When women break the proverbial glass ceiling, awkward moments can ensue. Three female executives share their experiences.
History will be made if Hillary Clinton becomes the first female American president. Another resulting first would be Bill Clinton as the premier male presidential spouse. What should he be called? Names for the potential new position range from “First Gentleman” to “First Laddie” (his suggestion) and “First Dude” (hers).
There’s also the question of his duties. Would he, like previous First Ladies, be hosting dinner parties and managing the White House garden? At State dinners, would he sit with the spouses, most of whom are female, or the male leaders?
Come January, Bill Clinton may have his first taste of blazing a trail against gender expectations. But balancing expectations with gender role reversals is something women leaders have faced for decades.
Recently, three women executives told me about the lesser-talked-about downsides of being the only woman in a leadership team.
One C-level executive said she recently had to consider logistics during a company off-site that her male peers would never have to. Questions she pondered: Who she would spend time with during activities — her male colleagues or the female spouses? As she was single, who would she bring to the offsite — would a friend be OK?
“This is just a normal part of my challenge,” she tells me. “For example, I don’t get invited out to drinks often with the group, and I can’t tell if that is because I’m the only woman or something else. But, I’m regularly not included.”
To combat this, companies must be intentional in planning inclusive activities. The “golfing and drinking” bonding time of yesteryear has long left out women executives.
Another friend, an investment banker, tells me how the swimming pool often becomes a point of contention during business trips.
“The men get to hang out by the pool in their bathing suits, but it’s so awkward for me to do so,” she says. “As it turns out, on another occasion I did use the pool and unbeknownst to me and my team of three guys, they were checking me out until they realized I was their banker who was going to lead the pitch later on.”
Because women so rarely line the upper ranks of organizations, they’re often not recognized as leaders.
One lawyer recalls awkwardness when traveling with male partners to see clients.
“Sometimes they hit on you with comments like ‘My wife doesn’t understand me,’ but also, when you return, peers ‘tease’ you, asking what happened,” she says.
Many companies don’t think about how to address these challenges because they’ve never had to. Women are making progress at a glacial pace — a paltry 14.2 percent of the top five positions in the S&P 500 are held by women. But by normalizing more women in all aspects of office culture, we’re likely to see more women advance. To ensure more women join the executive ranks, it behooves companies to create a culture where having more women leaders is just no big deal.
I’m hopeful for a world where we don’t bat an eyelid when a male leader’s role includes picking out White House china patterns. Or when a female leader swims in the same pool as her male colleagues.