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It's Time to Start Referring to Women Leaders as, Simply, Leaders

There are so many reasons to be a proud female leader. But when too much emphasis is placed on the qualifier, that's where the issues lie.

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More often than not, I'm referred to as the “first female technology CEO of my industry” to list on the Nasdaq. What this phrase fails to communicate is that in reality, I was the first technology CEO in the space to list on Nasdaq — of any gender. I am tired of only being referred to as a “female CEO.”

To be clear, I am proud to be a woman, and I remain dedicated helping other women, both in the workplace and in life. I am likewise proud of my professional achievements. Sexism is real, and there are barriers to success for women that aren’t present for men. These barriers are even more challenging for BIPOC women and the LGTBQ+ community.

With that being said, my sex shouldn’t be a qualifier in everything I do. Doing so reaffirms the problematic social and scientific view that “male” is default and “female” is a deviation.

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It’s long past the time women should be recognized on par with male leadership. I am far from the first to call for this. I am simply echoing the calls from the multitude of women pleading to be viewed as what we are: smart, established and developed leaders. Leaders who, due to how societal expectations are structured, likely had to work harder to get where we are today. Leaders who are no less worthy of respect or importance than our male counterparts.

The modern American workplace was not designed with women in mind. After World War II, the workplace as we know it today was designed to support the outdated idea of a “nuclear family," i.e. a man who worked outside the home, and a woman who took care of the home and their 2.5 children. As a result of these expectations, women have long been a minority in business. We struggle to get hired. Once we do, the pay is often lower, we can't secure capital, and because society has long positioned us to be the primary caretaker at home, we enjoy fewer promotions due to familial obligations and expectations. These issues are only compounded for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ women, who face even wider pay gaps and are subjected to bias in many forms. 

This is not to say that we shouldn't recognize women in business. It is crucial to honor their legacies, celebrate the paths they paved for those who come after and learn from their struggles to make the workplace even more progressive and dynamic than when we found it. I, along with generations of women to follow, stand on their shoulders. Without the Sandra Day O'Connors, Kamala Harrises, Dr. Rachel Levines, Becky Hammonses and Whitney Wolfe Herdes of the world, we would not be where we are today. 

There are so many reasons to be a proud female leader. But when too much emphasis is placed on the qualifier, that's where the issues lie. This female qualifier has given rise to various terms to describe women in business, like "boss babe" and “girl boss.” These terms in particular reveal internalized sexism by infantilizing women unnecessarily and problematically attempting to balance permission to assert themselves with care to not threaten those around them. Have you ever heard of a male CEO be referred to as "boy boss" or "male CEO"? Me neither.

The industries in which my company operates are highly male-dominated. Go to any industry conference or event and you'll see it firsthand. Being among the small percentages of women in leadership in the space, I often find myself invited to conferences with an agenda full of male leadership, only to be offered a spot on a women's panel — and nothing else. When launching Akerna's flagship product, MJ Freeway, we invented seed-to-sale tracking for the industry. And yet, many who organize these conferences think I can only speak to being a woman in business. I code, I sell, I scale, I lead, but to them, I am merely a female CEO, a checked box on a diversity-and-inclusion initiative. And I know my fellow female peers across a variety of industries have experienced the same.

So how do we fix this gender discrimination that is so deeply baked into business today? It starts with the language we use. Words have power. Let’s drop the qualifier when highlighting women who achieve. Countless amazing organizations seek to bring women into business and develop them into future leaders, but we still have miles to go.

Related: 4 Ways Your Company Can Radically Help Working Mothers

Ultimately, equal representation will be crucial for women to be seen as what we are: businesspeople delivering value, innovation and skill to our individual companies and missions. I hope for a future where women leaders are categorized by skill and success — not by gender.

Yes, I am a proud female founder. But I am so much more than just that.



 

 

Jessica Billingsley

Written By

Entrepreneur Leadership Network Writer

Billingsley serves as Akerna’s CEO. In June 2019 she became the first CEO of a cannabis technology company to be listed on Nasdaq. She co-founded MJ Freeway in 2010, where she served as president until April 2018, and later as the CEO until MJ Freeway was acquired by MTech to form Akerna.