This week (and it’s only Wednesday!) has been a study in contrasts. On Monday, I attended Senator Chris Coons’ Opportunity Africa Summit, attending sessions on business opportunities in Africa for small and medium businesses, and a session on women and power in Africa. In one session, the used a quote from Nelson Mandela, saying “As long as outmoded ways of thinking prevent women from making a meaningful contribution to society, progress will be slow. As long as the nation refuses to acknowledge the equal role of more than half of itself, it is doomed to failure.”
Yesterday, while I was filing paperwork to run for public office, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and author of “Lean In“, launched an initiative yesterday to “Ban Bossy“, which is already stirring up many debates online and in the news.
There’s a good argument to make that on some level, Mandela and Sandberg are talking about the same thing- empowerment of women. Mandela looks at the problem as one of raising all boats and one where the success of all depends on the success of women. In contrast, I think the blow back facing the Ban Bossy campaign is read as “Here’s another tirade about how men are oppressing women, or there aren’t enough women doing X” by some folks, and it has a bit of a whiny undertone that I think grates on some people.
Back in law school, I had a debate with my roommate. She thought some of the teachers weren’t calling on the women as much as the men in the room, and some of the other female students agreed. I countered with “Every time I raised my hand, I’m called on” which didn’t seem to settle well with her. Was I delusional? Didn’t I see the discrimination that was happening? While there certainly were more men than women in class, I didn’t see anything that looked or felt like discrimination to me, and when I wanted to talk to a professor, in or out of class, they treated me like an engaged student. My experience was that if you wanted to be called on or express your opinion, you needed to help make that happen, not wait to be selected at random from a crowd.
In the tech and social media world, we often hear people talking about making your own opportunities and doing what you love without waiting to be “discovered” by chance by a Hollywood producer while sitting at a lunch counter. This is true in all walks of life. You need to be always doing what you love, if you can, or working towards that goal, maximizing your talents along the way. That way, even if you do get asked or picked to do something that seems outside your usual comfort zone, say, running for political office, you are ready. You are ready to step up and take your turn at leadership.
I almost never hear the word bossy. When I do, it’s usually when someone is impatient, and whats something done NOW and in the EXACT way that they want, no deviations. Bossy is a close cousin to nagging, which is what I get accused of when I remind the kids for the fourth time that the garbage won’t take itself out and it’s better to take it out before rather than after dark. But even in this mundane circumstance, I’m imposing very specific constraints on my request, after I have already made the initial request and it just isn’t getting done to my liking or preference. I have to remember when asking for something to be done, to be specific about the task and the time frame, as well as any other parameters, if they are important. If not, I also need to let go, and give the other person a chance to do it, do it their way, on their time schedule, and be satisfied with that, rather than trying to micromanage the situation at hand. That’s being a good manager, and avoids the negative pitfalls that make other people roll their eyes in the background.
Women can step up- but we also have to take the opportunities when offered, and be willing to raise our hands and participate. We can’t wait for an engraved invitation all the time. We need to make sure we’re going to conferences where we want to speak, and get to know the people in charge, so we become part of the list of people they think about when looking for speakers. We need to put in applications for jobs we know we’d be good at even if our skill sets don’t match the job description completely.
In every way, small and large, we need to help teach girls of all ages, that it’s okay to be in charge. But it also means tolerating that everything might not be done to our exacting standards, and then we have to make a choice- is the job done good enough, or do we really need to critique versus coach the person towards improvement? With kids, often the coaching approach works so much better, working towards goals, rather than grading everything on a pass/fail curve.
Leadership should always be about consensus building versus coercion- in any sphere. No one group or person has a monopoly on good ideas, and we have to work together to find solutions. As Bill Clinton said at the Opportunity Africa conference on Monday- the places in the world that are working together to creatively solve problems are prospering; where conflict reigns, progress is slow or nonexistent. That’s true whether we’re talking about countries, governments, classrooms, or families.
Remember, we’re all playing on the same team for the human family here in the long run. Let’s make sure we act more like a family, including taking turns running the show, and stepping up to solve problems or make a difference, when and where we can.