The History of Parliament’s upcoming book, ‘300 Years of Leadership and Innovation’ will feature The Joy Club creator, Hannah Thomson, in a chapter celebrating ‘Women in Leadership’. In anticipation of the book’s launch, member Kathy Feest has shared her experiences of the challenges faced by women when they exert their power and reminds us of the inner reserves we all have to draw on.
Think about Fred Astair and soon enough Ginger Rogers comes to mind. During the 1930s Fred and Ginger danced together in ten films. Fred was partnered with other women, but it’s the films of this remarkable duo that are remembered as they became one of the most famous dance couples in history.
They moved to the same tunes, wowed the same audiences; but as Ginger tells us, she did everything Fred did, just backwards and in high heels.
Can you picture Fred with those sparkly tiny feet of his wearing spiky shoes and dancing backwards? You can imagine it but, of course, we never saw him doing so because he was the man, and he got to lead.
Women do get to lead more frequently these days. I am aware of the painful experiences of those who have been marginalised in their positions because of their sexuality or their race, but as I identify as a heterosexual woman, my knowledge of the world of work is from that perspective. Throughout the 1990s and into the 2000’s, like Ginger, many women working alongside men wore metaphorical high heels (and sometimes real ones!) and they, too, danced backwards while a man led them.
As women, we had to learn how to adapt and we also learned that, in order to dance at all, men often had to invite us onto the dance floor.
Good old fashioned tokenism often helped get women into their positions in the first place. Think of Angela Merkel, who Helmut Kohl, the German Chancellor, appointed in the early nineties after the reunification of Germany. He needed more women on his team, and especially women from East Germany. Angela fit the bill and up she rose! She learned about politics and when she understood how to get things accomplished she kept on going. Like Ginger, women who moved into positions of authority also had to be careful along the way not to step on men’s toes.
Throughout my own career in publishing, producing, and finally in medical education, I didn’t exactly have to dance backwards, but I always felt that I had to be better prepared, sharper, and extremely clever at what I did.
Before any men reading this get all something or other, can I just say that without the support and help of good men, men who were not threatened or in any way trying to undermine my ability, I wouldn’t have accomplished what I did. Men who help women are strong, capable and comfortable in their own skins. They often tend to be at the top of their careers. Biden chose Kamala after all, and I thought a lot of Ginger and her high heels as the memes of Kamala’s trainers were doing the social media rounds when she was appointed.
The men I worked with during my career were a mixed bag. Some of them, after hiring me, became threatened by my ability. In one memorable post when working abroad at the end of my career, the man who hired me kept thwarting all of my efforts. He said, “I want you on our team, but I didn’t actually expect you to do so much work!”
Women today are still too often not in positions of authority and leadership. In 2021 women account for just 6% of FTSE 100 CEOs – and are paid far less. Yet don’t despair ladies – changes are afoot! “As companies continue to diversify their workforces, many focus on gender inclusivity, and for good reason: Research has shown that companies with women in leadership positions see higher profits and greater employee satisfaction.” (Forbes January 2021)
Women need to know what to do and be clear about the direction they are heading. Leaders are formed when knowledge, coupled with passion, becomes the fuel that ignites them. Women have to understand what it is that they want to achieve and when they do there is no stopping them! Doors will open and close in your face, but we must keep knocking.
So put on those dancing shoes and step out! The world needs your skills. In the end, Ginger won an Academy Award when she was acting, not dancing. She was on her own, fuelled by her inner resources and her belief in her own ability, coupled with her talent and desires. High heels or flats, fill those shoes of yours with all that you are!
And if you, like me, are retired from the world of work you once knew, grab onto your desires and lead yourself into your next dance!
Kathy has written her own blog, Feest Isolation Days – Reflections from self-isolation in Bristol, which she updated every day since the start of the first lockdown in 2020.
Do you have your own story about women and leadership to share? Send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org to be in with a chance of winning a copy of the upcoming book, ‘300 Years of Leadership and Innovation’, which features The Joy Club creator, Hannah Thomson.