Pretty Like Mommy; Smart Like Daddy

If you had asked me a year ago whether I’d been limited by societal biases against women in business and leadership, I would have replied, “No.” However, after a year of studying this topic, my answer has changed.

Part of the shift occurred as I became consciously aware of the many cultural messages which began in my childhood – and reinforced throughout my life – that had me aiming below my full potential. These messages were so deeply rooted, I wasn’t aware of how pervasively they were blocking me.

Sheryl Sandberg writes about some of these cultural messages in her book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. She writes: “Gymboree once sold onesies proclaiming ‘Smart like Daddy’ for boys and ‘Pretty like Mommy’ for girls. The same year, J.C. Penney marketed a T-shirt for teenage girls that bragged, ‘I’m too pretty to do homework so my brother has to do it for me.’ These things did not happen in 1951. They happened in 2011.”

These kinds of messages not only encourage superficial traits, they actually swerve into discouraging leadership. As Sandberg suggests, “When a girl tries to lead, she is often labeled bossy. Boys are seldom called bossy because a boy taking the role of a boss does not surprise or offend.” Authority figures silence female voices; then, women silence themselves because they want to be accepted. “They [young women] are rewarded for being “pretty like Mommy” and encouraged to be nurturing like Mommy too.” 3

It’s no longer a mystery to me why I spent more time counting calories throughout my life than I did striving to fulfill my true calling. I’d been programmed to believe that men must be the powerful providers and women must be the attractive, nurturing caregivers. That brings me back to the change in my answer.

Yes, in my life I have been limited by societal biases concerning women in business and leadership. Yet I admit part of the limitation was caused by my own lack of knowledge. Now that I’m aware of my subconscious blocks, I can move forward. I can move forward knowing that being an intelligent, capable leader doesn’t make me bossy or a bully; it makes me an intelligent, capable leader. I can move forward and help raise up other women to become all they can possibly become … and so can you!

You can help other women – your daughters, your wives, your female colleagues – to move forward by consciously choosing the words you use when describing them or introducing them to others. While words such as “beautiful”, “warm”, “outgoing”, and “helpful” might feel complimentary, remind yourself that these kinds of messages can encourage superficial traits and discourage leadership. However, words such as “highly skilled”, “essential”, “brilliant”, and “intelligent” can convey messages that help to build up future leaders, regardless of their gender. It’s in all of our hands to close the leadership gap and to encourage more women to reach their full potential.

1 [(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), at p. 19.]
2 [(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), at p. 19.]
[(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), at p. 21.]