binary polarity teachings in womens leadership development: helping or hindering the empowerment of future generations?
This week, I started out writing a blog talking about the benefits and limitations of personality profiles, DSM 5 labels, and archetypes to our personal and professional growth. And how there can be immense gifts in better understanding who we either are or aren’t by comparing ourselves against these. When the exploration of them helps us become, embody, unleash more of the full spectrum of amazingness, beauty and awesomeness that we truly are, then it’s brilliant. ( I say having just recently Myers Brigg’s myself and felt that little high you get when some test somewhere reaffirms your hearts desires and your life choices.) Not that you need it, but sometimes if a label helps build your sense of entitlement to show up as more of the real you, in all of the places it will be of benefit, then hooray for labels!
In some moments, I worry that they can also start to limit us or others ability to express ourselves and reach our full potential if either:
-we start holding onto them too tight or dogmatically identifying with them, to the exclusion of, the acknowledgement or embodiment of other aspects of ourselves (positive or negative)
-we start to use them as the justification for why we can’t or aren’t capable of doing something, or as the reason we can’t be who we’re meant to be or have a go at our dreams or goals. (e.g. “as someone who’s been through or is [insert diagnostic or personality label] I don’t think i’ll ever be capable of [insert action or outcome]”. Or “it’s not safe for [insert label] people to [insert behaviour, activity or goal], therefore I can’t/shouldn’t insert [behaviour, activity or goal].” Or,
-we start using them against people to justify some form of incompatibility/inability to relate or to discriminate against choosing them out of fear (e.g. “you’re in this category/this Myers Briggs type/DISC profile types/this star sign/from this cultural background/this ability category/you have this form of mental health challenge/this gender/this sexual orientation, and that lies outside my realm of familiarity, professional expertise and comfort, therefore I’m not going to choose you, in preference of sticking to my realm of what I’m familiar with and can personally relate to and speak to” OR
-if we start to use them as a source of micro-aggression against others who aren’t conforming into whichever label or box or traits are deemed by whoever (or us) as the most desirable and effective. Eg dare I say it out loud that, over the last decade and still now, the realm of gender polarity teachings and Womens Empowerment is often fraught with this, in that the lists of binary gender qualities one is ‘“meant to” embody to be a successful Women, have often, unfortunately just become the newest form of weaponry for the school yard AND grown up bitches to shame and degrade other Women….eg “hey, it’s so GREAT to see you so in your feminine today, you’re normally WAY TOO in your masculine!” “So [person on the LGBTIQ+ spectrum, are you the “masculine one” or the “feminine” one in the relationship?.” “That’s great, for someone in [insert your level/category/label type]l.” “Thats very [insert label] of you!” Or
-they start to become just too simple to account for the unfolding complexity of how things really now are in present reality, yet we keep rigidly hanging onto them anyway.
In this last respect, I want to dive into the complexity of teaching the binary gender polarity model, especially in relation to Women’s Leadership development, building workplace relationships, team and organisational culture, across generations, a little bit more. Some colleagues of mine ran a really great webinar on the polarity paradigm in personal development recently, and this blog represents a few of my “yes and I’ve found this” perspectives too.
While i’ll be straight up in that I have my share of personal angst about this subject, I want to be really clear in that I’m not trying to say that teaching binary polarity models is WRONG, but highlight the ways in that it can sometimes be a bit more complex than a binary reality. From my own personal experience, there has been loads that I and other colleagues or clients have gained over the last decade/s out of exploring the ideas of what traits are traditionally “feminine” and what ones are traditionally “masculine” in the exploration of who we are, what gender roles and expectations society, culture, family, peers, partners, workplace culture and we ourselves place upon ourselves and how we can reach our highest potential in various aspects of life; leadership, relationship, personal and professional.
For a world where we might have been taught to predominately be in one particular gender polarity, or the other, sometimes these discussions and teaching the counter qualities is needed and can be beneficial in us coming to better understand and embrace who we truly are and how we can reach our highest potential. But what I’m suggesting is also necessary, is asking the question:
What way is going to best serve my or the people around me’s learning, development and ability to become all they can be, given the full range of human complexity that we truly are? AND the level of complexity that is the reality of future generations?
