At some point, every women leader I know has discovered that people have certain expectations—often very contradictory expectations—of how she ought to lead as a woman. And she typically discovers these expectations because she isn’t meeting them.
Too Much, or Not Enough
For example, I once participated in a planning meeting where a leadership team was discussing inviting a certain women speaker—a leader of a large movement and a skilled and respected Bible teacher—to come to an event. During that conversation, one of the ladies in the group said, “Oh, she yells too much from the pulpit.” That was all it took, apparently, to tip the scales away from considering this woman as our pick for that year.
I was shocked. I had heard hundreds of preachers over the years in church, most of them men. Many yelled or raised their voices to make a point. I had never heard anyone criticize them for yelling or for being loud. I haven’t to this day. Yet since that planning meeting, I have witnessed multiple occasions in which women leaders, many of whom are my heroes in the faith and people I’ve watched preach and lead from the pulpit, be accused of being too brash, stern, or loud because it’s not “feminine.”
In the world, I often see the opposite expectation for women—that being stern or harsh is necessary in leadership roles, especially ones with more power. The higher up the ladder a woman climbs, the more she is expected to lead aggressively and be tough, like a man.
For example, I distinctly remember the first time Hillary Clinton ran for president. She was doing a press conference and mentioned the pressure the campaign had been having on her family, specifically her daughter. She choked up a bit for a moment, then kept going. The next day, the news reporters eviscerated her for being weak and emotional.
Distracted by the Wrong Question
Encountering such a wide range of expectations causes many women to grapple with the question, “What does it look like for me to lead as a woman?” This question can easily start to hover over every decision we make, even those that seem inconsequential.
During my years on staff at Bethel Church, I served in a variety of leadership roles and eventually became supervisor to ten departments, most of which were managed by men. When I received this promotion, I moved into a new office, which I got to furnish and decorate. I remember walking around the furniture store looking for chairs that would fit into my new space. When I sat in one particular chair that had flowers in the upholstery, one of the first thoughts that came to mind was, I wonder how my male direct reports would feel sitting in this chair in my office? Would they feel uncomfortable sitting in a flowered chair? Would it be large enough for their frame? Was the chair too feminine?
My second thought was, Do men ever think about how a women would feel about the chairs they buy for their offices—or any other decision they make? Such silly thoughts!
Finally, I stopped this strange internal conversation and asked the Lord, “What do You think?”
Immediately, I heard, “I asked you to lead, not for you to ‘lead like a woman.’”
Aligning with Our True Leadership Focus and Goal
Pondering these words, I eventually came to realize a few things. First, leadership is not based on gender—it’s based on leading. It’s getting people where they need to go. The skills and acumen necessary to fulfill that job are not inherently gendered. God gifts and calls men and women alike to lead in various capacities and roles in every area of society.
The second thing I realized was that thinking too much about my gender could distract me, and therefore potentially derail me, from fulfilling the role of leadership.
Lastly, I realized that I needed to bring my whole self to my role as leader. Yes, I am a woman—that is one aspect of who I am, and it does affect the way I lead in certain ways. But along with my gender, I bring my unique story and experiences, personality, temperament, skill sets, knowledge, identity, relational connections, behavior style, dreams, calling, and vision to leading. I need all of them to lead as “me.”
The Lord’s words helped to clarify and direct my focus and goal as a leader. I was not to measure myself against other leaders, either male or female, or against social standards and definitions of femininity or masculinity. I was to discover how God had uniquely made and called me, Sheri, to lead a certain group of people. The questions I needed to be answering were, “Who are these people? Where do they need to go? What do I bring to the table to help them get there? How can I grow to offer them even more support, encouragement, training, and strength?”
Leveraging Gender Appropriately
In the course of answering these questions, I have studied gender and leadership in order to understand more about my own strengths and weaknesses and better train developing leaders. Men and women bring different, gender-related characteristics to the table, and it’s helpful to know about these and leverage them rather than trying to deny or ignore them—just as we ought to with all other aspects of who we are. For example, here are some of the positive and challenging characteristics that women typically display in leadership roles:
See the steps along the way
Too assertive or “pushy”
Not taken seriously
Tendency to avoid confrontation
Not believing in yourself and your vision
The value of any information like this lies in how we use it. Do we use it as a way to stereotype ourselves and others, stay in a box, and drive unhealthy insecurity in ourselves and tension on our teams? Or do we use it as another tool, among many others, for self-examination, learning, growth, mastery, and building respect and understanding with our people?
I believe every unique characteristic about us—including our gender—is designed by God to be a gift to ourselves and others. Our job is to cultivate and offer that gift so that people truly experience it as a gift.
So ladies, here is my encouragement to you. Find yourself and be yourself. Become a student and keep learning. Confidence is waiting to show up on the other side of fear, so push through. Don’t step back from a challenge—but don’t try to become someone else, including trying to be more like a “man,” to take it on. No woman during childbirth ever said, “I’m going to do this like a man.” Be compassionate, but don’t be co-dependent—fix things you have control over, and don’t take on other people’s problems. Use your brain, your experiences, and guidance from above to get the job done. Don’t manipulate. And last but not least: Keep your “sexy” at home.