The reality of female leadership

Byron Katie says that defense is the first act of war.

I have been defensive. I have heard my female clients be defensive. And a lot of these defenses surround the reality of being a female leader. The set of circumstances that face female leaders are different. Part of our mission at Inside Out is to acknowledge that these differences do exist. Another part of our mission is to instill a set of tools that keep the power of possible change in the hands of women.  If we wait for the people who built the current structure to change, we will be waiting for a long time. We have been waiting.

Take meetings for example. Yes, it is harder for a room to hear or acknowledge a female idea. Yes, it is far more common for a woman to get interrupted. These things are true. These are the reasons why Obama’s female staff  came up with a creative strategy to increase their share of voice.  Like those staffers, we can institute change from within ourselves.

I see examples of this everywhere.

Last week, I listened to Justice, Interrupted. In doing so, I found myself relating to Sonia Sotomayor, one of the current Supreme Court justices. She has received a lot of press portraying her as combative since her appointment in 2009. But is her style really combative?

Peeling back the layers, as the staff of Radiolab did, the reality looks different. This episode looked at the patterns of of interruption between supreme court justices and the lawyers that present to the court. There are rules within the court. It is common (and welcomed) for justices to interrupt lawyers. The reverse is not true. It is an understood rule of the Supreme Court. Lawyers do not interrupt justices. We can expect people to break this rule, as is the case with any rule. But, in this case, female justices are 3x more likely to get interrupted than their male counterparts.

What does that mean for the female justices in a position of assigned leadership?

What would happen if the frequency of interruptions deterred women from speaking up?

What would the societal implications be of laws passing that are absent of female voices?

What is the solution? Adaptation.

I read about a lot of different perspectives on gender dynamics. One voice suggests that things will get better as the representation of women in leadership roles grows. That might be true. And we are not there, yet.

For the female justices, this has not been true. The number of interruptions has increased alongside the increase in women on the bench. In 2015, women on the bench received 65.9% percent of all interruptions on the court. That is more than previous years. There are more female justices on the bench. More women, more interruptions. Men are not adapting.

Women, on the other hand, have a long history of adapting to their circumstances. Without weighing the positives and negatives of our history, it is true that our creativity lives in our adaptation. When the straightforward path is not available, we have found another way.

Female supreme court justices have found a way. On first assignment to the bench, female justices play nice. They ask for permission to speak. They apologize for their questions. But it doesn’t earn them respect or cease the likelihood of getting interrupted. Over time, and fairly quickly, they adjust. They speak directly and to the point.

Sonia Sotomayor adapted the quickest to the circumstances of the court. The downside is that she carries a reputation, supported by the media, that she is aggressive. The reality is that she speaks in equal proportion to men on the bench and in doing so, gets interrupted the most.

This is our conundrum. This is our reality.

When asked, "when will there be enough women on the court," Ruth Bader Ginsburg has replied “when there are nine.” She has been adapting the longest.

What does she do until that happens? What does she do right now?

She adapts to the circumstances. This is not giving up. It is claiming her power. This is not suggesting that adaptation is right or easy, but pointing to its necessity in building something greater than herself. For Ruth Bader Ginsburg (and the rest of the female justices), adjusting her speech to be direct is in service of a set of laws that include a female perspective.

What does it look like for us?

  • It looks like the determination to sell our ideas twice as much, if needed.

  • It looks like maintaining a curious frame of mind when our ideas are questioned, knowing they are ideas of substance.

  • It looks like stating the thing that is obvious to us, because others might not see it.

  • It looks like our willingness to show up and speak up, regardless of whether we have been asked.

It looks like saying yes to the actions that we feel like “we shouldn’t have to,” because we know that doing so increases our influence on the world. It means lowering our defenses.

We can ask ourselves, What would Ruth Bader Ginsburg do?

When the rest of the world can’t see the reality of what exists, we see the whole picture. We know why we have adapted. We will have chosen to do so. We will have stood in our power. That power is the path to holding ourselves in esteem. We won’t be as drawn to look to others to agree. This is our antidote to thinking “I have to” or “I need to.” We get to change things. We have the power to do so.

Shine On, 


Alicia Jabbar