gender stereotypes

Taking Off Our Glasses: A Leadership Lesson

I’ve worn glasses for a long time. I think I got my first pair when I was three, or at the latest, five. I’ve worn them for so long that I often forget I’m wearing them.


I suffered from depression for six years. Everything felt so dark and hopeless, like wearing a pair of sunglasses that could never come off. I couldn’t imagine that life could look any differently.

I think how we see and engage in leadership is not so different from these experiences. We become saturated in a single perspective and we cannot imagine it could look another way. We do not even realize we are wearing glasses. So, we continue thinking and operating with a narrow, anemic perspective, believing that’s all there is. Maybe we find mentors, read books, go to conferences, or take courses. Seemingly we are engaging in good things and becoming better leaders. But all of these things are the same colour as our glasses so that we are never challenged. If something different does manage to break in, the threat of the anomaly is quickly quenched. To reference Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a popular Nigerian author and speaker, there is great danger to a single story.

Most of what I have seen, read, and experienced regarding leadership is from a white, Western, male perspective. This is not a bad nor a wrong perspective, but if it becomes my only set of glasses, then it is incomplete. Some time ago I came across Next Leadership. It’s a UK-based organization founded by Kate Coleman. Not only is she a woman, but she was also born in Ghana, and has been a pioneer for women in leadership in a number of areas. Her book ‘the 7 Deadly Sins of Women in Leadership’ was the first book I ever read on leadership by a woman. For the first time in my life, I saw a different perspective on leadership, and discovered well articulated, unique challenges for women in leadership.

A number of months ago, I found another book on sale: ‘Dare Mighty Things: Mapping the Challenges of Leadership for Christian Women’ by Dr. Halee Gray Scott. This was my second book on leadership by a woman. Both Coleman and Scott recognize that from the outset, many women are disqualified for leadership based on their gender, especially as it relates to specific theologies among Christians. However, they write presuming (and presuming correctly) that women do have leadership gifts and are already leading in all kinds of arenas. Through these books, I began to see more of my glasses.

One particular aspect stuck out to me from Scott’s book. In her studies, she focused her thesis on perceptions of female leaders serving in para-church ministries. She discovered one of the unique challenges for women in para-church leadership (and likely in Christian leadership in general), was the discrepancy between how good women were perceived compared to how good leaders were perceived.

When women display the desirable leadership traits – confident, competent, assertive, and bold – they cease to be viewed as warm and caring and are instead perceived as tough, aggressive, and domineering. This creates a double bind, because if women act in ways consistent with gender stereotypes, they are not viewed as competent leaders, but if they act in ways consistent with good leaders, they are not liked. In political circles, these women are called ‘iron ladies’. (p.107)

Scott adds, “since perceptions of female leaders strongly correlate with perceptions of successful leaders, but greatly contrast with perceptions of women in general, it means that Christians view female leaders as exceptions to the rule” (p.115). From my own experience, her research results ring true. I’ve had to decide that I will use my gifts and pursue my calling regardless of how favourably people view me, as a woman or as a leader. More women than I can count have told me they could not do what I do. This could be true, since we are all given different gifts and abilities (1 Cor. 12). However, even those that could lead likely believe it is not possible. Scott concludes, “whether we like it or not, we do not think a woman can be both a good woman and a good leader” (p.107). We lose out on capable leaders because many women consider this price too high to pay, and choose instead to act in ways that will gain them social acceptability as a woman.

How can we move forward? The first step is to realize the danger of a single story about leadership, and have the courage to seek out other perspectives. Imagine you actually are wearing a pair of glasses, and that leadership can look differently than you may have believed until now. With your new and evolving viewpoint, challenge others to see beyond what’s right in front of them. Use whatever privilege you have to encourage people, especially women, to pursue leadership in ways that are unique to them. Whatever you do, refuse to let a single story dominate the leadership landscape.

Get Tired, Maybe Something Will Change

I’m tired of being told what I should and shouldn’t wear,

Because men abdicated responsibility for their impulse control.

I’m tired of men debating what I can or cannot do,

Because somehow deciding my life is their role.

I’m tired of asking to be included.

I’m tired of fighting to be heard.

