I think this could be my new favourite quote. It’s one that speaks right to my childhood experience and it’s one that, if you ask, most women leaders will probably resonate with, too.
You see, I was that girl who lined up her teddies to teach them in her ‘classroom’ (OK, it was my bedroom). I was that girl who organised mini performances with her brother and charged her parents 5p to attend. I was that girl who ran in an election to be a part of her school council.
But I was also that girl who was frequently called bossy. I was also that girl who was seen as a ‘control freak’. And I was also that girl who overheard: “Oh great, a woman – now we’re bound to lose”, when chosen to lead her Young Enterprise business team.
And the sad thing is, I know that I’m not alone. This is an experience familiar to many girls who are assertive, organised, and who exhibit leadership skills – and it’s summed up pretty well in this advert. I know, too, that this kind of rhetoric can be a barrier to women seeing themselves, and putting themselves forward as leaders.
As Margaret Atwood once said: “We still think of a powerful man as a born leader and a powerful woman as an anomaly.” Leadership is often still seen in masculine terms, and we reinforce this when we tell a little girl that she’s bossy. As a result, many women have an identity conflict; sometimes women don’t even recognise themselves as leaders, and sometimes they worry about whether they’re feminine enough as a leader.
Perhaps this can help us account for why less than 7 per cent of executive directors in the FTSE 100 companies are women, why less than one in five MPs are women, and why we have a 77 per cent male Cabinet in parliament.
For many women, seeing themselves as a leader is the biggest barrier to becoming a leader and fulfilling their potential, and the only way to overcome this is to change our self-perceptions.
We need to see ourselves as strong, gifted women.
We need to affirm each other and the positive attributes that we see.
And we need to stop telling little girls that they are bossy.
Because Jesus didn’t care about traditional gender roles when he invited Mary to sit at his feet alongside his disciples; Paul told the Galatians that “there is neither male nor female…for all are one in Christ Jesus” and scores of women, from Deborah to Phoebe, display leadership ability within the pages of the Bible.
Over 2000 years later, we’re still not there, but I’m encouraged and hopeful about the future, and I feel confident in saying this:
I am a woman and I am a leader.
This article is part of a special series commissioned by guest editor Claire Rush to celebrate and remember International Women’s Day on Sunday 8 March.