy or the conversation is no longer relevant. Younger women, since they are usually someones admin, are in fact afraid of me. When my father died a few years ago my own admin said “I didnt know you even had a family”.

        3. Doesnt apply to me at all, I am 43, have a degree in mechanical engineering from UC Berkely, so technically I actually AM a rocket scientist.

        I have been part of 2 startups, both of which IPO’ed and both of which are still traded on the NASDAQ.

        The way these labels are defined, gave me an almost visceral response. Trying to shove me, my career, my personality, and my contributions in my career into one of these 3 boxes infuriates me.

  3. Jeanette: you have made my points very well for me! From now on, I’ll just call you the (hot) rocket scientist (and not just because of your own compliements of me).

    …While we’re at it, and because I’ve just come home from a long day and one too many glasses of wine (with another woman and a man, which is FAR more acceptable and somehow perceived to be some kind of victory on the part of the man), can anyone tell me what the counterpart labels are for corporate/successful men? Because I can’t seem to think of any…

  4. Sorry, this is going to be long. Bring on the bullets!

    • These labels do bother me. Why? Simply because I find them reductive, however defined. That anyone can take a woman and classify her in such a way seems limiting and unfair (visceral, is a good word!). And in general, this kind of labeling happens more to women than to men simply because there are less women in power. We are not yet a majority in leadership, government etc. And until we are, we will continue to be reduced and labeled.

    • Even if a man is labeled or reduced in some way, I think women tend to be more sensitive to it. If a man is called a !@#@!$ he tends to care less. Women have been socialized from the beginning to be more aware of how others perceive them. They’ve been taught to play nice, get along. Boys, on the other hand are coached to win, tackle the ball. The consequences show up in adulthood, when women continue to be very aware of how they are perceived and attach value to those perceptions, whereas men are less concerned with the perception- their goal is to win. Of course, being socially aware has positive implications too, and you know there is enough literature out there saying leaders need to pay more attention to this skill and that women leaders tend to have an advantage.

    • Based on your descriptions of the ‘trifecta’, I’d say we are making certain assumptions:
    1. That it’s okay to mash up the personal with the professional.
    2. That the labels can only be negative and reductive.
    3. That all men and all women define these labels in the same way.

    And I guess, I’m challenging those.

    It is interesting to me that these labels had an immediately negative connotation for you and that your descriptions not only cover behavior at work but include aspects of their personal lives and their appearance. When I read the three ‘labels’, I thought of it purely in terms of work style, or leadership style. A way of communicating or getting things done. The fact is, I’ve seen my share of seductively dressed mothers, and dowdy bitches not to use appearance as a criteria. Let me say it like this- if someone is labeling a women purely based on her appearance, or on the fact she has children- that would be unacceptable. I’d be hard press to unpack that!

    But if we go back to these terms as a ‘way of getting things done’, it gets interesting. Why is a motherly approach less respectable? Who taught us that? I think there is a certain male inherited internalized arrogance to suggest the COO or CAO is somehow worth less (hubby was a COO). Why assume the flirt is stupid? Maybe she’s very clever and Machiavellian at getting things done (if anything, I’ve envied a woman who could leverage her charm. I never could). And as my husband says, you may not like the bitch, but you tend to respect her. And since when did we go to work to make friends?

    Admittedly, I started out thinking similarly to you- that these labels were only bad. But hubby does not define the trifecta the same way you do, or I do. He does not automatically take them to be negative. He thinks of them like skills rather than condemnations, if I understood him right. That said, you said yourself that the labeling is often done by women.

    Hubby has a theory he uses in consulting: people do things because of greed, fear, or love. The flirt uses greed (maybe love) to get what she needs done, the mother leverages love (and maybe some fear); and the bitch, well that’s obvious.

    Men do the same. We’ve got our heroes and father figures, who use love. The asshole who uses fear, and the charmer/player who uses greed. I’ve heard these terms at work too, but it never seems to bother anyone half as much.

    I confess I never did think of any women at work this way. Sure, there were awful women, mean women, stupid women, inappropriately dressed women, women without a commercial edge, women who’d plateaued, ambitious women, smart women, women I’d fall on a sword for. Often, one woman could be any number of these things, given the day. If anything, I’d accuse myself of reducing men to a certain kind of ‘type’, which reflected the fact that I didn’t interact with them as frequently. The thing is, it’s too easy to apply a label and leave it at that. It’s kind of a cop out. And I never bothered with folk that tended to think in such terms. Come to think of it, while I don’t doubt women and men do this labeling, I’ve never heard it done. I’ve heard people say terrible things about women (and men) but they’ve never reduced them, they’ve never done it with finality. But maybe I’m lucky.

