Female Boss

I had a recent experience where I was leading a group of people and received feedback about my leadership style that no woman in a position of authority wants to hear (but probably has): that I was too assertive, bossy, aggressive. When pressed for examples, I simply got the “it’s just your style” and “it’s just a feeling.” I immediately recognized these labels as gender-coded language, i.e. labels that express gendered expectations, ones that wouldn’t be equally distributed to someone of the opposite gender in the same situation. In my situation—and particularly because I was aware that I had a strong style but treated people fairly and kindly—this language was used because the expectation was that a woman (especial one small in stature) shouldn’t be a strong, direct leader who expresses her thoughts and opinions and delegates tasks. And more so, such labels subtly express that women can’t do the same jobs as men. But it’s good to keep in mind that this isn’t something only leveraged against women: There are gendered language codes that express the expectations we have for men, too. Both men and women use this language, sometimes to describe someone of the same gender; it’s a socio-cultural phenomenon more than any discrepancy between how the sexes see each other. Although it wasn’t surprising for me to hear this from a male (white and from a privileged background, too, since gender, race, and socioeconomic status are not mutually exclusive).

It led me to think about leadership in the arts and how women have fared. A recent study by the League of American Orchestras on gender diversity among American orchestras showed that, in general, the gap between genders in orchestral staff makeup is closing. But this didn’t tell me much about who was at the top. What is the gender make-up of executive directors, for instance? I did a quick survey of the executive directors of the 13 highest paid orchestras in the United States to see how many were administratively led by a woman:

  1. LA Phil: male
  2. Chicago Symphony Orchestra: male
  3. SanFrancisco Symphony Orchestra: male
  4. Boston Symphony Orchestra: male
  5. New York Philharmonic: female (relatively recent move by Deborah Borda, who was behind a period of great success while previously at the LA Phil)
  6. National Symphony Orchestra: male
  7. Philadelphia Orchestra: male
  8. Cleveland Orchestra: male
  9. Pittsburg Symphony Orchestra: female
  10. Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra: male
  11. Minnesota Orchestra: male
  12. Houston Symphony Orchestra: female (but interim)
  13. Dallas Symphony Orchestra: female

The statistics aren’t good, even with just a snapshot of the top orchestras, with only four women leading orchestras out of the top 13 (and one of the four isn’t in a permanent position). A more comprehensive study probably could and should be done to see how wide-ranging this is throughout the field. Another interesting study (maybe already done?) would be to see the gender breakdown for deans of music schools and conservatories. But the assumption that I think most of us would make is that women and men don’t equally occupy the top positions of arts organizations. As for the women who have made it to the top, I would be interested to hear their strategies for working around gender bias and climbing the executive ladder. (Perhaps an interview with one will become a forthcoming blog post.) Two particularly successful women I look up to are Deborah Borda, who did great work at the LA Phil and is now trying to wrangle the stalwart institution that is the NY Phil, and Melissa Smey, the Executive Director of the Miller Theatre in NYC, who has built a reputation for thought-provoking programming and innovating marketing of niche new music, bolstering the Miller Theatre’s place in NYC’s cultural landscape.

I’ve spent some time over the last weeks thinking about strategies I could employ in future situations to communicate more effectively and to co-opt people into the causes I want them to achieve with me, rather than creating any feeling of disjuncture and falling into the trap of gendered expectations. To be fair, I wasn’t leading a big organization; just some local musicians who had an idea to start something new. There are other factors in my situation that set it apart from most other professional work environments. I’ve been reading into nonviolent communication, a way to relate to people in a compassionate way about their needs, thoughts, and feelings that can help resolve conflicts in a way that leaves everyone feeling positive; when you validate the people you work with, they’re more likely to feel positive about the directions you take together. Other strategies purport that you have to expose the different ways men and women communicate and lead, and the consequences this has on organizations and corporations, in order to basically win at the other’s game (see Hardball for Women: Winning at the Game of Business by Pat Heim and Susan K. Golant). While others like Stephen Covey in his Seven Habits of Highly Successful People (which isn’t specifically about women in the workplace) put a premium on genuine communication and thinking about success as a sharable resource, not something scarce that only a few people can attain, all in the name of eliminating destructive competition in the workplace; I interpret this as a way to work towards eliminating the battle over power between men and women in the workplace.

But, I also want to consider that an appropriate response to hearing that I am too assertive, or bossy, or aggressive, is “yes, I am.” One way to disarm these labels is to reclaim them and to refuse to give them power.  My next steps, though, are to continue my research and use the next year to learn about various leadership strategies that can help me as a woman who wants to have a significant impact on the arts.