SOME WAYS IN WHICH THEY HELP AND ARE NEEDED
Looking around at so many university courses and entrepreneurs teaching leadership skills to people who identify as Women for example, there are a lot of courses teaching Women how to Lead, by teaching them traits and qualities that have traditionally helped (people who identify) as Men succeed in business. Teaching (people who identify as) Women how to think and act like (people who identify as) Men. If you’re a Woman and don’t innately think in terms that are strategic or commercial, or understand how to manage and direct change, and you want to ascend to leading a company, or running the finances of a company, for example, then clearly there is a need for learning this skillset that some Gender Polarity Teachers would deem “masculine”. They clearly serve the person with this ambition and therefore learning them makes total sense. (Yet, over the last decade, I’ve listened to a A LOT of Women in the Holistic Wellness world and “alternative community” shaming other Women, for pursuing such “ambitious, Capitalist, Masculine pursuits, like its the highest sin. Is it though, to seek to be ALL of your human potential, not just a part of one singular polarity?)
In another respect, embracing what Polarity Teachers would call our “feminine” strengths as Leaders can also be incredibly beneficial for other people around us at work. Much recent research that explores why consumers and employees absolutely want more Women In Leadership (especially during and post pandemic) states that the majority want and value the ‘feminine’ traits that they see that (people who identify as) Women often bring to the Organisational table, as well as Men. The majority stated that they are more likely to trust Women as Leaders (after the millennia of zero sum business games prior of the male dominated culture that had been.)
The majority see that Women Leaders, embracing their “feminine” leadership gifts and strengths, create more inclusive, supportive, compassionate, more (work life tech) balanced and healthier working cultures and teams, in which not only other “Women” but the majority of people apparently feel free and better supported to thrive, without having to sacrifice so much of themselves to do it. The majority apparently see and like that Women take a strength-based approach, they like that Women often take Communal and Servant based Leadership approaches, and that they often support mutual benefit scenarios, where everyone helps each other to the finish line, and, as much as possible, they look for solutions where the benefits are mutual and everybody wins.
Again, please be mindful of my deliberate use of the terms “many, mast, majority as being used to clearly identify NOT ALL PEOPLE as defined in the research. And I’m sharing this NOT with an intent of implying then. And nowhere did I personally say that all men DON’T.” But, I’m pointing out how traits considered “feminine” are apparently considered needed and complimentary in a world where we’re truly working together towards inclusivity and diversity.
In this respect, the benefits to organisations of (people who identify as) Women embracing (rather than trying to suppress) their traditionally “feminine” Leadership traits, as well as perhaps all people embracing their “soft skillset” (or “feminine” traits) are seemingly immense. And so much research shows that companies with more Women in Leadership are the most profitable, the most productive, the most desirable places to work BECAUSE of the gifts that Women bring, through embracing their “feminine” strengths.
Here is a quick summary of the top 18 evidence based benefits to organisations, employees and consumers I found of having more Women in Leadership:
1- Organisations with more Women in senior leadership make more money, period.
2-Having more Women in leadership increases productivity within teams and organisations
3-Women Leaders are more collaborative and encourage teamwork
4- Women look to create mutual benefit and ensure everybody wins
5-Women have amazing insight (that helps drive companies in better directions for the future of the planet and the people)
6-Women are amazing Mentors and are thus highly sought after as Teachers and Mentors
7-Women are Masterful at “soft skills” and “emotional intelligence”
8-Women are generally more effective communicators
9-Having more Women in the room results in better problem solving and more innovative solutions to current problems
10- People are more trusting of Women Leaders than Male Leaders
11-Female Leaders excel at conflict resolution
12-Women are keen to upskill and learn new skills, which means that
13-Women are very highly qualified for the job
14-Having more Women in Leadership boosts employee engagement
15-Having more Women in Leadership boosts engagement of other Women
16- Women create more diverse and inclusive workplace and team cultures
17-Women create wellbeing focused workplace and team cultures, AND finally
18-Given all the rapid change and chaos that came with the pandemic, even though we initially went apparently went backwards in diversity in losing or laying off more Women Leaders, it would seem that many WITH more Women Leaders at the forefront are emerging stronger from the pandemic.
The benefits are clearly vast to having more Women in Leadership. And from therefore supporting many (people who identify as) Women to embrace their “Feminine’ as well as “Masculine” traits in developing themselves as Leaders. Clearly this is needed and wanted and important for us to understand in supporting both people who want to be, or are Leaders. AND it is important of us to understand what people are currently looking for more of in workplace culture. (In this respect, I want to acknowledge that we could also continue into a thousand different directions in terms of evidence for diversity and inclusiveness of various different minority groups too. But the point of this blog is exploration of gender label complexity and our main lens of focus is ‘Women’s Leadership and Development and Non traditional life paths”.)
GOING BEYOND BINARY PERSPECTIVES
Then, there is also the complexity that comes from the fact that NOT ALL PEOPLE of all ages fit neatly within one of two cis gender, heteronormative gender polarities. Eg we’re not all heterosexual, with our gender we identify with matching our biological gender, and (according to many middle school biology classes and the genetics units I studied in my Biological Science degree) we’re not even all genetically XX (“female”) or XY (“male”)”. Especially as it relates to the increasing percentage of the younger generations that openly identify with existing somewhere on the LGBTIQ+ spectrum of gender identity and relating, we need to be mindful of where we might be getting in the way of people being able to embrace their human potential, by trying to define them according to only two polarities.
