facebook

Reflections on the Status of Women     by Karen MacNutt

Life is not logical. If you look too hard for logic in the nature of things, you will get a headache. Sometimes people think that they are getting ahead in life. Let me assure you, it is a delusion. In those things that truly matter, life travels in circles. The older you get, the clearer the circle. In the last several months I have reached two major benchmarks in my life. First, I attended my 40th high school reunion. That was difficult because I think of myself as being 28 years old. Second, I reached my mandatory retirement date with the National Guard. I am retiring as a lieutenant colonel with 28 years of commissioned service in the Judge Advocate General's Corps, Massachusetts National Guard. All together, it was 30 years of military service with the reserves. The time went quickly.

When I graduated from college in 1971, the world, on its face, was a different place for women. Entry-level opportunities were very restricted. Female college graduates were expected to be teachers or nurses. I chose law school. Not many women were involved in the shooting sports back then. Most gun clubs in New England did not allow women to be members. I had a hard time finding a gun club that would let me join. The men were fearful that somehow I would spoil their club. There was a general feeling that women could not possibly be serious about the shooting sports. I must, they thought, have had some other motive for wanting to join. They were fearful that I would want to put flowered curtains on the windows. Once I started shooting and did well, I was fully accepted. Today, women participate in all the shooting sports.

In 1971, very few women went to law school. Some of the schools I applied to had never had a women student accepted into the law school before. Of those few females that were lawyers, almost none were trial lawyers. My first legal position was working in the District Attorney's office. The first time I went into a court, the judge almost had me hauled off by the court officers when a number of male lawyers chimed in chorus, "But your Honor, she's one of us!" That was followed by a very red faced apology from the judge. He explained that he was not used to seeing women lawyers in his court. Today, the district and probate courts are filled not only with women lawyers but also with a growing number of women judges.

In 1975, the National Guard was just beginning to admit women into their ranks. The JAG Corps (army lawyers) did not admit women until 1978. In 1978 I was one of the first women to be commissioned in the Massachusetts National Guard and its first female lawyer. When I reported to the armory for duty, I found I was the only woman in the building with 1,200 guys. At that time the women made up less than 2% of the members of the armed services. We now make up over 14%. Since 2001, I have helped process more than 5,000 soldiers for over seas deployment. In warehouses, gymnasiums or on drill shed floors, men and women service members called to duty would line up at the various stations: does their protective mask fit? Are their medical records in order? Dental records? Pay records? Family care plan? Will?

No one in the services questions that women are part of the team. They sign up. They line up. They do their duty. They are often found at the heart of administrative sections. They make things work. They are in field hospitals treating mangled fellow soldiers. They are on the flight lines. They drive trucks through Baghdad while other women who are Military Police protect the convoys. They may not be in the infantry companies but they face the same dangers as the men do. They carry a "basic load" with their individual weapon and ammunition. They are taught to throw hand grenades and operate 50 cal. machine guns. In today's world, there is no such thing a "front line" or a safe area. Terrorists can strike anywhere. What is important is that women volunteer to defend their country and serve with honor along side male soldiers. When women deploy, their families come to see them off. When they come home, they are greeted mostly with hugs but sometimes with draped flags and the playing of taps.

For all our advances, however, women still face significant barriers caused by deep-seated biases. There is still a wide gulf between male salaries and female salaries. There is not one woman named on the list of the top 200 highest paid CEOs. In some areas, such as nursing, women dominate. However, we do not do so well in the traditional areas of power and leadership. This is not due to our lack of ability. Instead, it is due to the inability of some men and women to accept women as leaders.

After years of working in male dominated fields, there is no doubt in my mind that men and women think differently. Their values are different. They approach problems differently. Their concept of "self" is different. One is not better than the other. They are just different. When a team has both a male and female perspective working, it much stronger than a team that is all male or all female. Women who aspire to leadership positions, however, travel a rough road. Women are often held to a different standard than men. They are still thought of as only being in business until they go off and have a family.

If a man makes a mistake, it is accepted as part of the learning curve. If a woman makes the same mistake, it is taken as a sign of incompetence and an inability to do the job. I have seen a woman make a suggestion, which is ignored. I have seen a man make the very same suggestion and be praised. Men who are assertive in the job force are seen as leaders. Women who show the same traits are seen as "bitchy." Men who take physical risks to accomplish the job are seen as courageous. Women who take the same risks are chastised for putting themselves in danger.

I was recently involved with a court case in which a civilian accused an off duty male police officer of assaulting him. The civilian male had "made a pass" at a uniformed female police officer. The off duty male officer assumed the female officer could not handle the situation and interjected himself. The department chief praised the actions of the off duty male officer without ever realizing his actions were an implicit statement that the female officer was incapable of taking care of herself.

