From Powder Puff to Powder Keg: The Changing Face of Women Today

The theme for International Women's Day 2015 is "Make it Happen." The website,, adds a call to celebrate women's achievements and encourage greater equality for women in senior leadership roles, the arts, and STEM; advocate for more women owned businesses; urge women to have greater financial independence; and support fairer recognition of women in sport.

Much has changed for women. The fact that we have International Women's Day, or that many organizations host Women in Leadership events to empower women, or women feel they can mobilize to effect positive change is testimony to progress. I recently hosted a focus group at the Drucker School of Management (where I work) about gender issues and what it means to lead a progressive organization. Some comments by participants reflected generational differences. Older women who attended, for example, reminded us of the 1980s when women wore shoulder pads in their suit jackets so as to appear more masculine, or were told to walk with purpose, or to lower their voices to sound like a man.

A week later, I was a moderator at two events: the first was hosted by Sotheby's Institute of Art and the Drucker School to discuss women in leadership in the creative economy. The second was the Women and Leadership Alliance hosted by Claremont McKenna College (CMC).

Now this is where my story becomes interesting. As the events progressed my audiences became younger. The Sotheby's event was attended by women, many of whom are students in the Masters of Art Business or Masters of Art Management programs at the Drucker School; the CMC event was attended by undergraduate students, the majority of whom were women. Common themes emerged. For a start, students in these programs are well educated and attend prestigious schools that require excellent GPAs, standardized test scores, and compelling stories about past achievements and future dreams.

The masters students have already made a career choice and are interested in working in the creative industries; the undergraduate students are still forming career choices. Irrespective of a declaration of career path, the women I met were ambitious and all held a firm belief that an education gives equal opportunity to participate in the work force... as they choose.

Another common theme that emerged is the level of confidence among these women. At the CMC event, the students were asked to reflect upon different questions. When the chance came to report back to the group the self-confidence of these young women was apparent.

So, we have several common themes of education, intellectual ability, a belief that education leads to equal opportunity, and abundant self-confidence.

This was much different than what I often hear from students in the classes I teach. In one of my classes, for example, students present a trend and discuss the implications of this trend for management practice. One trend a group of students chose was the lack of women in leadership roles in museums. The students acknowledged the low levels of female representation on corporate boards and leading Fortune 500 companies but, given the prevalence of women in the non profit sector, they were shocked to find that the larger the museum budget, the less likely it is that a woman will be in charge.

The data shows us that more women than men gain undergraduate, masters, and PhD degrees, women earn around 80 cents on the dollar (with some variation by occupation), women outlive men, marry later, and delay having children (I wrote about this in an earlier blog called "The Changing Face of Women").

We've heard the term glass ceiling to describe the barrier that keeps women and minorities from rising to senior leadership positions - in spite of qualifications and experience, but I think a better term is powder keg.

A powder keg was the method used to store and transport gunpowder in the 1870s. A powder keg had to be handled with care because even a small spark would lead to the powder keg blowing up. I'm not advocating that women become violent, far from it, but I am suggesting that women who might appear at peace about their opportunities will start to become a force to be reckoned with if organizations do not become more progressive.

What is a progressive organization?
1. A progressive organization gives women and other minorities equal opportunity to lead. For example, it is well known that women are promoted based on experience and not potential; for men, potential can be more heavily weighted. Given so few women currently hold leadership positions, the needle has to shift so that the potential of women is realized.
2. A progressive organization redefines terms such as power, influence, confidence, and leadership to ensure they are applied fairly to men and women. What I mean by this is that a confident woman might behave differently than a confident man. Do women need to adopt masculine behaviors to indicate confidence or can the organization develop a deeper understanding to embrace gender differences in the way confidence is expressed?
3. A progressive organization, by making the workplace better for women, also makes the workplace better for men. Men and women share home and childcare responsibilities, men and women seek work life balance, men want paternity leave to welcome a new baby to the world, and men want some flexibility to spend time with their children as well.

There is no doubt that women have made much progress. Challenges, however, lie ahead if organizations do not better embrace the changing face of women (and men) today and properly address the question of how to ensure women (and men) contribute to their fullest potential in the workplace. Ask: how progressive is your organization? What can you do to ensure your organization harnesses the full potential of all of its employees, irrespective of any demographic descriptor such as gender?