Research on what percentage of the global population and what percentage of each country, for each age bracket exist on the LGBTIQ+ spectrum and over time, varies massively. The Australian Human Rights Commission states that, by 2018, at least 11 in 100 Australians may have a diverse sexual orientation (eg ~11%.) Gallup polls think 5.6% of the US population (while apparently US people surveyed about their estimate think it’s about 20-25%). Recent (2020) research widely reported in the media suggests that up to 1 in 6 US Gen Z’s (~16.67%) identify as being on the LGBT spectrum, around 72% of which identify as being bisexual. Up from the approximately half of LGBT millennials who identify as bisexual.
The world of Wikipedia tells a varying story by country. Sometimes less, sometimes up to quarter of the population.) But what is very clear, is that the percentage of populations who identify as existing someone where on the LGBTIQ+ spectrum is increasing over time and it is increasing fastest in the Youngest adult generations (Millennials and Gen Z’s) so far. A commonly state argument for gender diversity also sights the (widely disputed) research findings on the occurrence of genetic or physical variations beyond XX (genetically female) or XY (genetically male) considered to be “intersex” also suggests that intersex people may be as common as redheads. (A fact that is unlikely to be visually obvious, unless they disclose that this is the case.)
More than that, we also now live in a day and age where almost 50% of the female population of adult reproductive age do not have children. So now more than ever, the developmental models of white picket fence personal and professional fulfilment of the early 20th century no longer apply to almost half of the adult “female’ population in the same way. (And I also wonder, how does this statistically stack up now for the “male” population of similar age?) So the presumptions we often make in conversation about most people wanting to achieve the developmental tick boxes of those fulfilment models, it would seem, are also due for an upgrade.
So what does that suggest for anyone supporting the personal or professional development of the current and upcoming generations to reach their highest potential?
Regardless of our own sexual identification or orientation, or life path, an up to almost 17% (and much higher in some countries) identification with LGBTIQ+ and almost 50% of the Western population living non traditional life paths, should hopefully, if it hasn’t already, serve as a prompt or reminder that maybe its time to be trying to lead a more diverse conversation about how to help people reach their highest personal and professional potential, than a binary polarity discussion alone? Or continuing to hand out binary lists of traits of what each binary gender “should” be if they’re to “become empowered” “fulfilled” and “successful” in their life path of choice?
Maybe there is power in empowering personal potential here instead, over just polarities?
I know that the common justification for holding to a binary model is often “well I’m cis gender heterosexual, I feel I am best off teaching and supporting from my lens of personal experience and what I can personally speak to.” And I can appreciate that. In a world where we’re asked to embrace and held to a standard for our personal expertise, and actually HAVING any in the areas we claim to, that makes complete sense. If, It can be easy too, to get caught in the fear of not being enough (I know i've felt that fear of getting it wrong or not being enough at times when i've been asking how do i better support various marginalised or minority groups in my community. In the world of Cancel culture and publicly shaming and outing people for getting it wrong, it's no wonder anxieties run so high.)
BUT, this is where I also need to separate myself out, because I am NOT someone who predominantly identifies as a cis gender heterosexual female. Genetically XX female yes. Monogamously interested yes. Kids of my own at almost 40? No. Strictly heterosexual? No. More strongly Identified as bisexual? Yes. (The equal number of Women I’d been in some form of dating or relating connection with, to people who identify as Men over the last decade would tend to agree.) So it’s from that place of personal experience of both trying to navigate personal and professional life, that I’m viewing this.
From that lens, as it comes to then living according to the teachings of, or teaching from the binary gender polarity perspectives, I’ve both gained a lot from having been taught in decades past, AND I have also found myself feeling increasingly bound up and limited by trying to speak to, teach from or relate within the limitations of just 2 gender labels. And, you bet, I’ve been on the receiving end of my share of people making incorrect assumptions about who I am or what best serves my wellbeing based on polarity teachings, being judged for not being all “hyper feminine/not soft enough/too aggressive” and for being “too independent,” "to driven" or “being unable to receive because I’m not in my feminine enough”. (Another term to cover that would be trauma, actually.) Not to mention, in business, having been asked to repress my sexual identity for easier marketing purposes for others businesses.
