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Sticks and Stones: Gender, Name Calling and Leadership

My mother tried to teach me that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words could never hurt me.” Unfortunately, mom was wrong. Healing from the one bone that I ever broke has proven far easier than recovering from the wounds that words have often caused. Mom was probably trying to teach me to not allow the words to hurt me, but it’s been easier said than done. Pun intended.

One of my most important lessons on the power of words occurred at a week-long elite leadership academy with 54 other university faculty and administrators. (I say “elite” because we were all nominated to the academy by our deans, provosts and presidents.) Since I’m always seeking better ways to help my students understand fundamental ideas, my in-flight reading while traveling to this event was Allan Johnson’s Privilege, Power and Difference. I was impressed with the way in which Johnson described in clear, simple terms how institutionalized systems of dominance and oppression operate. I was reminded of the seemingly innocuous events in our day-to-day interactions that can in fact hold the most power, and the ways in which we all collude in keeping stereotypes in place when we allow them to exist unchallenged. Inspired anew by Johnson’s ideas, I determined to scrutinize my own behavior—to not be a “dominator” in my human interactions.

One of our first activities at the LA was to take a personality profile called the DISC. Imagine my horror when I discovered that my personality type was a “D” which stood for “dominance” or “dominator.” When we were asked to stand in a group next to our letter, I can hardly describe the sense of shame I felt standing with the other “Ds” only two of which were women. I wanted to be in any other group than that. The “nice” girls were I’s (influence) or S’s (steadiness) or even C’s (conscientiousness). These were the groups with the women who were focused more on people than tasks, who worked quietly and diligently behind the scenes.

When the facilitator began to describe the characteristics of D’s, my discomfort grew exponentially. D’s are noted for their power and authority, directness, willingness to take risks, ability to make quick decisions and get results, eagerness to question the status quo, and determination to make things happen. But, these were the very things for which I’d been criticized my whole life. These were not attributes of which I could be proud, at least not as a woman. As I listened to the list of traits and tried to slip to the back of the group where I couldn’t be seen, a series of flashbacks ran across the movie screen of my mind: my three-year old friends calling me “bossy,” junior high school classmates telling me I was too pushy, and many, many work situations in which I was called a “bitch” either behind my back or to my face for being “too” direct, “too” eager to take risks, and “too” determined to make things happen.

It wasn’t until I pursued graduate work in women’s studies in my mid-30s that I was able to make sense of this lifetime of criticism for being “too” you-name-it. Being a direct, determined risk-taker is not gender “appropriate” behavior for a girl/woman. That’s “male” behavior. Throughout my life, I had been repeatedly reminded to quit overstepping the bounds of the gender box, to get my behavior back to the submissive state where it belonged, and to essentially quit being me. I knew that I should silence myself, wait like a “good girl”, cooperate, try not to dominate with my ideas, my mind, and my willingness to take risks. Unfortunately, my natural passions were hard to stifle.

So, here I was at 51, a recently tenured Associate Professor in a job that I love, finally ready to assume a larger leadership role at this university where I plan to spend the rest of my career, and standing in the corner of shame next to the D that stood for “dominator.” It might as well have stood for “dunce.” I couldn’t have felt more shame if I’d been asked to wear a big pointed hat and sit in a stool facing the corner while the rest of the class pointed and laughed. Little did I know, the laughter was on its way.

I spent that evening after our session ended working hard to analyze what had happened, to reclaim the “goodness” of being a D, and to focus on the purpose of this exercise which was ultimately to help us all learn to better work together, no matter how different we may be. I made some progress, but I wasn’t ready for what happened next.

We began our next day with video clips of different personality types. The task was to watch the clip and then try to identify what personality type that person’s behavior represented. The first clip was of a woman in a leadership role who acted and spoke exactly like I do. There was no question she was a D. The facilitator stopped the video and asked the 54 academic leaders in attendance, “So, what letter is she?” A guy at the table behind me said, “She’s a B—you know, for “bitch.” The room erupted in laughter. Then another man near the front of the room said, “Yeah, and that tone wouldn’t exactly rock a baby to sleep.” I could hardly breathe—having been called a “bitch with the tone” more times than I care to count. I literally held my breath in horror as I waited for the facilitator to step in and stop the attack. She didn’t. My anger started rising and I began to physically shake with the adrenaline that surged through my body. It was time to choose fight or flight. I left the room.

