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Embarrassed to be a Feminist

Picture of Melissa Hamilton aged 4 dressed in a spectacular red jumper with Mickey Mouse on rhe front.

6 months ago, a brilliant female executive shared the reaction of her male leader to choosing to work with me.

 

 Are you sure you want to work with her? She’s a feminist.

 
 

Even 6 months later I’m not sure why this sentence shocked me so much. I’ve thought about it a lot since then and after the initial disbelief that in 2023/4, a senior male executive would say this, let alone think this - a leader who leads thousands of employees, just doesn't land well with me. It has left me with only one conclusion, the sad reality.… 

 

We really do have a problem.

The other reactions I had were more complex and they were my own. One was embarrassment. 

Wow, do people think I am a feminist?

This is almost laughable with a podcast titled Brave Feminine Leadership. It would seem I should have reconciled it by now. Yes. I had to examine my own relationship with a term that has history.  A history that maybe still colours my perception and explains my reaction.

 

We all grew up with dominant archetypes. I grew up in the 70s and 80s. Dad was a flight engineer who got the job of a lifetime and moved his young family to Hong Kong. Mum was in the Air Force and had to resign when she was pregnant with me. Mum was so talented, we only saw half of it and to my eternal shame, as teenagers we would tease mum and dismiss her opinions. In later years Mum shared she really lost herself in those years abroad. Kids who headed to boarding school and a husband who was away a lot. Shopping and card games on the Hong Kong social circuit didn’t really cut it.

Mum forged a new life back in Australia after Dad had one too many “friends” in faraway places.  Moving back to Australia in her early 40s, studying accounting and building a successful career as a tax agent, I saw another side to this gorgeous woman.  Mum instilled in me at that point that I should always be able to support myself financially. I will be eternally grateful that watching her provided proof that you could do anything you set your mind too.  Both of my parents painted big visions of what was possible.  For me and my brother. They never set limits. A doctor, or a lawyer were the two firm favourites of the time.

They never suggested CEO. That archetype was solidly male. It just wasn’t on our radars. I still don’t believe it is on enough radars. 

 

I hesitated over writing this article until I read Hannah Diviney’s book, I’ll let myself in. Thank you, Hannah, for instilling the courage in me to publicly explore my reaction to being called a feminist.

I think I always knew calling my podcast Brave Feminine Leadership was going to be divisive. I ask every leader I interview what the term means to them. The responses are so varied, so interesting and often so personal. They range from a wholehearted acceptance that as female leaders it is hard to show up as ourselves and be totally accepted.  That even with incredibly good fortune and privilege, there are still many times that we feel like an “other” or frankly not enough.  

And then the group who respond to my question by taking the "feminine" out of it and say Leadership is Brave. 

It is, but I do always wonder why they sidestep the question.

To my favourite response from Liz Broderick who talks about Brave Feminine Leadership as leadership that is accessible to everyone. A chance and willingness to broaden our range.

"it's about a way of walking in the world and I believe brave feminine leadership can be exhibited by people of all genders. It's not just a women's thing. What does it tell me? It tells me that you're harnessing your emotions instead of trying to silence them. So often we see leadership presented in a dispassionate way. For me, brave feminine leadership is about harnessing everything that I am, all my emotions and everything else and using it to create positive change in the world."

- Elizabeth Broderick, Former Independent Expert (UN Special Rapporteur)

 

I often get asked my response to the meaning of Brave Feminine Leadership and I say ALL OF THE ABOVE. Good Leadership IS brave, sometimes we DO feel like an "other" AND we can all do better.  The honest truth is one day I also hope to take the feminine out of it.

But I think it is my own version of imposter syndrome.

Of playing small.

It's not time yet.

There are not enough females in key leadership positions. Being female doesn’t make people good leaders. Being male doesn’t either. Constructs in society are still shaping the boxes we operate in. My wish is we all see some of the boxes, that we challenge them and make room for more voices and new perspectives.

Here is one example of a box that I stumbled across while researching definitions of feminine and woman.

 

And so naturally I was curious what a career man is:

 

Hmmm, let that sit for a minute.

 

So, either there are no men whose priority in life is achieving success in their career OR women are so special that we need to be labelled one type of woman or another.  This is box thinking.   

All genders can be brilliant leaders AND care about multiple priorities. Family, health, their teams, their broader community. It's not one dimensional. 

I will keep exploring why we don’t have more female CEOs.

I do know this stigma around where our priorities lie, this label of being a Career Woman at the expense of everything else, is one of them.  I will also stay focused on my mission to inspire 100,000 women to be intentional in their careers.

Life isn’t this black and white. I didn’t become a CEO because I was a Career Woman. I was a talented hardworking leader who wanted the challenge of leading People and making an impact. I enjoyed solving problems and developing leaders.  I was firstly a Mum, a daughter, a wife, a friend, a chick lit, Top Gun loving, sometimes long-distance running Me.  

I was me.

I have a very wise sister-in-law who always makes me think. Recently at dinner we sat deeply engaged while she asked brilliant questions. What is feminine? What is masculine? Are they real? She shared her rejection of the term feminine and how she would hate to be referred to that way. After I checked out the Collins dictionary, I understood a little of the why.

 

 
Maybe I’ve been careless with words. But maybe not.  
 
Brave Feminine Leadership.  
 
What if there was space for leadership to be pretty and gentle? What if that became the norm? What if a delicate, light leadership approach resulted in deep conversations and solutions about how our workplaces could be? What if a curious gentle approach engaged people to be themselves and feel like they belonged? Encouraged people to do work of real value. The current workforce disengagement shows us that there is a chance to lead differently. 
 
Are we listening?
 

Leadership can be visionary and empathetic.  It can be decisive and compassionate.   It can be responsive and intuitive.  Leadership is a very nuanced thing, and the best leaders are those who are comfortable enough in their own skin to encourage broad and inclusive thinking. The best leaders welcome different perspectives, and they don't try to shape others to think like them.

I've been lucky to be raised by wonderful feminist leaders.  Male and female.  Who believed deep in their bones that women and men deserved equal chances. Leaders who didn’t set limits and who saw possibility.  With them as role models, how could I ever back away from using my own voice to see possibility? 

I really thought I could shake off being called a feminist.  But the deep experiences of our time are pervasive.  And I don't want to shake it off. I don't want to dismiss my reaction. I want to stay open to learning. To seeing possibility. I see the possibility for you.

I use the words male, female, feminine and masculine without the intent to exclude or limit. I fear they do.  I want to acknowledge these gendered terms may be triggering and may be clumsy.  It is not my intent to exclude anyone.  

I bring my lived experienced as a privileged Cis gendered woman. I am always open to hearing and understanding others experiences.