Boardroom Hokey Pokey: That Dance That Women Do

A friend called me and said, "What do you make of this Jill Abramson thing?" As you probably know, Jill is a woman and she was recently fired from her position as Executive Editor of the New York Times. Surrounding her departure is a lot of controversy. Was she fired because she was too brash, loud, arbitrary, domineering and mean, as some news sources are claiming? Or like others are reporting, was she actually bold, decisive, nurturing and people-focused?

Beyond being female and a former New York Times executive, I'm not sure what Jill is or isn't. But as a woman leader myself, I do know how difficult it is to maintain what most people call balance. As a kid, my mother used to wail about my inability to operate in a zone she called "The Happy Medium." It certainly sounded pleasant; I imagined it as a mental Mobius strip that wise people walked along, always arriving at the beginning of their journey as they were ending it, in a loop of pleasant rainbows and clement weather. Meantime, metaphorically, I was either making a decision to toil away in the hot sun doing things the hard way or to run madly back and forth under growling storm clouds trying to help someone without an umbrella to stay dry.As I grew older, I learned to put my energy into things that mattered, but I've remained a person of great conviction.

When I think about leaning in, I don't gently slouch forward. I fling my body forward with abandon and bend deeply at the waist to be as "leaned in" as possible. A life coach once told me, "Don't forget to lead!" And I said, "Oh I won't... I can't help it!" Give me enough time on any project or endeavor, and despite my insistence that I am merely hear to listen and follow instructions, I'm running something. It's part of my nature and I've learned to embrace it.

But like many women, I'm constrained by this elusive concept of balance. I'm expected to be strong and decisive as well as relentlessly pleasant. I'm expected to be tough when things are hard but also nurturing and warm. I'm supposed to be fun and funny but to never cross the line into too silly or inappropriate (I have to be honest, this one is especially tough). I'm expected to show my positive feelings and suppress my annoyed or sad ones. I'm supposed to be honest, except when that honesty crosses someone else's boundary or makes them feel uncomfortable. I'm supposed to be a genuine leader that people want to follow, but I am also supposed to develop and display a brand that identifies me as a leader and doesn't reveal too much of my personal self. I'm supposed to put one foot in front of the other thoughtfully and deliberately but also quickly, because there is so much work to be done. I currently work at a place that appreciates me for my strengths as a person, rather than viewing me differently as a woman, but this has definitely not always been the case.

In my early 20s, I worked for a professional services firm, where my boss confided in me that he had a hard time dealing with my natural aggressive and assertive style because I was a woman. "Just pretend I am a man," I naively suggested. Amazingly, after a moment's pause, he nodded and agreed. And from that moment on, he did. He complained about his wife in the most graphic terms. He told me dirty jokes. He punched me on the arm. He high-fived me when we had a big success. He winked at me when attractive women walked by. And he promoted me to positions of increasing responsibility, allowing me access to his decision-making process as an equal. I was the only woman in the office with this view into the executive suite. I learned a lot while working there, but I had to be "one of the guys" to get it.

In the intervening years, I've had many opportunities to observe how differently men are treated than women under similar circumstances. I'm also one of the lucky ones; I've had many opportunities, period. I've worked for a few different people who saw me first as a leader,and only secondarily as a woman, and at this stage in my career, I can choose what kind of people I want to work for. I'm lucky. But I have plenty of opportunities to see how people, many of them other women, have different standards and evaluations of behavior for business executives based on gender.

I doubt a male executive would have been accused of being "too pushy," as Jill has been (and this is one of the nicer words used to describe her strong drive). People both admire and criticize her hard-fought climb to the top, and her refusal to exit gracefully. Her style made the newspaper more successful, but the debate isn't about her business results, and instead, is about whether she was well-liked.

For me, as a leader and an executive, what you see is what you get. I either put my whole self in, or I take my whole self out. And yes, sometimes, I shake it all about. For me, that's what it's all about. If I don't exhibit the perfect blend of strength and grace as I work like hell to make your company successful, please don't forgive me. I'm not apologizing.

This post first appeared at SheByShe, a new women's opinion site dedicated to sharing women's voices