    I found this blog that talked about ‘bitchlit’ and the creator talked about how important it is to ‘take back’ the word. Just as the gay community has taken back queer and dyke, there is empowerment in transcending a word’s meaning and making it work for you. And I guess, that’s all I meant. I just wrote a story about a banker and she says, she’s learned to think of the labels less as insults and more as a toolkit.

    You could say I’m encouraging us to be less sensitive to the names, to unpack them and see what drives them, what truth might be there without the slander. Call it better self awareness. Maybe ask ourselves what leads us to these ‘ideas’ if we have them, what we’ve somehow internalized and purge those. The last thing I’ll say is the world ain’t fair. Never gonna be fair. Maybe it’s cause you’re a girl, or black, or Asian, or gay, or ugly. And things oughtta change. But we just gotta keep on and be our motherly bitchy flirty selves!

  5. … so what you’re saying is that your perspective on these labels was changed based on a conversation you had with your husband. A man.

    Dear BEZ’s husband: WTF?

    Number 2 😉

    • Another set of threes:
      1. No, my perspective changed after talking to him and piecing together every stitch of women’s feminist theory and experience I’ve had. (let’s give the little lady a bit of credit…)
      2. True story: I am twenty and dating a man who will be my husband. I have trouble with this. I am too young, I am supposed to be focused on who I am. I am a feminist (roar). Everything is phallic. I tell him this. He says, you are a feminist. i am a humanist.

      Must we always be so reductive? I prefer to think of him as an individual.

      • Oh B, I was just being cheeky. Being reductionist makes an impossible issue somewhat less insurmountable. And reductions are tastier because the flavor is more concentrated!

        Seriously, though, I continue to think about this stuff throughout my day. They say men think of sex on average every seven seconds. I think I think about this stuff with about the same frequency. It makes for a lot of passion, emotion and conflict – both internally and with those I love. Ride the waves with me…

  6. Thank you for writing this post, PM. It had me so fired up I had to wait days to reply. I couldn’t imagine reading this and not wanting to roar out all the opinions and experiences and observations it springs to mind. My mistake in waiting was that now there are comments that are just as interesting as your original post and now there is no way to address them all here. I’ll have to save it for a future post…

    First, I’ll say that this is one of those topics that I rarely talk about with other friends and when I do I’m often met with this look that says, “What do you mean? I don’t understand.” It’s hard to see the biases when you’re so used to them they become… invisible.

    You asked BEZ about the feminist club in high school. For me, it made the biases a little more visible. The one thing I remember most about that experience was watching a fringe festival play that reversed the power structures in gender roles and left me looking forward to my next period as a thing of power and beauty. It made me realize how much of my identity as a woman was socially constructed and I’ve never forgotten it.

    The three barriers you mentioned were very interesting to me:

    – Socializing. YES! I have three male friends. I used to have many back in university but somehow when people “grow up” and get married the gender dynamic changes. Those casual dinners, and talks about “life”, and intellectual ramblings become clandestine. I MISS men! Part of me asks, why can’t I go for dinner with a guy without feeling like I have to court his wife to make it okay? The other part of me understands implicitly why it’s important to interact with couples… as couples.

    – “I have spent many, many years trying to navigate my way through the mislabelling that comes with being intellectually curious, open, friendly, and genuinely interested in others, but also being a woman.” Thank you, PM, for putting this into words I could not. I have bumped up against this, uncomfortably, for many years. Why is it that if I am casually interested in another person or his ideas I am appropriate, but if I get fierce I am either a bitch or a turn on. I find myself second guessing later. Was I flirting? Or was I pushy?

    – Role models. Okay, here it is. I long for intellegent, articulate role models who get things done but who DO NOT fit comfortably into a single, predetermined box: bitch; flirt; mother; crone; or virgin. (Notice how almost all of these are defined by how they relate to men?) Come on! Maybe the problem is not the boxes but that we seem to be expected to fit into just one? Why can’t I be ALL of these things… and more?

    Like BEZ I too am so very lucky to have worked with many, many outstanding female leaders. They could do intellectual battle without ever losing their cool. They could be remarkably civil and intellegent, quietly and capably express their true feelings to a select few, then still discuss their hot new shoes (the way men discuss “the big game”). I loved that. And I frequently use them as a measuring stick in my day-to-day life.

    Jeanette. “What I’ve found is while I am not the ‘mommy’ leading people lots of times it looks/feels like being one.” I’m not sure whether my experience is anything like yours but I find myself teaching people the value of sharing, collaboration, and relationship-building often at work. It seems absurd to me that I should have to explain their value to others. (Thank you by the way for joining us! I’ve really be appreciating your perspective.)

