Help more women lead

I admire Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the U.S. representative for New York’s 14th district in Congress, very much. I don’t agree with all of her policy positions, many of which feel difficult to achieve on a practical level, but I believe that her perspectives and ideas help strengthen the policy proposals that are pushed by centrist Democrats (I was going to say, “and moderate Republicans,” but do those exist these days?).

Mostly I admire AOC, as she’s commonly known, because she takes the time to educate constituents and her followers on what her job as a member of Congress actually looks like, in very concrete and understandable ways. I follow her on social media and I have seen her answer questions about and share many scenes from her work life. I’ve seen her take people on a tour of her office, talk frankly about work-life balance, describe what her schedule is like, and what the perks and downsides to being a member of Congress actually are (I really loved seeing her official Congressional stationery, because I am a nerd). In other words, through her communication on social media she makes her job seem real, albeit demanding, and most importantly, worthwhile and purposeful.

Why do I think this is important? Because I think that young people will eventually become our future leaders (many of them are already our leaders) and I want leaders who are bold, passionate, hardworking, and articulate about their views, like AOC. I especially want young women who can see themselves in AOC—who will dish on yes, how to get the perfect shade of red lipstick, but who will also take their job and leadership position seriously and understand from the get-go that they are there to work on behalf of other people.

Because I feel this way about AOC, I was crushed and triggered by the recent GQ profile of her, which sought to present a detailed portrait of why she’s such an influential figure—but also a detailed portrait of how much hate and bullying she gets from everyone. I was not unaware of the hate, prior to reading the article—I mean, Marjorie Taylor-Greene, a huge gun advocate and an obvious dumbass shit-stirrer, tracked AOC down simply to threaten her—but from the article, I gained a deeper understanding of what she has endured in Congress not only from Republicans, but also from longstanding Democratic Party leaders like Nancy Pelosi. I can’t quite figure out what the root of all that hatred and disdain was—did she not fulfill some mythical requirement that she grovel at the shrines of older, more established politicians? Was she threatening to the (much) more senior members of Congress because of her youth, her outspokenness, and her superior fashion sense? Who knows?

Look, I’m old enough now to confess that I, too, have experienced that feeling of being threatened or at the very least, taken aback by someone who is much younger than me in the workplace. I have heard that voice in my head say, “Sure, you go on with your bright ideas, but actually, you don’t have the slightest idea of what you’re truly talking about or proposing.” But at the same time, I can’t imagine showing contempt and dislike for a younger female colleague of the sort that AOC has experienced on an ongoing basis. For one thing: a good deal of any career success I’ve experienced has been due to older women in the workplace who took the time to care about me, listen to me, and give me straight advice. For another thing, the older you get, the more you realize how much misogyny women already have to face, in every single part of their lives, all over the world. If you’re in America, you can say, oh well, at least we’re not like Iran, where a woman was killed because she removed her hijab, or Saudi Arabia, where women couldn’t even drive until 2018. But in America, we’ve recently had our right to say and do what we will with our own bodies—which by the way, should not even be up for debate!—removed by the Supreme Court. So yeah, no smugness allowed, American women. And, if you are in any way responsible, intentionally or intentionally, for individually bullying a younger female colleague, you are piling on to systemic and historic misogyny in a way that’s absolutely unacceptable.

I admit that I found the AOC article particularly triggering because of the times I’ve been bullied in the workplace—once when I was an executive, by another member of the executive team who just would not stop, and then there was my short-lived stint in corporate communications, where the president—who was widely known to be a total dick—would regularly send me harassing and bullying texts well into the evening hours. Even though I survived these bullying incidents with my sense of self largely intact, still, I do not forget how much pain and anguish they caused me at the time. And I feel like no one—no matter how well-established they get, no matter how rich in life’s blessings they are—ever forgets the experience of someone trying to take you down in ways that are both hostile and demeaning.

So here’s my point: yes, we can and should continue to point out gender inequity in workplaces and in senior leadership positions and in salaries. But we should also be spending time thinking about why these inequities persist—and what we are doing individually and collectively to ensure that women actually want to lead, like AOC is doing with her constituents and many followers. I am sure that many young women admire AOC and want to be like her and also see the value of holding public office. I am also sure that many young women are daunted by the amount of hate and vitriol they see directed her way, although Generation Z, sadly, has a lot more experience with hate and vitriol than my generation did (Gen X), thanks to the considerable downsides of online enaggement.

In other words, if you know a young woman in your sphere who you think is promising—raise her up. Respect her choices. Support her. Give her honest feedback, but give it with kindness. And don’t bully her for the sake of your own fragile self-esteem.

Heck, do it for all women, not just young women. But especially for young women, because we need them to feel inspired and motivated to lead.

Two important footnotes:

–One, as I do with most posts, I will issue the standard disclaimer that any advice coming from me does not mean I, myself, am without sin on the chosen topic. Meaning, I am 100% sure that there are young women out there who would say that they have felt bullied by me, just as I am 100% sure that there are young women who have felt guided and mentored and supported by me. I hope the latter far outnumbers the former, but who can say for sure? I can say that in my younger years especially, I am sure that I gave feedback on someone else’s performance in ways that came off as contemptuous and unsupportive. And now, although I am largely out of the feedback-giving business, I am still not great with other people when they are struggling, work-wise, especially if I have no context for the struggles, and all I see and feel are the impacts of the mistakes and the struggles on me, on the rest of the team, and on the work itself. This is a lifelong challenge for me and one way I address it is, I try to find some way to release the anger and frustration I’m feeling first, so I can then work to put myself in a mindset of compassion and listening. It’s a mindset shift, in other words, and it isn’t always easy, what with all those feelings and executive regulation we struggle with.

–Two, this advice also doesn’t mean that all women are perfect and must be supported no matter what the circumstances. I wish I didn’t feel the need to say that, but when women invoke the whole, “women should support other women” thing without taking any responsibility for their own behavior, this feels wrong to me. Women should support other women who are ambitious, work hard, want to learn, and who are kind and supportive of others. Women should NOT support other women who are saying and doing uncool things and who refuse to admit they are contributing to a problem. (Hey, 55% of white women who voted for Trump? I’d like a word.)  All of the gossip brouhaha around the movie Don’t Worry Darling is a GREAT example of this—if you look past all of the noise and wild theorizing as to why Olivia Wilde and Florence Pugh are feuding, the most well-supported theory is that Olivia Wilde simply behaved unprofessionally as a director, in that she was absent for long periods of time from set, and that Florence Pugh and others took it upon themselves to keep the film shoot on schedule and under budget. My favorite film and television critic has a good overview of it here. And people need to understand that yes, Olivia Wilde is absolutely correct when she points out that men directors take a lot less shit about their misbehavior than female directors do—but at the same time, that does not erase the perception that she likely shirked her work responsibilities because of, well, Harry Styles. I don’t think she should be cancelled over this. I think she should be given other movies to direct. And I definitely think that many more female directors ought to be given the chances that male directors are given, all the time.