People who say, "Women should not do ..[whatever the job is]," have, to an extent, acknowledged their prejudice. Such people are more likely to give a woman a fair chance if they give her any chance at all. The more insidious prejudice is the one that is so deep that the person affected honestly thinks he or SHE is not prejudice. That person will pass over a woman for a job without even giving her consideration because it is assumed that a woman cannot do the job. Some people think that they are "protecting" a woman by not giving her a chance to do the job. They think they are doing the woman a favor. Often the job the woman is "protected" from is the very job she needs in order to progress. Women often lack the peer support that men are able to build. At first, women in the workplace will seem to be accepted by their peers. As they start to advance beyond first line supervisor status, a strange thing happens. Male co-workers, who are friendly to their face, begin to work against them behind their back. For whatever reason, women co-workers tend to side with the males. Women need to support other women if they share the same values and do not have incompatible goals. Women need to network more with other women. Too often the biggest stumbling block in a woman's chance to succeed is another woman.

Not everyone who claims to support women in business really does. I used to puzzle over the fact that some men who supported women's rights in public treated their secretaries abysmally. They were little better than sexual predators. Such men are not truly supportive of women's rights. They will advance a woman to a certain level and then pull the rug out from under her. Some upper level male executives will advance a lower woman executive to show other men how powerful the upper male executive really is. The woman executive in this situation is, in reality, an unknowing trophy of the powerful male. When the woman starts to reach the powerful male's level and might appear to be a rival rather than an underling, or starts to look like she might be the "heir" to the male's position of power, the male's support evaporates. The male is uncomfortable with the woman having any real independence or achieving an equal status. From the woman's point of view, she is suddenly shut out of everything. Where she could do no wrong before, suddenly she can do no right. Her slide from favor is not based in logic or on performance. To the woman executive who has no idea of what is going on, it is very frustrating. In larger organizations, it is critical that women executives keep very good records of performance and achievement. A copy of those records should be kept at home. Some companies will lock an employee out when the employee is terminated. If critical employment records are kept at the office, the terminated employee will not have access to them.

When the handwriting starts to appear on the wall, it is time to move to another position. In larger organizations, that might still be within the company. Often, however, it means finding a new job while the woman still has strong credentials to market her self.

THE PROBLEM IS NOT WITH THE WOMEN EXECUTIVE. There are many successful women executives. Some of the most successful women, however, either built their own business such as Lucille Ball did, or came up through female dominated businesses.

The problem is with the men. A lot of men are very insecure. They feel threatened by strong women. This leads to a number of paradoxes. They will take the advice of a woman in private but they will not take the same advice when given in public. If the same advice is given as an order by a woman executive, some males will not only refuse to take the advice but will do all they can to resist following instructions. Some men would rather see a project fail than see a woman succeed as the leader of the project.

Men will gladly offer women prestigious titled jobs. Be careful if one is offered to you. Usually the offer is only made if no male wants the job because the consensus is the person who holds the job is doomed to failure. If the woman fails in the job, people say, "Ah. She is a women and not capable of being successful." If she is successful, the males around her become spiteful because she was suppose to fail. By being successful, she has shown them up. This resentfulness towards a successful woman executive sometimes takes an extreme form in which the males will not only stop supporting the women in charge but will actively sabotage her efforts. Strange to say, other women will often join the males in working towards the destruction of a potentially successful woman. A clear example of this was when Jane Swift became the first woman governor of Massachusetts due to the resignation of the then sitting governor, Paul Celucci. The news papers (and some in her own party) insisted that she was the "acting governor" and denied her the title of governor. Then, the leadership in her own party abandoned her in favor of a male candidate. Their attacks on her were, to say the least, unkind. She was no better or worse a governor than all the male governors the state had previously had.

YOU CANNOT BE A SUCCESSFUL LEADER WITHOUT LOYAL SUPPORTERS. YOU CANNOT BE A SUCCESSFUL LEADER IN THE LONG RUN WITHOUT BEING LOYAL TO YOUR SUPPORTERS. Female executives must be very careful in choosing and monitoring their management team. With a solid team of men and women who are dedicated to community goal as opposed to self-centered goals, great things can be accomplished.

Women have come a long way since I graduated from college in 1971. I am always pleased when men hold the door for me or do those polite little things that men like to do for women. It is always nice when someone does something nice for you. Trying to run men down for being men, trying to be like a man, or trying to make men more like women, does not advance women's rights. It simply frustrates the guys. Gaining and demanding respect as a leader is what is important. Find women who share your goals and support them. Helping them advance is important. Most important, however, is recognizing how the game is played when, as the guys like to say, we are playing "hard ball." Success is often based on either knowing how to use the rules to your own advantage, or playing a different game with rules you have set.


This article was reprinted from Women&Guns July-August 2007, Copyright © 2007, Karen MacNutt