Let’s be honest, you’re really good at your job. You wouldn’t have gotten to where you are if you weren’t. That doesn’t mean it’s been easy. You’ve likely dealt with more than your co-workers, handled competing demands at work and at home, and dealt with the stress of it all.
Maybe you’re feeling a little burned out, or you’re just looking to sharpen your leadership skills. In this post we’re talking about social structures that women leaders may come up against, leading authentically, and dealing with the real day-to-day pressures that come from having a busy work life and a busy home life.
I want to introduce you to Dr. Erin Reibel, founder of EMR Coaching. Erin specializes in working with women in leadership positions. She received her Bachelor of Arts from the College of William and Mary in 2001, her Master of Divinity and Master of Christian Education from Union Presbyterian Seminary in 2009 and her Doctor of Ministry from Wesley Theological Seminary in 2018, where she focused on the challenges and opportunities that women face in leadership.
Erin is passionate about helping women navigate the challenges of leadership so that they can effect change in the world and fully live into their leadership potential.
Erin uses a co-active model of coaching. This coaching model starts with the belief that you are already whole and the expert on your life. The coach is there to help you uncover what you already know to be true (deep…sometimes *really* deep within) and to support you as you take action.
Sometimes we just need a little help turning off the noise of our own internal soundtrack so we can focus on the melody.
I really enjoyed my conversation with Erin, and I hope you will too.
Lauren: Let’s just dive right in, what are the top challenges women face when serving in a leadership role, particularly in a male-dominated field?
Erin: Sure! Female leaders are working against a masculine template. Meaning that people envision masculine qualities for your leadership position. This ranges from the superficial to deeper comparisons. For example, women often get comments about their clothes, voice, and appearance because they do not match the masculine template.
Lauren: Yes, I can understand this. Often people expect financial advisors to be older and male. So, what does this mean in practice for female leaders and business owners?
Erin: Women are often placed in a double bind. People will want you to lead and be an authority, but if you do that too well, then it becomes negative. For example, women are supposed to lead with authority, but often run up against the stereotype of being too bossy or b**chy. On the other hand, women are supposed to be nurturers but are then considered weak.
Lauren: How have these cultural expectations shaped women as leaders?
Erin: I am always wary of generalizing what is a male or female trait, I think that men and women both have a variety of gifts and talents for leadership. These characteristics are not gender-specific. However, our current culture creates certain characteristics in women leaders.
First, women’s struggle to achieve their success brings clarity to who they are and what their priorities are. Women are more in touch with their “Why”, allowing them to make clearer decisions.
Second, by knowing who they are, women are able to be more authentic with the people they are leading. In the long term, this can change the culture of the workplace by encouraging others to be authentic to who they are. Brene Brown talks about the benefits of an authentic workplace in Dare to Lead.
I think women are a lot more clear on who they are and why they are doing what they are doing. They have had to struggle to reach their positions.
Women in leadership create changes in their organizations just by being themselves, which opens the organization to greater change. Remember in Hidden Figures the woman running across the base to find a bathroom? Eventually the male leader moved the bathroom, and this began to open his eyes to other hardships the women were facing.
Lauren: Yes, I love the idea of knowing your “why,” being confident in who you are, and leading from an authentic position.
Thinking about opportunities, often we are encouraged to work on our weak areas; but there is some thought that digging into your strengths can generate greater results. For women who want to be highly effective leaders, does this idea of leaning into your strengths resonate with you?
Erin: Yes! Yes! Yes! I find such problems with building on our weaknesses, especially for a somewhat seasoned leader. When I say “ somewhat seasoned” I am thinking late 20’s-ish, just not right out of college. I much prefer having people lean into their strengths and learn how to use their strengths to accommodate for their weaknesses.
Lauren: You’ve written about how work systems are inherently masculine and how much energy these systems can take to navigate, particularly for working parents.
Erin: I think our systems (especially those in fields dominated by men) are not built with a woman’s career trajectory and challenges in mind. My example is that in the ministry there are barriers to entry for the top levels of leadership. In order to begin the process for full credentialing in the UM church, you have to be able to work full-time. As a working mother with 3 kids under the age of 5, I wanted to work part-time, but then I could not begin the process of credentialing. Being held at the lower level limited my salary potential and available positions. While this is not direct discrimination it does make it more difficult for someone navigating their childbearing years to rise.
At home, women still bear the burden of taking care of the majority of home tasks. Their work tends to be daily tasks while men tend to have the occasional tasks adding to the additional mental load that women carry.
Lauren: Yes, I’ve heard many of my female friends talk about the “mental load.” Just being the person who is expected to keep everything in the household running, particularly once kids come into the picture, takes up so much mental space. What are some ways women with demanding careers or businesses can find the support they seek?
Erin: From a workplace perspective, employers need to support working women if they are serious about seeing women rise to the top, including mentorship opportunities and coaching. Though it’s important to point out that women’s leadership at the top does not mean a better standard for other women.
Lauren: The thing about providing working women with more support is that everyone in the workplace can benefit from those services. My husband and I have both benefited from employer programs that allow flexibility in work schedules and locations. We’ve also benefited from a lot of conversations around household and child-related work and outsourcing a few things to help reallocate the load. In our household this looks like Chris handling the morning pre-school routine and us hiring a housecleaner to come in every few weeks; but it’s an ongoing conversation.
From a professional standpoint, I’ve definitely benefited from some excellent mentors, both male and female. Can you talk more about mentorship?
Erin: From a mentorship perspective, while it would ideally be at your workplace, this can be hard to find if your employer has a competitive culture. Someone in an adjacent workplace may be better suited to serve in a mentorship role.
Lauren: For people who may want to mentor others, what might that look like?
Erin: Mentoring doesn’t have to be formal. Just being that cheerleader on the sidelines or helping someone think through the logistics of managing a career. Monthly contact, whether a coffee or lunch, could be a good meeting cadence. Women can also find support from a coach and online in working mom support groups.
Lauren: Yes, I’ve had several mentors that have been truly pivotal in my career growth and have helped me navigate being a working mom. I know I would not be where I am today if Fred hadn’t stopped by my cubicle and encouraged me to apply for the Portfolio Analyst role at US Trust. I am forever grateful to him! Erin, thank you so much for your time today. I really appreciate it!
More resources for women in leadership:
You can find Erin online here:
Photo provided by Dr. Erin Reibel.