My Manifesto (sort of)

redflowerThis is an excerpted version of my personal essay for my application to my PhD program. It pretty much sums up what I’ve been pondering since I had a kid and everything seemed to change. So here is Version 1 of my manifesto. I hope you find it thought-provoking, and feel free to comment.

When I taught my first college class, I had an experience that significantly influenced both my professional trajectory and academic area of interest.

I taught Leadership Theory and Group Performance in the spring semester of 2011.  I teach in an adult undergraduate program. At the time, I was also a new mother; my daughter was nine months old.  I had stayed home to care for my daughter, but teaching was a major professional goal, so I agreed to take the class on short notice when the professor took an unexpected sabbatical.

I would usually arrive early to my (evening) class to gather my thoughts and materials, and often students would also come early and we would have informal conversations.  I had one student, for example, who was recently out of the military service and was a father of four.  We would talk about babies and parenting, among other things.  It was pleasant to relate to my students in an informal manner and helped ease some of my anxiety about being a new teacher. The course went well, and my students showed commitment and promise.

When I received my anonymous student feedback after the end of the course, there was one comment that struck me.  A student had said that I should not have “complained of being ‘mama-tired’” and that it was unprofessional.  At first, I felt shame and consternation.  Had I unknowingly crossed a social boundary?  Had I come across as unprofessional or unsuitable as a professor?  I mentally reviewed my behavior.  Had I complained about fatigue during class?  No – but I probably did say something when I was chatting with students before class, if asked.  Perhaps a student asked me how I was at the beginning of class and I said I was tired.  Anyone with children knows how grueling those first sleepless months are.  My child was certainly on my mind – I had anxiety about leaving her for the entire evening, especially since I was still nursing.  The juxtaposition of changing out of wrinkled yoga clothes into a business suit to teach class, while cramming my bra with pads to avoid embarrassing milk stains was somewhat surreal.  The cerebral sterility and of the academic setting versus the visceral messiness of being a mother to a young child was challenging to reconcile, but I felt that I had made the transition fairly well.  Moreover, I felt that the transformational fire of motherhood made me a better teacher – more compassionate, nurturing, self-possessed, humble, tougher and stronger in spirit.

Over time, several questions emerged.  Why did I feel shame in the professional setting about my new role as a mother? Why did the (presumably female) student find it inappropriate?  If I had said I was tired from traveling for my job, would she have made the same comment? I also considered how many of my professional female friends felt they had to somehow disguise or justify the time spent at home when they returned to work after having children, as if the experience of motherhood had no relevance or value to organizations.

During my graduate work in leadership and ethics, I had become interested in the trend in leadership theory towards aspects of the feminine principle.  Late 20th century leadership theories such as Transformational Leadership, Servant Leadership, and Emotional Intelligence espouse a more intuitive, emotional, and holistic style than earlier theories such as Path-Goal and Contingency theories that focus on the hierarchical aspects of leadership functions.  I was interested in what influences or events precipitated this change of focus, and more importantly, why these feminine styles and theories were created, espoused, and largely practiced by men. What are the persistent barriers to women in leadership?

As I continued to synthesize my graduate learning with my professional and personal experiences, I began to wonder if some basic assumptions still exist that create barriers to women, particularly mothers, in the professional setting.  More specifically, how do women self-limit or limit each other’s opportunities for success?  What are the underlying assumptions that perpetuate this behavior?  I began to see parallels between how women interact in families, relationships, and across generations in the personal sphere with how they behave in the professional world.  Women did not have the right to vote a few short generations ago; now we have the same legal rights as men.  Do we, like other oppressed cultures, carry with us artifacts of this earlier time that we unknowingly inflict on each other and pass on to our daughters?  Does our tendency to shy away from our innate human aggression and competition cause us to act out in ways that are self or other limiting?

After reading Bolen’s work on Greek goddesses and other writing on Jungian female archetypes, it seems to me that the dominant archetypes for women in the work world tend to be maiden goddesses like Athena (a warrior and scholar), or the Wise Woman – a woman past child-bearing who possesses knowledge and the wisdom of age.  The Mother archetype seems conspicuously absent.  Why is the Mother not welcome in our places of work, and does that have any bearing on the less than hospitable environment for mothers returning to work after having children – the so called “mommy trap”?  I considered how Hilary Clinton was famously lambasted for saying she did not need to “stay home and bake cookies” when she was involved with creating policy in her husband’s administration.  Now that she is past childbearing age, she has run for president and been Secretary of State.

These questions intrigue me and drive me to continue my research in the areas of leadership theory, organizational behavior, and women’s studies.  I believe there is a conversation yet to be had that could diminish the remaining misogyny that still limits women in our society – because I suspect women perpetuate it more actively than men do.  Until we can openly and frankly discuss our unconscious aggressive behavior as a potential source of artifacts of the patriarchy, and until we can fully integrate uncomfortable impulses and emotions that we continue to disown or project, we will not be able to become fully self-realized contributors to our society, and to the world our daughters inherit from us.

That one student comment, and my own reaction to it, has led me to look much more closely at my relationship to work, motherhood, and other women. I have learned to question my own assumptions about the divide between motherhood and career, and have broadened my areas of research and literature review to include anthropology, sociology, and feminism.  I believe that as women we have yet to make our most significant contributions to the organizational world, and by dismantling and addressing some of our hidden beliefs and assumptions about ourselves, we may be able to help create a more holistic, integrated approach to business and leadership.

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2 thoughts on “My Manifesto (sort of)

  1. Stop Oppression of Women in the Third World

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  2. Pingback: Shaming the Mother | Ms. Michelann

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