Not to mention the complexity of dating and being on the end of biphobic judgement, insecurity, jealousy and very near violence once, in dating cis gender heterosexual Men, who felt challenged and threatened by the disclosure of the reality of my sexual exploration in the decade prior, as it challenged whatever white picket fence “Somewhere that’s Green” fantasy version of me they’d created in their heads. Nothing like a little triggering the Madonna Whore wounding and a little slut shaming with your Sunday afternoon FaceTime phone date. (As much as I love the John Grays and the Matthew Hussey’s of the world, can you please show me the viral video that addresses how to deal with disclosing ones sexual diversity, as it relates to navigating future monogamous relationships, with either Men or Women???)
I LOVE the Women and Men i've been blessed to work with and learn from And I also can appreciate how it would be easy to be LGBITQA or living a non traditional life path, and feel really alone and not understood when you're sitting in a Women's Leadership, personal development or relationship training, while you're listening to amazing, cis gender, heterosexual successful White Women, talking about their married cis gender heterosexual White Woman 1st world problems.
So to me, my friends, romantically or intimately, sadly, i feel it doesn't come close to addressing the level of complexity to just transfer a bunch of principles that work for cis gender heterosexual people, to the life goals and attractions of LGBTIQ+ people, let alone to help people who identify as Asexual (not feeling sexual at all) make sense of their reality.
And the reasons any two humans of any background feel drawn together, personally or professionally, are so much more complex. Add in spirituality, add in ancestry, add in biology and biochemistry, add in so many different aspects of sociology, add in trauma and personal experience as just the first 7 examples I thought of, and understanding why we are the way we are, or why we want what we want, is SO much more complex that “you’re in your feminine or I’m in my masculine," or vice versa.
Nor is it that simple to tell a Bisexual or Lesbian Woman that “empowered” for her in work, leadership or life might look like embodying or unleashing all her “feminine”traits by default, or to praise her “for succeeding at being so in her feminine.” Or vice versa.
Who am I in the end to tell another Woman, or Man, or human being who they’re meant to be or what “empowered” should look like for them in this life anyway? What gives me, or anyone, the right to define it, over them having the power to define what empowerment, fulfilment and success looks and feels like for them personally, given who they were they feel and believe they were born to be? Is trying to do so really about their identify (and wellbeing and aspirations), or about mine?
Can you see how all of this, applied through a binary gender polarity model of what “Women” and “Men” are “meant” to be is suddenly feeling not only presumptuous, but a little too simplistic? And in need of a collective update? Unleashing the full spectrum of her human gifts and potential (or his or theirs) might also look like embracing and embodying a whole bunch of other qualities too. Human qualities, not just binary gender qualities.
So I think we need to be mindful of both where boxing and labelling people, ticking them off against checklists of traits, in the spirit of making identity and change and progress easily identifiable and measurable, and prescribing easy to implement solutions, can, for sure, help us find and own parts of ourselves. But I think we also need to be equally mindful of when they can become limiting to the realisation of the full spectrum of our human potential.
For me personally (sorry but not sorry for the rant) on one level, I’m also a little compassion fatigued from watching polarity labels being used and abused as a source of discrimination, dogma and microaggression, by Women, against other Women too. There’s very little that feels empowering about that. It doesn't feel ok. And i know i'm not the only one feeling a little fatigued from the division, presumptions, degradation, jealousy, the endless string of social feed discussions about offence caused, not to mention, hurt of being condescendingly judged and written off by feme-frenemies, who’ve pegged themselves as superior to you and feel they need to Womansplain feminism to you because they’re “more in their feminine” and apparently a better quality of Feminist than you are. And then professionally, for years, i've felt like part of my job, our job, has become de-programming many female clients OUT of the binary cage of mental limitation, that's ended up holding them back, and getting them back into alignment with becoming the full spectrum of who they really are, beyond whatever some Guru told them about how they're failing at or meant to be a Woman or Man.
Personally, I feel like I can best help each person I meet by asking questions that help them come into deeper connection with themselves, so that they can see and understand for themselves what they love, what lights them up, what their unique strengths and gifts are, where the points are at which they want to grow, and what they desire and want to do, be, have or experience in life. And then to ask:
How can I help you achieve that??? While we both work towards what we both want and who we’re both here to be?
Maybe one of the greatest and easily implemented ways we can better support the people in our personal and professional lives (AND create more unity and connection, despite our differences), is to ask questions that seek to help us better understand who someone else is, where they’re coming from and what they need or don’t need from us or others. We can listen to the answers and then let those answers guide and inform what solutions and what actions we formulate next, together.
But that’s my (ranty) two cents. How do you think we can better support other Women to reach their highest potential, in Leadership and life, both now, and for the generations to come? Plus create more unity in the “Sisterhood”? And between all Humans?
Nat talks about Self Expression, Heart Centred Communication and Lifestyle for Leaders.