Saundra Pelletier, Chief Executive Officer, President and Executive Director of Evofem Life Sciences (NASDAQ: EVFM)
Ever since I can remember, I’ve heard phrases like, “Girls can’t do that.” “That’s men’s work.” “Working mother? You neglect your children.”
Fast forward to today, and what about all those female steel workers (Flash dance aside)? What about the major contingencies of? female doctors? Did you miss your favorite news channel’s series of stories about the big jump? female lawyers?
We are, or at least should be, way beyond identifying a person’s gender as part of their title, role or position in the business world, and for the most part that’s the norm. We don’t put “female” for manager or “man” for employee. They’re just managers, directors, employees, and vice presidents.
Except when it comes to CEO. Time and again, the woman who runs a company as chief executive officer has inserted the word ‘woman’ before her title in the media and in society in general.
I have led companies and organizations for over a decade. Through those years, I recognize that there have been times when it was appropriate to identify women by their gender before their role or title was determined, especially as women in companies move up the corporate ladder and succeed despite the challenges presented by the industry. society imposes on them.
And it is a waste of time to affirm that all those who lead an organization must be good leaders with exceptional business acumen. This is clear. However, there are those who still believe that inserting the word feminine before a woman’s title is empowering — because women are still the exception in the C-suite, it’s a celebrated outlier.
Perhaps to some extent, still an outlier in numbers, women are not that great in their ability to lead. The efficacy of female CEOs is supported by data. According to research by Frank Recruitment Group, “The majority of Fortune 500 companies with a female CEO are typical” more profitable than that of a male CEO.” Of the 500 largest companies in 2021, 87% of companies led by women reported above-average profits, compared to only 78% of companies without a female CEO. You might imagine that these statistics a woman’s ability to run a business, so my question is, why? Why do we keep having a CEO’s title prefaced with the word feminine and not masculine?
One of the reasons we can perpetuate the normality around distinguishing the two is because it is ingrained in our mindset and birth. Historically, women have been the mediators and often the martyrs, so it is naturally assumed that when we step into a position of the size of a CEO, we must be rare.
I remember a story told to me early in my career during corporate training. A son and his father have had a tragic car accident. They were rushed to the hospital and both went to separate operating rooms. The surgeon walked into the boy’s room and said, “I cannot operate on this child. This is my son.” We all assumed that this was the son of a gay couple or that the surgeon was his stepfather. Even I didn’t immediately suspect that the doctor was his mother.
Admittedly, many of us have interacted with or read about male CEOs more often than female CEOs; however, we must stop perpetuating the idea that a woman in a position of power is something extraordinary and worthy of being labeled. To really break this cultural norm, I believe the responsibility rests partly on women.
We must start with our children and our circles of influence to normalize the narrative that people in leadership positions should not be identified by their gender, but instead by the arduous journey it took to ascend to a position with so many responsibility. Regardless of whether they are mothers or not, women should make the corrections subtly and openly whenever they can and drop the feminine label for a title.
It amazes me to see how much progress we have made as a society when it comes to things like body shaming and realizing how it can destroy trust. We need to get to a point where we collectively recognize that labels before titles have similar negative effects. It keeps our daughters from believing there is no glass ceiling. Gloria Steinem said it best: “We have begun to raise daughters more like sons…but few have the courage to raise our sons more like our daughters.”
So, how do we change society? I ask that the next time you find yourself falling back on statements we’ve heard since you were born, or labeling your coworker as a woman, stop for a moment and think about the ramifications this could have. The effort to bring about these changes is not a sprint but a marathon. Let’s all make sure we continue that race and, for some, start the effort.