    BEZ. “Some women want to be successful but refuse to embrace their ambitions and that can be really problematic. We so badly need to be modest that it gets in the way of so much.” I felt like jumping up and down and shouting when I read this. YES! It’s one of those things I’ve been rolling around in my head for so long and hoping it would come up on this blog. Let me tell you a story:

    I used to work with an international film festival and every year we would receive messages from audience members asking, “Where are the women?” Yes, where ARE the women? The truth was they were simply not submitting films. Whether they are making them or not we don’t know… but they aren’t submitting them to our festival. We looked for them but in the end there were just fewer woman making films about mountain adventure and sport than men. Go figure.

    So part of this has to do with whether or not there are as many women interested in the subject matter, but part of it also has to do with how many women are willing to present their amateur films to a jury. Let me tell you, there are many BAD filmmakers who STILL submit their films to festivals and you know what? Some of them make it. As women, whether its filmmaking, politics, or business… we underestimate our abilities all the time.

    I attended a conference years ago where a former US Governor talked about her experiences in politics and said that she debated whether or not to run because she wasn’t sure she’d have anything of value to offer. She was given the following advice, “Just pull your chair up to the table.” Too much modesty makes for poor artists, and politicians, and apparently bankers also. We have to find a way of embracing humility and modesty without making them mutually exclusive with participation in life.

    Last, “We always want our women leaders to be great leaders, great mothers, great beauties, blah blah. But our man leaders? Do we ask about their fathering skills, their ethics? Not really, we’re too easily satisfied by their public profile…” This was another stand up and cheer moment for me. I so agree. Look at Pierre Trudeau (iconic Canadian Prime Minister for those outside of Canada). He was a philandering party animal who built a legacy on charisma and political principles. That was enough! Who he slept with apparently didn’t affect his ability to be a leader. I’m not advocating for adultery but there is a double standard.

    So many ideas, so many things to discuss. I don’t know where to begin. Thank you all for diving into this murky and powerful discussion. I’ve loved it!

    • Gosh, now, Lemon Tart. I feel bad about my flippant and snarky comment to B, above.

      You are so right, so earnest, and shame on me for ever even trying to close down the conversation. You have simultaneously encouraged your fellow writers to write more, by aligning yourself emotionally and sympathetically with their statements and experiences, and have added to the discussion by sharing your own.

      My fault for doing just what I have been trained to do for the last decade: find the quickest path to closure, because the meeting is ending, or the email chain is bumping up against the “if it’s not solved in 4 interchanges then you’re e-fighting and you have to pick up the phone” dilemma.

      I loved what you wrote about having friendships with men, and how those have changed over the years. And about the film submission stories and lack of representation from women. And also your description of your role models as women leaders.

      I am really encouraged by this little virtual community, and I retract the outflow of my negativity. I have to be careful to protect this sacred space from what I see all around me: skeptical people in a cynical age. You gals are beginning to become my light.

  7. I want to ponder what has been written in this blog, so I walk, the rhythm of my steps providing a gentle calming of the senses.

    The negative connotations of women in the corporate world, as identified in this first post, have disturbed me. For I KNOW this is not a true representation of women.
    I know that Wisdom is female in Hebrew Wisdom literature. (http://holyspirit-shekinah.org/_/sophia_lost_goddess_of_wisdom.htm)
    Clarissa Pinkola Estes depicts women’s freedom, wisdom, strength, power and creativity, where aging is a quality to value, not revile and a Crone is a status to aim for.
    13th Centurty mystic Hildegarde bon Bingen was a physican, poet, musician, healer. Contemporary artist Hiromi Tango creates beautiful organic art that speaks to the soul of our connections to the universe and to one another. (hiromitango.com)
    My darling friend Hailey who, at 30, turned her life around – and the lives of countless people across the globe – by taking one small step to change her way of thinking, and sharing her journey online. (365grateful.com)

    As my inner knowing celebrates the immense positive contribution that women have made to our world since the beginning of time, I begin to imagine….
    what would happen to our personal psyches if, instead of responding to the negative labels created by the corporate world – bitch, flirt, mother – we were to counteract with a positive energy that reflects the very essence of who we truly are: creative, wise, articulate, energising, relational, intuitive, fun – and funny, empathetic, encouraging. Life-giving, concerned for integrity and justice, compassionate, beautiful in a way that defies physical description.

    What is our visceral response when we apply these positive labels to ourselves? Is there a potential for change in our world, if we were first to change how we see ourselves, and other women, and then act accordingly?

