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03/06/2012

Will Mexico beat the U.S. in electing a woman president?

WomanI read with interest recent speculation that Mexico’s next president could be a woman, Josefina Vasquez Mota.  An article in the Los Angeles Times on February 19th emphasized that Vasquez used the “gender card” in order to succeed.  The article goes on to describe the fine line the candidate must walk to be taken seriously – if she is seen as too conservative, she will alienate many women yet if she strongly pursues issues women care about, the male power brokers will not support her candidacy.

By the way, I wish someone would explain clearly to me what the card is and how I can get one.  It’s as if some believe that there is a special deck of cards that we can suddenly pull out and all barriers are removed and the keys to the kingdom are ours – we become all powerful and supernatural wonder women.  I seriously question whether the imagined advantages to being a woman struggling to be considered a serious candidate in the cut-throat political arena truly exist.  Similarly, in most business and organizational environments that I live in, gender is considered either an impediment or at best ignored if women want to move into positions of power.

The article describes how being a woman will not be a considerable obstacle to her election as much as her connection to an unpopular government.  Nonetheless, her gender was speculated to bring enough novelty to convince the public to give her a chance.  The author finds it noteworthy that Vasquez is able to negotiate without losing her head as if acting calmly under crisis is an unnatural act.

The criticism of Vasquez Mota reinforces the fact that it is often NOT womens’ lack of leadership skills that is the real culprit but rather outdated and stereotypical expectations of women that create the greatest obstacles.  Women can achieve remarkable outcomes and yet not be seen as great leaders as long as the eyes of the observers limit their perceptions.  Until those blinders are removed, there will continue to be an absence of representation by women in positions of power.  Gender card or not, we are not able to leap tall buildings with a single bound as long as our true skills are ignored and we are locked out of the board room.

One of the mysterious and annoying assumptions about Latinos in this country is that ‘machismo’ is somehow worse in our culture than in mainstream U.S. white culture/society.  My belief is that male dominance and chauvinism are equally virulent and damaging in the U.S. as in any country in Latin America.  One could argue that it is even more subtle and insidious in the U.S.  which makes addressing it even less likely.  Women are often lured into believing that we have achieved parity and therefore need not organize ourselves to gain greater economic or social power.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Even in situations where women have risen into the ranks of prominence and power, they often still face subtle exclusion and pressure to conform to male standards in order to be accepted.  I have had the experience of being asked to coach women executives who have become “honorary men” by becoming harsh and unfeeling taskmasters.  If women are too social and concern themselves with the well-being of employees, they are considered too soft and unsuitable for leadership at higher levels.  Men with the same skill set are seen as having emotional intelligence and strong teambuilding capacities.  In order to avoid negative stereotypes, some women go to extremes to downplay their femininity even hiding or minimizing their family involvement or commitments lest their seriousness about business or careers be questioned.

I have seen women in non-traditional roles such as firefighters or police officers forced to walk an impossible line – if they act like one of the guys, joking, cursing, or being physically competitive, they are chastised.  If they act too much “like girls” they are seen as threatening and unreliable.  There seems to be a narrow range of behavior that is acceptable and many potholes that can easily short circuit the careers of women in most fields.

One of the most powerful things we can do as Latinas is share our stories with each other and seek out ways to provide mutual support and encouragement.  There is nothing to be gained by working alone and keeping our nose to the grindstone in our careers.  When I ask women what they do to take care of themselves, the most common response is a blank stare.  We are often so busy taking care of the needs of others and getting the job done that we often forget to attend to our own needs and desires.  I challenge us to use our voices and collective influence to support each other.  There is much untapped power we can draw from but the barriers to our success are real and require our best collaboration to overcome them.

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