Context – Get Used to It!

When you get that next job evaluation, remember this – how women are perceived in the workplace matters almost as much as what they actually achieve. The context into which you are cast can make it easy or make it difficult for you to succeed.

That means, if there has never been a female CEO at your company, being the first one could be difficult. The leadership ladder can be a workplace hazard for women. The higher you climb, the more alone and vulnerable you may feel – particularly if you’re the first to try it.

There’s some interesting research on women, context and their access to leadership roles. Women in leadership positions in Norway, for example, where there is long established acceptance of women in politics, feels a strong sense of legitimacy in top rung leadership roles.

Look at England, with its history of female reigning monarchs. You could argue the country’s history paved the way for a female prime minister like Margaret Thatcher.

France’s Christine Lagarde has scaled some previously impenetrable fortresses in a country with a reputation for chauvinism. In 2007, Lagarde was appointed France’s first female minister of economic affairs and, at the same time, became the first woman ever to hold a key government finance portfolio in a G8 country. She’s just forged some new context again as the first female managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

See Us, Hear Us, Believe in Us

Women, generally, experience the most resistance when they try to lead the team in traditionally male-dominated fields, where people simply aren’t used to seeing women in that context.

We accept women in middle management but it is still “out of context” to see them as military commanders, presidents, or CEOs. So Joan of Arc, Catherine the Great, Elizabeth I, and Carly Fiorina are still exceptions and women who aspire to the top encounter some strong head winds when trying to overcome gender stereotypes.

When people are unfamiliar with women in male-dominated roles, the idea jumps out and scares them silly. Can she really do it? Is she bright enough, strong enough? Even the women in those roles start to have ‘personal doubts’ about their own worth as the leader of the group.

Saved by Context

However, context can work to our advantage as well. I was once appointed to a very fractious board. My role was to help the two sides end their war and move forward.

In fact, neither side was interested in compromise. So, as a reward for my time and effort, one side made me the victim of a smear campaign. I was hurt, angry, and confused, and questioned my judgment until I recognized that I had been set up for failure.

These guys thought, because I was a woman, I would be an easy mark. But I had context on my side. They underestimated the strength, my network of people and the value of my mentor – someone they all knew and respected.

My support team said, “Let’s consider the context. These guys are known trouble-makers and Betty Ann always works to find a productive solution. We’re on her side.”

Endorse Us, Support Us

More women in senior positions will serve to “put us in context.” The best thing we can do to achieve that is find mentors to endorse us and build our network. They and other “opinion leaders” will legitimize us.

And do it today. You can’t predict when you’re going to need that network.

Be active about supporting women at work and beyond. Accept no ‘token’ women; there are plenty of qualified ones to do the job.

Aim for the ‘power of three’ – on every board, every department, every management team. It takes at least three for our voices to be heard. Work alone and women are isolated, targeted for blame, and the context for them turns negative.

Support women in leadership positions who deserve your loyalty.  The more familiar society becomes with women in roles characterized as masculine, the greater ability we’ll have to transcend obstacles for our gender.

Encourage other women to aim high and give them credit for a job well done.

It is all about context. And, the more they see us, the more of us we’ll be allowed to achieve and contribute.