I found a quiet place to sit next to a fountain and tried to reason my way out of my feelings. When that was obviously not possible, I chose to honor my feelings and let myself have a good cry. What came up were more scenes from my past. So, many moments when I didn’t understand why I was being criticized for having a determined vision, being willing to take the risk, passionately naming the problem, and trying to get others to see how we might solve it. I couldn’t escape the illogic in having been consistently criticized throughout my life for “just being me”—a fact that was newly corroborated by this most recent personality survey.
I thought about why I’d so long avoided leadership roles in my early career. I got enough criticism just being a worker-bee in the trenches. I can’t imagine the ways in which I’d have been ridiculed as a woman with this style in a leadership role. However, in spite of these fears, I had agreed to attend this leadership academy (a two year commitment) in part because of the moral obligation that I felt came with the privilege of being a tenured faculty member at a university. My conscience would no longer allow me to ignore my responsibility to lead at my institution, and to lead in a way that would serve my desire for social justice.

So, here I was at day two of my leadership training, sitting alone sobbing after I felt personally ridiculed by a room full of peers. Then, I thought about the exercise that I do with my class every semester to help them see how we learn attitudes and beliefs from our social institutions. I distribute two surveys: one that asks students to identify the characteristics of a good leader, and one that asks students to identify the characteristics of “femaleness” and “maleness” as they are predominantly defined by society. The students don’t know that there are two surveys. We then correlate the data on PowerPoint slides where they can rapidly see the obvious and painfully consistent correlation of “maleness” with what makes a “good leader.” Good leaders and men are direct, determined, dominant, assertive, and task-oriented. These are all “D” behaviors. But, women are none of these things. And, as I help my students try to see each semester, women don’t get to just behave “like men” without it costing them. Sometimes the cost is the hearty laughter of a room full of 54 peers—laughing, jeering, pointing and saying the B-word.

I dried my eyes and returned to the room. However, I was very quiet. When we paused for small group discussion, I said nothing. It did not feel safe to speak without censure. As time passed, I wondered how I would make it through the rest of the week. Would I ever feel safe to speak again in this group of people? Suddenly, I couldn’t look away from what a coward I was being.

I’m a women’s studies scholar. I teach about these things. I want to create a world in which none are “dominators” and none are “oppressed.” I want to be someone whose life is more than just words. I want my actions to reflect my beliefs. And, I remembered Allan Johnson reminding me that it’s the seemingly simple situations like these that can make all the difference. I knew that I needed to challenge this stereotype with the person who had uttered it.

As we broke for lunch, I was given just the right words to say to respectfully approach the man who had called the D-woman in our video a B. I walked up to him, reached out my hand to shake his, and introduced myself. I asked if I could speak with him for a moment about something he’d said earlier. I asked if we could go across the hall to an empty room. I did not want to shame him. I said the following as calmly and rationally as I know how: “I’m taking the risk that since you’re at a leadership workshop, you care about how people may perceive you and the things that you say. When you used the B-word to refer to the woman in the video, that had the emotional impact for me that I imagine the N-word has to a black person. That criticism has been lodged at me many times when I was behaving according to the D personality type like the woman in the video. But, when you turn that into a joke, it makes it harder for any other woman with that personality type to see herself as a leader or to be perceived as a leader. I understand how systems of privilege work, and I understand that because you are white and male, you may have no reason to understand about these things unless something in your life has caused you to seek answers.” I stopped and waited for him to speak. He angrily replied, “Well, first of all, you don’t know anything about my life, and secondly…” I honestly can’t report what he said next because I blocked it out. I was so stunned that I couldn’t process the words. I stopped him with “[his name], if after all that I’ve just told you, the first words out of your mouth are about you, and they don’t include an apology, then we have nothing more to discuss. Thanks for listening.” And, I walked off.

There’s more to the story that I won’t share here, including a conversation with the facilitator who told me that she had not even heard the “B” comment. However, I’d like to wrap this up by sharing what I learned from this very painful encounter with the power of words.

I learned a whole new lesson about the power of internalized sexism. I’ve long held that the greatest damage of all of the “isms” lies not in the external circumstances; the greatest damage is the damage we do to ourselves by internalizing false ideas about who we are, about what is possible for us. I went to the Leadership Academy to learn how to be a leader. I believe that the best leaders facilitate the creation of communities of care, respect and appreciation—that is what calls people to their highest selves. I want to be that kind of leader. In fact, I am that kind of leader in my classrooms. I wanted to learn how to be that kind of leader with my peers. With my students, I don’t allow my ego to show up. I relate to them on a soul-level that goes beyond words that can be so easily misinterpreted, miscommunicated. I learned that I need to extend that same generosity to my colleagues. I need to keep showing up the way that I did with the man who made the “B” comment, with respect and the genuine desire to open a way for a new kind of communication. I also learned that I need to be persistent. Just because he didn’t “get it” the first time, doesn’t mean that I quit on him. I wouldn’t quit on a student, why should I quit on any other soul.

Perhaps the most important lesson is one that I will keep learning again and again because it requires practice. Words do have tremendous power, but they only have the power that we choose to give them. I am a D—and that stands for durable.

A shorter version of this essay was originally published in NWSAction. 18.1 (Fall 2006): 28.