I’m tired of job and pay inequity.

I’m tired of hearing about girls denied an education and forced into child marriage.

I’m tired of women being denied their fundamental rights and freedoms, simply because they are women.

I’m tired of rape victims being asked what they were wearing,

Because their assault is thought to be deserved or desired.

I’m tired of gender stereotypes dictating how we live our lives,

Because maintaining boxes is more important than allowing freedom to live according to passions, gifts, and callings.

I’m tired of feminism being considered a dirty word.

I’m tired of men trying to convince me my tiredness is irrational.

I’m tired of a lot of things.

Maybe if more of us were tired things would change.


$h@m€: The Other ‘S Word’

16-year-old Jack is found crying after he receives some difficult news. He’s told to stop being ‘weak’ and ‘a pussy’ because ‘real men don’t cry’.

Jane, a vivacious 10-year-old, often takes leadership of projects and situations, but is chided frequently for being ‘bossy’. After all, girls are supposed to be submissive and nice.

Steven has always loved painting and getting creative in the kitchen. He makes delicious entrées! However, he is discouraged and about to give up what he loves because he can’t stand the constant remarks that he is ‘a little too girly’ and ‘might be gay’ [using ‘gay’ as an insult is a whole other topic].

Susan is 35-years-old and single. She long stopped attending family gatherings where the only topic of conversation seemed to be her relationship status, and why she hadn’t yet found a husband. Something must be wrong with her.

Each of these hypothetical (though very real) scenarios is different, but contains a common element. Shame.woman-with-shame

What is shame? In Daring Greatly, Brené Brown describes shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging” (p.69). And when you experience the excruciating pain of shame, it seems you’ll do almost anything to get rid of it.

Jack, Jane, Steven, and Susan are put in narrow, suffocating, harmful boxes that contain society’s recipe for masculinity and femininity, and are systematically shamed for being anything other. They must be flawed because they aren’t conforming.

The problem with these stereotypical boxes is that they fit only a minority of boys and girls, men and women, but everyone is forced into them as if they were a fixed and unquestionable entity. The results are harmful not only for those individuals, but also for the whole of society.

Jack grows up learning to bottle his emotions, making him miserable but unable to show it. He may be able to contain it for a while, but an angry and possibly violent outburst is looming.

Jane becomes a shadow of her lively self, pushed into the role of a submissive follower. She lives knowing something is out of place, and the world has missed out on a wonderful potential leader.

Steven long gave up painting and cooking. He’s now in a job that is socially acceptable, but he hates it. He could have been the next Picasso or Gordon Ramsey, but we’ll never know.

Susan feels like contentment is an impossible dream when no matter what she does, it is never enough for others because she hasn’t ‘achieved’ marriage yet. [And even if she does, she’ll be pressured about having kids. And if she has them, she’ll be questioned about her parenting techniques.]

According to research, “shame is highly correlated with addiction, violence, aggression, depression, eating disorders, and bullying” (Brené Brown, Daring Greatly, p.73). So shame, in itself, is a problem. But so are gender stereotypes. Gender stereotypes, masculinity, and femininity are social constructs, not absolute truths. Put them together, and it’s a toxic combination.

How much have we personally and collectively suffered and missed because of gender shaming? Whatever we do, we absolutely cannot afford to keep this up. Gender shaming has to stop. Not in ten years, not in one year, not tomorrow. Now.

A proactive response to gender shaming will involve refusing to participate in gender shaming, and calling it out when you see it [this is part of feminism]. The more we shine light on the darkness, the less of a chance it has in overcoming us.

A reactive response (i.e. when you are the one being shamed) involves the four elements of shame resilience, as described by Brené Brown (Daring Greatly, p.75).

  1. Recognize shame and understand its triggers
  2. Practice critical awareness – give the shame messages a reality check
  3. Reach out – own and share your story with trusted others
  4. Talk about shame – talk about your feelings and ask for what you need

Here’s to a future where people are free to be themselves. Where the Jacks, Janes, Stevens and Susans of this world are no longer ashamed to be who they are.

How have you experienced gender shaming? If you’d like to shed some personal light on this topic, leave a comment or contact me about writing a guest post.