Expanding the Circle: Powerful Conversations for Women in Leadership (Part I)

by Betina Schonberger

I was recently in the U.K. delivering a powerful “Women in Leadership” workshop at a leading technology company. Our program emphasizes the importance of discovering one’s own Field of Authentic Leadership, and includes four key themes: Self Awareness, Networking and Sponsorship, Negotiations, and Gender Dilemmas. Prior to the workshop, participants complete a 360 assessment.

I continue to be amazed by the magic that happens when a group of women comes together in honest and courageous dialogue. I witness a transformative experience as these women unconsciously embrace what Peter Block defined as "Three Acts of Empowerment." These simple, yet highly effective, steps are:

First, face the harsh reality:  These women openly accepted the feedback they received in their 360 evaluations They were willing to explore the reality that second generation biases do exist, though these biases may be less than obvious or visible – particularly to younger generations who never experienced the more blatant, policy-driven biases that women before them had lived through.

Second, own one’s own contributions to the problem: Often the most difficult part in shifting from a powerless to an empowered state of mind is to accept that we have played a part in the existing problem or situation. As Peter Block asks, “How can you be part of a solution, if you are not part of the problem?” The women in our workshop demonstrated such humility and grace in accepting their own actions or behaviors that contributed to their own situations instead of playing the “blame game”.  This opened them up to possibilities of what they could do differently to change their situations - a more empowered way to view a situation.

And third, make an authentic statement in the face of disapproval. Being able to communicate about a challenging situation can be difficult, because people often don’t want to hear the real truth. Being able to speak without blame, antagonism or negative emotions is essential to catalyzing positive change. The women in our workshop showed courage and commitment in how they planned to respectfully communicate to the stakeholders involved in the situations they wanted to change.

While I was on a “high” from being part of this rich and transformative experience, questions that kept lingering in the back of mind were these: “How do we create such an experience for men? How do we expand the conversation to include both men and women?” Men, too, face gender “double binds.” They are supposed to be sensitive, yet manly; open with their feelings, yet not allowed to cry, and so on. Certainly, the gender dilemmas that women face are part of a systemic problem that includes men.

To advance, then, we need to unlock the double binds of both genders. We will continue to make only painfully slow, incremental changes for women in the workplace, until we can have healthy, honest conversations with both women AND men. In Part II, we'll look at an approach to consider in implementing this strategy.

Tags : women executives women in leadership women leaders

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