Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Girl Boss

At my previous position, my first formal job following completion of my formal university education, three men originally stood at the helm, partners in the small, privately-owned business; during my tenure there, two of the partners bought out the third, resulting in a rather tumultuous cascade of organizational and financial chaos. An instance of rather cosmic symmetry, my current position is within an advertising agency led by two women; before my time, both of whom had allied to remove their original third partner, also a woman. Operating a successful small business is arduous and not for everyone, as my experience illustrates; and while, traditionally and mathematically, triads can offer greater balance and support than a dual system, in practice, the two-against-one strategy often results in remove the one, particularly when issues of differences in vision, or division of labor and profits, enter into the equation.

As a young professional woman, I was intrigued and attracted to an organization that prided itself on fostering the leadership development of other young professional women. My former company was, indeed, predominantly women, as were our clients; however, possibly due to their arcane, and ineffective, methods for business development, the practice of schedule lunches with those in the Rolodex and draw up some project on the back of a cocktail napkin, and to their myopic and narcissistic personalities, the partners, my bosses, always seemed to evoke some entrenched patriarchal authority, both condescending and manipulative when necessary.  For most employees, there was a persistent tension of playing and being played; every comment, every maneuver, seemed perfectly calculated and imbued with some meaning. There was a sense of being semi-autonomous pawns; intelligent, hard working, but ultimately malleable, pieces to be moved, to be convinced.

Naively, while interviewing for my current position, I was hopeful that female leaders would offer a refreshing and near total alternative to this management style, which, in my experience, had proven destructive, from a business returns perspective as well as a personal satisfaction perspective. Business is business, and certain traits that blend together to alchemize an ideal business leader, while evolving with broader cultural and economic trends, have not changed drastically, whether that leader is a man or a woman. The ability to act both selfishly and altruistically; the ability to take and to hold an aggressive stance, or an unpopular one; the ability to inspire, to instill courage or hope or a tenacious work ethic in others; the ability to craft a vision, to believe it, to mold other believers. Specific industries will require specific knowledge, skills, nuances in personality, but, I believe some overarching tenets will hold true. Starting my first day, I was optimistic that a more strategically holistic approach to problem solving, to business development, would be engendered by our oft-proclaimed fairer sex. That listening would precede speaking; that jargon and double-speak would be replaced with genuine, honest dialogue. A year in of keen observation, the politics that can entangle any organization, of any size, obviously still exist and prevail; there is still a sense of a lack of personal connection, which, for me, has seemed to generally form the foundation for respect and value of the unique skills and contributions of another. It is, and was, foolish to conflate this onto gender alone, that a swapping of some chromosomes, and the lived experiences that such a swap confers, would result in a drastic difference between the two sets of leaders. Optimism, a rare bout, clouded my pragmatism. Perhaps, in my search for a great change, I inflated and contorted my expectations; in finding a minor change, I was sharply disappointed, but, worse, quickly complacent.

After a few months at the new office, I learned that there was an extracurricular women's development group, individuals invited by one of the partners to meet after-hours, aptly named the Lean In Group. Time passed, and I was not extended an invitation to participate, which unnerved the Type A fibers in me, while the bohemian, romantic, artistic bits scattered in between sighed with relief. I would be lying, though, if I did not admit that I felt hurt and a bit inadequate. These have since contributed to a consistent vacillation between a "work harder, work better" and a "screw this" mentality. From what I can glean through brief conversations with a few friends in the office, the events typically involve drinking wine and listening to the partner lecture, with some discussion here and there. Without having attended, it seems not particularly useful, but rather benign as well; the greatest advantage, likely, appears to be those moments of "face time" with the boss, a sort of widely accepted and practiced display of deference and positive, subtle veneration, of some quick quips, in hopes of staying in good graces come promotion time. While certainly not above partaking in these traditional office rituals, they can be both tiring and uncomfortable; additional free time, liberated from these affectations, is never unwelcome.

The Lean In Group is obviously named after the behemoth, popular pseudo-feminist cultural movement catalyzed by Sheryl Sandberg's book of the same name, which rippled from the business sector to the broader cultural realm. I have not read her book, and am not sure I intend to, with so many other books of interest piling around my shelves, but the general points and the impact her words are inescapable, with the various media dialogue, tangential influences, and branching projects, such as the Lean In collection of contemporary, progressive stock photography of women. While heightened attention and conversation surrounding the many, many barriers and challenges women continue to face on a daily basis in our society is commendable and helpful, what I have found problematic about this particular breed of current pop-feminist rhetoric is that the lessons promote or explain overcoming within the current patriarchal institution. Essentially, how to play by the rules of the system or break the rules of the system to succeed, as a woman. What lacks are critical dialogues surrounding how to fundamentally change or adjust these norms, such that women do not have to swerve or bend or accommodate to the current system, but rather our goals, priorities, perspectives, strengths, and weaknesses are integrated and assimilated.

In a similar vein to Sandberg, though offering a decidedly anti-hero kind of approach to the memoir-style business book, Nasty Gal CEO Sophia Amoruso's #GIRLBOSS has sky-rocketed, following a similarly steep upward trajectory as her retail brand. I, also, have not yet read this book, and while I am a bit skeptical as to how much of her unique life experience and work in the fashion and merchandising business will translate directly to some of current situation, I am curious and do admire her against the grain attitude. I respect that she rolls up her sleeves, gets her hands dirty in her business, wants the best and brightest getting dirty along with her, and, seemingly, loves what she has created. Funnily enough, in addition to commercial, consumable, pre-packaged feminism, the anti-hero is having a strong cultural moment as well. Though likely not delving into any academic discourse territory on how best to fundamentally subvert and overthrow patriarchy to create an actual equal space for women, it seems Amoruso's walk-to-the-beat-of-your-drum problem-solving and leadership style would speak to some of my frustrations in the seemingly robotic, replicable veneer of leadership qualities I have come to accept over the past few years, from men and women alike. 

When I was younger, growing up, I always felt I would, or should, ultimately be my own captain. I have never envisioned myself at the top of a large, impersonal heap; even in terms of friendships, those types of relationships and those dynamics have been unnatural and undesirable to me. I have always veered too close to utter independence to care too deeply for what the masses think, which ends up being a bit of a detriment in the case of a large and broad organization; again, that balance of selfish and self-conscious is not easily struck by most. But leading something intimate, something true and unadulterated, with a few, close others who care as deeply as I; this is something that seems reasonable and honest to my strengths.  

(image taken from The Indie Source)

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