Day 5 (of Good Stuff): More Mental Health Options
“Women in Leadership” is a recurring theme in my coaching and consulting practice, and is therefore always on my mind. But it occurred to me recently that ALL women are ‘leaders’, regardless of whether or not they hold a formal title. Women, just by virtue of their inherent biological makeup, are forces of nature. They are powerful, intelligent creatures whose capacity for creating positive, loving and nurturing relationships and environments is often underestimated. Even worse, the very traits that make us so valuable to humankind are often seen as weakness: Soft Power in the workplace is viewed as no real power at all. In fact, in our roles as Leaders (families, jobs, relationships, change-agents), we often undercut our own strength and ability by not addressing the actual barriers we face: in our own hearts, and out in The World.
I’ve held many leadership roles as a professional, and, because of my education focus, spent many years in what is factually a male-dominated industry (public education). While it’s true that the majority of public school teachers are female, I found out that – as I moved up the ranks into leadership roles – management and administration is most definitely a Boys’ Club. As in “good old boys”. If Readers are not familiar with this term, it means a network or club of men who have rules and procedures that are – by design – mostly obscure to any woman trying to enter The Club. It’s hard to believe that, in 2020, The Club still exists; and yet, there are almost daily headlines in many industries – public or corporate sectors – showing that barriers for women aspiring to leadership roles are real. Newsflash: I’ve spent three decades working in this atmosphere; it’s not going away anytime soon.
So, what’s The Plan for women who’re motivated to take on roles that will most likely challenge them, solely on the basis of their gender? As many a famous female CEO, politician, advocate, writer, and entrepreneur has already noted, Step One for all women is the realization and acceptance (without rancor – it just ‘is what it is’) that working harder will be a given; and equity of any kind will have to be hard-fought for, and hard-won.
Yes, I know – it shouldn’t be this way, but it’s bigger than who you are and the position you hold. It’s a firmly entrenched cultural fact that women – in male dominated industries – must cope with barriers that have nothing to do with their brains, skills, energy, or experience.
One of the most challenging leadership roles I held (and also the highest-paying) was in an organization dominated by men, and also in a community that seemed to under-value women beyond the role of homemaker. I was an ‘outside’ hire, as my future boss was. I think that he and I clicked because of this; and he made it clear – during the interview process – that I was his choice. Almost as soon as I took the job, I felt the pressure to make a choice. There was a silent question at my workplace, from the Boys’ Club: “Are you sure you’re up for this??” My immediate team (of men) was supportive, but the larger organization was a different matter. Even though I was married and had a toddler at home, sexual advances came almost immediately. Sly ones – not anything I could call-out or bring attention to. Nevertheless, it seemed to be game-on, to prove that I was vulnerable.
Back in the day, there was really no place to turn, no one to seek out, for mental and emotional support. It was super-tough not to become emotional during the workday, as sexism and power-plays interfered with the work I was hired to do. My health suffered, my relationships suffered, and I felt embattled on a daily basis. The roadblocks and push-back I experienced (only from male colleagues) seemed designed to drive me out – whatever it took.
Which is why I’m highlighting in this Post the fact that more and more larger organizations and corporations are not only providing onsite mental health support, but they are doing so in a way that accentuates privacy and discretion. According to a 2019 study conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA), the most common work stressors cited are low salary; lack of a way to advance or promote; an overly-heavy workload; impossible-to-meet job expectations; and over-long hours. Of the total 12,658 full time employees surveyed, the first four stressors were cited as ‘significant’ among 49% of people. Take this data, and add a layer of gender bias, harassment, invisibility, sexism in all its forms (for example, female ‘blue collar’ workers consistently report that they do not have access to a ‘female only’ restroom or to the hygiene products they might need), and mental health support becomes crucial to a woman’s professional success. Thankfully, not only do we have access to external resources such as Employee Assistance Programs; now, more of us have therapists in our own workplaces, so that seeking help is becoming normalized. Good news, indeed.