WOMEN IN LEADERSHIP
My leadership landscape spans nearly 50 years, beginning as early as High School. Much of that experience has been in voluntary capacities within the Catholic Church but I can say that I have also learnt leadership in my role as a wife and mother. Regardless of our specific station in life, to be a woman in leadership, particularly in a male-centric environment, requires courage and confidence in God’s call on your life. We need inner-strength and belief in ourselves first, which in turn paves way to inspire others.
The Leader In ‘You’
Let me begin by posing a question to those of you who are in leadership (please take note of the first spontaneous word which drops into your mind). In one word how would you describe your leadership abilities? I would not be surprised if for many, that one word is negative (e.g. I’m terrible; bad; pathetic etc.). The reason behind a negative response is often because we measure ourselves against an unattainable leadership standard. Against that lofty standard, we undoubtedly will never be good enough. Perhaps there is truth to this statement; there will always be someone else with greater leadership skills. Regardless of how gifted you are and what great capacity you possess, there will always be someone else with whom we negatively measure ourselves against. Certainly, as leaders we are inspired by other people we admire. However we must remember that we are not called to be their ‘clone’. Nor should we compare ourselves to others – a negative trait that many women labor with.
Madness Of Multi-tasking
My husband and I have been married for 40 years and have 4 sons. From personal experience I know that multi-tasking is second nature to women, while (it would seem) many men are more adapted to a singular focus at any given time. For women, the precision of a Rolex Watch has no comparison to our time keeping skills whether it is in organizing domestic duties, children’s activities, work schedules and the list goes on. However, it’s our multi-tasking skills which ensure the smooth running of our households and/or our work environments.
Multi-tasking is also a testament to the weight we can carry as women in our ability to manage many facets of life. It is wrongly assumed that a single woman has ‘plenty of time on her hands’ and therefore expected to carry even more responsibilities. This can leave them with feelings of resentment and un-appreciation. The tremendous responsibility to ‘tend’ to our own time as well as those we are responsible for both at home and in leadership, is a vivid reality of our modern dynamic society.
Multi-tasking is strength, but it is true strength when we cultivate the vital skill of learning to say ‘no’, to avoid burnout. Leaders who are burnt out cannot inspire others productively and progressively.
Pressing Against The Tide
As a female leader in a male dominated hierarchical Church it pains me to have to address this issue, yet it is a concern that women experience at many levels both, within our spiritual and cultural communities. Just as men and women gathered around Jesus, we hope that together we could gather around the Lord to listen to Him and to listen to each other, respecting each other for who we are rather than struggling for a voice because of our gender. Pope Francis recently said that women are making a precious contribution to the Catholic Church and he formally changed a law within the Church allowing women to distribute Holy Communion and serve at the altar. For many women in the world wide Church today, this will give them the ‘legal’ right they need to be of service within their Church community. Personally, as a woman living in Australia, I was appalled that such a law existed and therefore needed to be changed. Yet for much of the world, this is the reality in which they live. Across Church structures, board rooms, and male dominated enterprises, women’s contributions and experiences continue to be silenced, dismissed and/or excluded. This sense of rejection through discrimination, not only disintegrates the human framework but also leaves deep communal wounds.
Women, who are living with discrimination, are faced with a challenging choice. Should they continue in the discrimination for the sake of the flock or should they walk away from leadership? The choice of discernment has never been more crucial. Often times, the more challenging route to live out of the negative experience(s) with the help of the Holy Spirit, takes nothing but bravery. It takes Grace and Courage to press on against the tide of pride and prejudice and still desire the empowerment of the Holy Spirit even in the crushing and waiting. It demands nothing less than the heroic virtue of forgiveness, generosity and determination. It is not an easy journey to travel but during such perilous times, the great feminine gift of God through female friendships becomes evidently critical.
Wisdom can be gained and pain alleviated through shared adversity, shared trust and shared authentic love.
It is said that ‘women do the work – men get promoted’. But women leaders share with their male counterparts the same attributes: vision, perseverance, passion, desire to serve etc. A crucial role for today’s female leaders is creating an environment for women of the future where they will feel encouraged, acknowledged, embraced and equipped as future leaders.
As a leader of others it’s important to remember that we are there to serve the people we represent. Being a female leader often calls for us to push through stereotypes, pick our self up from being pushed aside, stand firm and speak boldly and persistently for those we represent. This is not always easy particularly if our natural leaning is to shyness or if we have experienced negative reactions when speaking out in the past. Personally I can remember a number of occasions when it would have been easier to keep silent! However, justice (and the conviction of the Holy Spirit) required me to confront the systemic gender bias I was witnessing. This was often done with a pounding heart but it was the example of the Lord Himself that gave me the courage to do it. Jesus too confronted injustice, and being human, His heart probably pounded too!
Relationship With God
The loving Voice of God through both male and female needs to be heard. St Paul pointedly says in 1 Corinthians 12:21-27 that we are one body and we don’t have any right to say to another “we have no need of you”.
The world in which we live is changing at a tremendous speed. Our lives can be hectic and for our own health and wellbeing, it’s necessary to get off the treadmill of life and connect with God and with our inner selves. Susanna, the mother of John Wesley – founder of the Methodist Church, had 11 children. Her prayer time was simply to sit in silent prayer with an apron over her head. Her children knew not to interrupt her, except in the most extreme circumstances because this was her time with God.
Connection with God is absolutely essential in leadership and in life. I suggest you make it a priority: put the phone on silent, close the door, find an ‘apron’ and take time daily, whether it be 10 or 30 minutes, to be still in the Presence of the God who made you and loves you.
It is He who called you, gifted you and equipped you for leadership and it is He who will sustain you through the good and challenging experiences of female leadership.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ann Brereton lives in Tasmania, Australia with her husband David of 40 years. Ann’s ministry involves over 40 years in leadership positions including being the first woman National Chairperson of the Australian National Service Committee. She also served as a member of the International Catholic Charismatic Renewal Services (ICCRS) situated at the Vatican. She is a mother to 4 sons and grandmother to 6 granddaughters, has lived as a Missionary in Uganda and travelled extensively as a Conference Speaker.