Elbowing Through the Crowd

Ihlara McIndoe wants to see women at all levels of the public service, but she’s troubled by a trend she sees among conversations about women in leadership.

As a proud feminist, I jump at any opportunity to hear from women in leadership. I love a girl boss morning tea, hearing insights from senior women and sharing thoughts and questions relating to gender in the workplace with my peers. However, I query the emphasis of many events catered for early career women.* They often emphasise the idea that women just need to overcome their fears, get their “elbows on the table”, and push their voice forward in order to be successful leaders. I noticed, over a particular fortnight, two separate women in leadership who spoke with pride when reflecting on their behaviour that colleagues had called jarringly assertive with an occasional lack of empathy. The message seemed to be: “It’s maybe something I should work on, but in the meantime, I’m the best at getting the job done, and that’s what really matters!”

I find such notions somewhat conflicting. On the one hand, I appreciate the feminist sentiment that women (in the home, the workplace, and the wider community) should not be left to carry the emotional labour alone. There’s certainly an element of the no-nonsense, “don’t mess with me” female professional character that I really admire – and many senior women who take this type of leadership approach (or some degree of it) are some of the most ardent feminists. But at some point, these attitudes surely depart from any intention to dismantle the patriarchy and instead contribute to the gate-keeping structures that perpetuate patriarchal and colonial power. Assertive behaviour doesn’t naturally balance out the various systemic challenges that women in Aotearoa face. Furthermore, the women who can successfully “pull off” alpha-female attitudes in the workplace are arguably limited to those who are socially and culturally positioned most closely to the existing Pākehā male power structure.

At what point does an “elbows on the table” approach become an “elbow through the crowd” attitude, where colleagues are seen as competition rather than collaborators? I worry that the presentation of hyper-assertiveness as a key requirement for professional success disregards values of community, collective responsibility, manaakitanga, kotahitanga, and āwhina. I acknowledge that my relationship to concepts of power and hegemony is limited to my own experiences, and that principles of tikanga and te ao Māori are not my own to try to explain or give voice to, but as tangata Tiriti, I believe in their importance and prioritisation, and I hope to continually be challenged to contribute to these important conversations without taking up spaces that ought to go to others.

As I look towards a professional career that winds in and out of public service, I think about the sort of leader I want to become. I am fortunate to have mentors who prioritise and model empathetic leadership. But I’ve also been made aware of the frustrations and challenges my female mentors have faced, often punctuated by fellow professional women whose attitudes mirror those of the patriarchy they are trying to dismantle. Perhaps the key thing these mentors have taught me is that being an effective worker and leader requires both strength and kindness.  To prioritise care does not necessitate the diminishing of competence. Whatever one’s personal politics are, surely our prime minister serves as evidence that a female leader can be both strong and kind.

* And often their lack of recognition that gender is not a binary concept.