A headline of a recent New York Times piece was so appealing, “What Happens When Women Stop Leading Like Men” that I couldn’t double click fast enough.
But then I got sad. Because the author, Tina Brown, wrote…
“Women have accumulated rich ways of knowing that until recently were dismissed in male circles of power. The alchemy of what has made women the way they are is mysterious: Is it a result of centuries spent trying to survive and prosper in societies where they’ve been viewed as lesser? Or, until recently, of always being appointed the family caregiver, bearing and raising children, tending to elderly parents and disabled siblings, so often left to shoulder the unpaid burdens of real life? Women have learned and taught lessons about how to cope with seeming impossibilities in ways that men traditionally–and to this day–have not. Coaching a slow learner on homework after a day of hassles at the office provides a deep experience of delayed gratification. A woman’s wisdom comes, in part, from the great juggle of her life.”
Beyond the obvious gap of logic, (i.e. we shouldn’t equate being a woman with having children or being the provider as we point to Angela Merkel, or Condoleeza Rice, or countless others), the issue is that generalizing like this hurts the very women Brown is trying to advance.
Whenever you sort someone first by the group they belong to, rather than the singular person that they are, you have effectively otherized them. To otherize someone is to see them through the subjective lens rather than as the subject of their own story. To generalize vs. individualize does what every “ism” has ever done.
Just as sexism denies you to be seen for yourself, so does generalization.
Of course, Tina Brown isn’t the only one to do this. This is a persistent pattern.
In 2014, while the Lean In perspective was in full swing, Politico asked Fortune‘s Most Powerful Women’s conference leader Pattie Sellers why there aren’t more women at the highest levels of Fortune 500 companies. She cast it as a failure of women themselves. “I think Sheryl Sandberg is very right when she says that women do not lean in enough to their careers,” Sellers replied. “Women just don’t take as many risks.”
Think about it, a supposed negative trait of some leaders that Sellers has met, becomes “proof” of what is wrong with an entire class of people. And it gets little to no pushback. (By the way, there should be pushback, because leadership failure is often a result of too much risk-taking.) Of course, Brown and Sellers are not the only ones doing this kind of thing. It didn’t end–or begin–in 2014.
Whether said positively (Tina Brown) or less so (Pattie Sellers), generalizing causes serious harm. And I can tell that people can’t see the issue because of who I see doing it over and over again. This harm is being inflicted on our very best and brightest women leaders, our heroes, and our icons.
So let me see if I can explain why this is harmful (and you can tell me what I’m missing).
Some of us women leaders are warm and fuzzy. And some of us are assertive and opinionated. Some of us are autocratic types when we lead, and some of us prefer grass-roots community organizing. Some of us are fans of having power over others and want to direct action; while some of us prefer to lead with power alongside constructs that create coalitions of people organized around an idea. Each of us cares about different things, and our budgets would reflect those priorities. But you don’t get to talk about that specific match between the market need and the personal leader, when you talk about women generically.
The point is that the particular mix of who is best suited to lead changes (and depends) on the demands of the role. Given specific requirements for specific situations (the state of the state, the needs of the other people involved, the financial situation), you might think Ivanka Trump is best suited for the leadership role, or you might select Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC). Both are contemporary women leaders; but they couldn’t be more different in how they lead. And talking about them generically as “women” wouldn’t get to that distinction. In fact, talking about their leadership “as women” dilutes where they each add their value.
Tina’s article, for example, talked about how the women leaders likely don’t have sexting pictures that will be revealed. But the bigger point I wish she’d made is that America deserves a leader who doesn’t give groping a pass. If she had written that, she’d be raising an important topic of what matters as we pick our next leader, and that’s not gender-specific but ideas and values-specific.
This is why generalizations are harmful: generalizations don’t let the reader listen/focus on the idea or topic we need to center.
And then there’s the other issue. And, forgive me but I’m going to get a little geeky for a moment. What most people don’t realize is that as long as you sort by any category, then group identity gets to define (i.e. limit) what you do next. It was Eagly’s research in 2001 that documented that the communal qualities that people associate with women–such as warmth, selflessness, collaborative–are incongruent with perceptions of powerful leaders, such as assertiveness, agency, boldness. And that can work against you. If you’re assertive and bold you get punished if you’re first described as a woman. This is also why the media coverage of new political candidates is currently so skewed. Men are talked about in the singular: Beto, Pete, and Joe. But women candidates are nearly always referred to by their grouping, together.
To talk in generalities obfuscates and denies the individual. And with that denial comes the power of that individual to be the subject of the story that is told next.
The truth is, each of us is distinctly and entirely ourselves. That’s why need to change the language we use. To stop talking in generalities. It’s when we talk about specifics that we can celebrate all difference instead of weaponizing some difference. You can use the demographics to size a problem, but don’t use demographics broadly. Instead, use the language of distinction. One that centers correctly on the distinct source of ALL ideas: Onlyness.
Onlyness. Each of us–each of you–stands in a spot in the world ONLY one stands in. From that spot–your history and experience, visions and hopes–you have a distinct perspective only you have. It’s that place of power that is distinctly one’s own, the genesis point of all new ideas. Compared to no one.
See that. See each person as they are. That’s where a disruptive form of power of actually lies. As long as you are talking about a person by their grouping, you are limiting their power to the power of that group (which in the case of women is to deny them power.)
I want you to notice the problem of generalizations. To understand that as long as you’re generalizing a member of an underseen/undervalued group, you’re perpetuating a problem. If you cannot see the individual, you cannot also see what that person distinctly brings. It’s only when we see the actual person that we’ll be able to see their ideas. In other words, stop generalizing women as you try to advance women.