Women, Leadership, and the B-Word
When a male leader is direct or decisive, he’s often known by a C-word: Confident. Competent. Charismatic. He’s prized as a strong, natural leader. Women in leadership, however, are often stuck with a less desirable word. With less desirable connotations.
With Mother’s Day just past, a day that has become not just about honoring our mothers, but about honoring women and their many strengths in general, I had to wonder why this is.
I told my husband about the title of this blog and asked him what he thought the B-word was. He answered tongue in cheek. “Bright? Balanced? Bold?” I laughed. The truth is, we both know that very often a strong, competent woman is more likely to be known as bossy. Or worse, a b#tch.
Women and the B-Word
Strangely enough, it’s not just men that make these pronouncements. Other women do too.
Experiencing resistance as a Methodist minister myself in the past, I often wonder why women would be wary of female leadership? Is it because women are afraid of their own power? Is it because women fear the backlash that comes when another woman displays such qualities? Or maybe traditional female gender socialization is so ingrained that it’s simply hard to accept this sort of female leadership.
I’m not sure. But I do know this. Women, as well as men, are naturally shaped to be direct, confident, and decisive. As well as tender, compassionate and collaborative. Traditional gender norms tend to skew socially acceptable behaviors. But in studies about personality type, all of the above qualities occur almost equally in both men and women. Moreover, since each of us is made in the likeness of God, there are no mistakes about how we turn out.
Strong, decisive leaders who are confident, competent and charismatic are what the church needs. As well as compassionate and collaborative. And the church needs them in both the female and male versions.
So how do we move beyond the negative monikers of bossy and b#itchy? I have three suggestions for women in the pews, pulpits and communities:
1. Remember the power women from your past.
Identify women from your past that shaped their families and communities with their insight, intuition, and ability to get things done. You are part of that history. Women have always been leaders, even if not in the public square.
2. Mentor the next generation of women.
Elizabeth supported Mary when they both carried miracle babies who would change the arc of history. Mentor younger and older women in developing their own confidence and skill.
3. Own your inner boss.
Get comfortable with your own power. The power to move a conversation forward, to motivate a congregation, to envision new possibilities. A female colleague gave me a prized mug that says: “I’m not bossy. I am the boss.”
There is one more B-word that is under-used when it comes to women. One we should wholeheartedly embrace: Bishop.
In 2006, I attended an international United Methodist celebration of the 50th anniversary of full clergy rights for women. All of the female United Methodist bishops in the church were in attendance. They told their stories, spoke on panels, and cheered each other on. I was amazed not only at their leadership, but at their everydayness. Navigating airports on the way back home, I thought about these women. If I had seen any of them without their episcopal robes or name tags, I wouldn’t have known they were bishops. They looked like other women I knew: grandmothers, mothers, sisters and friends.
The United Methodist Church has come a long way since it consecrated its first female bishop. Even so, both church and society itself need to continue taking the vital steps to truly acknowledging the many women leaders around us. Women who accomplish amazing things in their communities, families, and in the Kin(g)dom of God.
We need you. True, in some settings, you may be thought of as bossy, or even bitchy. But let’s not forget, you may also be thought of as bishop-material.