    After all, I perceive the qualities mentioned above from the posts written by the MotherSugar contributors. The very blog name implies something different from the labeling of the hard-nosed corporate world. Something bigger and more beautiful is being birthed through this blog, I believe.

    • I named my own daughter Sophia as much for the names meaning as for the beauty of the name. Thank you, Sophia, for posting. I had hesitated to respond to this entry because I could not find the space for my thoughts within the current postings. My experience was not echoed here. This was a discussion for women in the corporate world. I am not and never have been one of those women. Sophia’s comments have opened up the discussion a bit.
      A women role model that comes to my mind is Vandana Shiva. But like others who have posted most of my true role models are energetic, caring, brilliant women who I have met through my career. I would put much greater weight on mothers and grandmothers (and aunts and cousins) as role models than does PM.
      All of you may enjoy this link:

    • Thank you, Sophia. It was good to hear those thoughts after posting my rant! There are indeed alternatives to how I imagine myself regardless of what I see reflected back in the mirror of society at large.

      Vandana Shiva is a great example, FP.

      And PM, not to worry, I didn’t feel shut down by your earlier comment. Actually, I laughed and took it as a joke. Flippant (like frivolous) has a place here and I’m glad for it!

  8. Wise you are, indeed, sophia. You and your wisdom, reflections and musings are welcome here always. I wonder about your own story, what led you to own that username, and where and how that wisdom came to be. I’m sure it is a rich tapestry.

  9. By the way, the more I think about it, I can think of at least 3 role models. They’re not famous, they’re not conventional, and they probably have no idea that I think of them that way. I must make sure I tell them.

  10. Oh, I have been dying to comment on this, but there seemed to be so much to say, and I haven’t been sure where to start! I have LOVED all this dialogue.

    The label discussion – it must be so tiring to feel that you have to deal with those labels every day. Because, if those are the only options, how can you avoid being one of them? It seems as though, in that environment, you have to fight to be seen as an individual. I worked in financial services briefly – about two and a half years, and I could see that my boss had to fight every day to be seen as a strong leader, to show her value. I admired her (and still do). But I don’t know if I could fight like that all the time.

    Having worked in three very different worlds: theatre, financial services and now at a university, I’ve seen how different fields can be so different from one another culturally, and I wanted to ask what role you think culture plays in all this?

    In finance, it seemed that so much of that world had to do with being able to fit into a male culture. Our most senior boss (an SVP and a man) was very, very good at being a man’s man. I’m being very stereotypical here, but he was fantastic at including sports analogies in his presentations, and relating to other men. It seemed that my boss (VP and a woman) had to work within this culture; to prove first that she could hang out with the guys. And then on top of that, she had to prove her value in a way that the SVP never really did. Yes, of course, much of that world also had to do with performance, showing that you could get results, and of course you had to be incredibly intelligent, dedicated and have all kinds of leadership skills. So I don’t mean to say that it all has to do with culture. But when you (Pavlova) talk about the barriers to moving ahead (lack of role models, etc.), I thought yes, but it seems that the culture has to be overcome too. I’m not sure how you do that. And I do think that the culture plays into what you said about “lack of access to networks”, but maybe it’s bigger than that as well.

    I also wanted to say that I had difficulty finding the kind of role model you were looking for because my role models seem to change as my goals change. Since my goals right now don’t have to do with succeeding in that world, being a head of a company, it was hard to think of someone. But I do feel grateful that I’ve had a lot of role models in my life; in work and elsewhere. I also realized that I haven’t always differentiated between men and women when looking for role models. When I was in theatre, I pointed to men just as often as women when asked what kind of work I wanted to do. And I still do it when thinking about the kind of person I want to become. I can see that in financial services, it would be valuable to have a female role-model to point to for assurance that it can be done, but beyond that, do role models have to be women?

  11. Pingback: Piece of Mind? Peace of Cake. | Mother Sugar

  12. Discussing Life can get so terribly serious! Here is a little light relief that came into my inbox today. I’m against gratuitous violence, but this is just SO far out of left field. Not a label, a role model in sight…
    I share it with you. For the sake of our serotonin.

  13. Embarrassment and a steep learning curve about technology have led to the removal of a very funny video, which unfortunately, came with links to other more questionable material. I haven’t been able to remove the text yet though.

    Such random acts of spontaneity have got me into trouble before. Now that the heart-racing recognition of my stupidity have receded, I can have a good laugh at myself, and, with my Serotonin levels suitably recharged, get on with enjoying the beauty of this gloriously crisp, clear, autumn day.

    May it be for you also.

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