I wanted to cry harder at the end of the Barbie movie than I did. But I went with my good friend Jordan and Harper, her ten-year-old daughter who hasn’t experienced the version of being a woman in this world that her mom and I have.
Instead, I listened to America Ferrara deliver her character’s monologue, and speed-blinked back the tears. Nothing has so profoundly resonated with me in the last few years. An excerpt:
“It is literally impossible to be a woman….
Like, we have to always be extraordinary, but somehow we’re always doing it wrong…
You have to have money, but you can’t ask for money because that’s crass…
You have to be a boss, but you can’t be mean.
You have to lead, but you can’t squash other people’s ideas.
You’re supposed to love being a mother, but don’t talk about your kids all the damn time.
You have to be a career woman, but also always be looking out for other people…
But always stand out and always be grateful. But never forget that the system is rigged.
So find a way to acknowledge that but also always be grateful…
I’m just so tired of watching myself and every single other woman tie herself into knots so that people will like us.”
My 20-year career spans advertising and marketing roles at agencies and big brands alike. In that time I’ve had the privilege of working with astoundingly talented and compassionate leaders across all genders. But I continue to bear witness to the specific struggles of female leaders navigating a system that wasn’t built by us, or many other marginalized groups. Only 10.4% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, and less than 1% are women of color. If I could expand the monologue through a female leadership lens, I’d say:
“It is literally impossible to be a female leader….
Like, we have to always be an authority, but somehow we’re always doing it wrong…
You have to charm people to be heard, but you can’t lack a forceful voice.
You have to be effortlessly calm but also take care of everyone’s feelings.
You have to go for the big job, but only if you meet 150% of the requirements.
You have to love your career, but also handle weekly meal planning, 3AM toddler wakeups, and visits to the vet, while constantly proving that the work comes first.
You’re supposed to volunteer for the tasks no one wants, but never get pigeonholed into menial work.
Always fill a room with your presence and always be pleasant. But never forget that the system is rigged. So find a way to acknowledge that but also always be pleasant…
I’m just so tired of watching myself and every single other female leader tie herself into knots so that people will like us.”
This system forces us to walk an endless high-wire balancing act of competence and likeability, where being too authoritarian gets you labeled a bitch but being too collaborative gets you labeled as ineffective.
But I have hope. I really do.
I think this experience will be different for Harper, and I’m starting to see generational change within our walls here at DNA. I’m proud that 61% of our agency and 50% of our senior leadership team is female. But I’m even prouder that I see the women in our agency challenging the way work gets done and their relationship to it. We believe that “Different Wins” at DNA, and that drills down to challenging every assumption about how we make the work. I see an ECD that makes the work better by listening instead of being emotionally explosive. I see an account supervisor that delivers premium client service but fiercely protects her work/life balance. I see moms that kick endless ass heading up departments and also households. I see an ACD that is the first person to call out underdeveloped thinking and push an idea farther. I see women constantly asking “why, what if, and why not?”
And to continue the momentum we have, I’ll end with three pieces of advice for my team and future female leaders:
- Don’t let anyone convince you that your superpower isn’t enough. Research from the Leadership Circle found that women score significantly higher on all five creative dimensions of leadership – relating, self-awareness, authenticity, systems awareness, and achieving. Being collaborative, inclusive, and relationship-driven leads to greater good beyond the leader’s immediate sphere of influence and a “play for all to win mindset.” We all win when we’re our authentic selves.
- Lead with fairness. Understand all perspectives and make space for dissenting opinions. Set clear expectations, repeatedly. Give direction and be direct. Ask how you can support but give people the space to get to their own solutions. Fairness is a compass that allows you to both be compassionate and kind but also firm.
- Know that no one truly knows 100% of what they’re doing. We’re all just doing our best. We’re going off experience and guts and data when we have it. So don’t let the imposter syndrome get the better of you. Ask the questions. Assert your POV. And if you don’t know something it just means you haven’t learned it…yet.