One Image, Two Very Different Interpretations: What Does it Mean in Business?
By now, mostly everyone has seen the viral photo of Nancy Pelosi standing and pointing at Donald Trump, around a table full of men.
There are a few different schools of thought when it comes to this image, depending on how you want to frame it. Is it not enough that Nancy Pelosi is the only woman at a powerful table? Does she need to gesture aggressiveness to the most powerful men in the room? Or is this a symbol of empowering women - an iconic, badass woman?
This image does not only happen at The White House, or to people with political power. It happens in everyday life, at home and in the workplace. The lens we view the world through is the same, whether we judge our leaders, spouses, children, co-workers, or boss, with preset expectations about how each gender needs to behave. We objectify ourselves and live in these stereotypes.
But what happens when people feel boxed in by stereotypes, limited to a role they don’t want to play? When Nancy Pelosi stepped out of the lines of the conventional role she was expected to behold in front of powerful men, she was referred to as, “Nervous Nancy” on the brink of an “unhinged meltdown.” When women step out of that box in everyday life, it can have consequences: “mansplained” responses, belittling, discredited either overtly or masked in political correctness, and ultimately being silenced. And not all women will have the strength to deal with this.
The response can’t be that this is how things are - success still hangs on relationships. A Gallup survey found that a majority of Americans no longer prefer a male boss to a female boss. This is a step in the right direction, as in the past, workers have had bias working for male-led firms. Silicon Valley is full of innovation, and most venture capitalists admit that start-up investment is a high touch, personal business. Investors fund people they like, and people typically get along with those who think like them. Women in technology are being photoshopped into stock images to show diversity. Stereotypes about “brogrammer culture” and inherent differences make women feel that they don’t belong.
The gender gap in science, engineering, and leadership is not because of a “talent pipeline” problem, but instead is the result of stereotypes. Alienating women with unconscious bias creates an environment that’s less hospitable for women.
Although we have seen many important social changes, the perception that women do not fit the image of the ideal leader is still pervasive and resistant to change. On the other hand, women are raised to hide their ambition, fearful it will be viewed negatively and prevent us from being liked.
We fail to realize that these are human-created stereotypes that have not adapted with time. We don’t use the same gadgets and technology, and live the same lifestyle as our grandparents or great grandparents did a century ago, and similarly, perception about gender has changed.
This photo is not about encapsulating the idea that the future is black or white, male or female. We don’t need to look at the world as male vs. female, and have our future generations mold themselves into stereotypes that were created for us.
Gender equality may be an idealistic goal, but the point of humanity is to get more out of our lives. Gender stereotypes imprison us rather than set us free to live a truly free life politically, socially, economically, and spiritually. “Equal” doesn’t mean “identical,” there are differences, but equality means those differences shouldn’t translate into different levels of access to opportunities in society. We need a gender-independent human culture to propel the world in the future.