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Fitness for Leadership

Some women have found it hard to assume authority because society tends to discourage them from thinking of themselves as achievers

SUSAN SCHENKEL, a clinical psychologist and former instructor at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., specializes in personal and career consultation. In a recent interview, Dr. Schenkel answered questions about the internal as well as external barriers women must overcome in order to equip themselves for leadership. Her book ``Giving Away Success: Why Women Get Stuck and What To Do About It'' expands on these ideas.

Why don't we see more women in leadership roles? I read a statistic recently that said that over 95 percent of all upper-level management positions in the United States are held by men. Also, women hold only 6 percent of the seats in Congress, and 2 percent in the Senate.

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... [T]here are so many forces that impinge on something like that - the basic one is that men in a whole lot of positions are just comfortable with men, and less comfortable with women.... [I]t takes an extraordinary amount of energy and resources of all kinds ... to break that. And so what you need is an extremely energetic, determined, motivated woman.

More so than the average man?

Oh, absolutely. Much more so. You know, ``We have to work twice are hard to get half as far,'' as the old line goes.... And then women have a built-in problem. And that is, to have that kind of energy and time that means you have enormous conflicts with your personal life because it's real hard to be a wife and a mother and put in that kind of energy in the work force all at the same time.

How can women break these limitations?

... [W]hat [women] have to do is really give an enormous amount of thought to what they want from their lives. And my definition of success is setting goals and achieving them. So I think, generally, what women need to do as a group - rather than crash any particular male bastion - is to simply get in the habit of being action oriented.... The term I use in the book is ... ``mastery orientation.'' Basic to that is a great sense of optimism about one's ability to control one's environment.

You mention in your preface that your book is particularly appropriate for the '90s.

If you ... put it in a historical context a little bit, in the '70s and early '80s women were fighting for the right to have careers outside the home and be taken seriously in the workplace.... [W]e were really fighting with a lot of external barriers. And I think by the early- to mid-'80s, enough women were involved in the workplace and in serious careers that the internal barriers started to become more apparent. And it became clear that many of us have a complex set of inhibitions that were the result of socialization that didn't just disappear because some of the external barriers were disappearing.

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What are these inhibitions or challenges?

At the risk of oversimplifying, I think the biggest challenge is dealing with ``learned helplessness'' that we learn in all kinds of subtle and not so subtle ways when we're brought up with traditional femininity.... Whereas a mastery-oriented person, when they see a problem, their inclination would be to tackle it head on, a person who has learned helplessness ... might be inclined to avoid the problem ... or put it off and procrastinate.... Another element that's important, I think, is what I refer to as the ``feminine discounting habit.'' And that is a culturally learned tendency for women to discount, minimize, discredit their abilities and achievements.

Don't men deal with some of these same challenges?

... Certainly various men learn helplessness in a variety of ways. I think what's different with men and women, though, is that traditional sex-role association fairly systematically discourages achievement and action in women, whereas it more or less encourages and reinforces and awards it in men.... The male culture discourages running away. It discourages retreat - I mean I'm talking gross generalities here.

What are some of the influences in young girls' lives that inhibit success in later years?

... [S]ome of the important influences early on are a lack of active encouragement to be action oriented. As compared to the boys, a relative lack of attention [is given to girls] in the classroom. For example, I think in some ways ... bright girls are a very neglected group because they usually do well or very well, and very few people notice and pay attention to the fact that - although they're doing very well - they're doing ... way under their level of achievement.... The educational system for the most part just reinforces what society has already done.... It wasn't so long ago that many parents told girls that they didn't need to have an education, for example.... And then, of course, there's the influence of the media.... [W]omen are - and I think this is very important - encouraged to look and act in order to be sexy and attract the opposite sex. I think that's one of the reasons that traditionally women's intellectual activities, for many women, fall in adolescence.

How can women get ``unstuck?''

I think one thing that's very useful to do ... is simply keep a diary. Write down every goal, what you did, and the outcome. And not major life goals.... It can be any little thing that you decide you want to do.... [W]hat matters is that you begin to think in terms of goals and achieving them. And then finally, I think, it's important to try to reward yourself for taking the action, apart from whether or not you succeed.

What about becoming more aware of societies' perceptions of women?

I think to the extent to which you're aware of negative cultural stereotypes is the extent to which you can be aware of them in your own thinking and begin to pay attention to how they are affecting your behavior. And also you can begin to challenge them. And you can ... look at your behavior and say ``Society says women are really weak in math. Is that true?

As women become more goal oriented and assertive in their workplace, do they sometimes deal with a backlash because they're challenging traditional roles?

I think that dealing with human relationships in the workplace requires - particularly when you're ... breaking through traditional barriers - an enormous amount of interpersonal sensitivity and skill.

And my impression is that the women who have been most successful at doing it are the ones who have had a considerable amount of sensitivity and ... figured out how to play their audience.

Ms. Schenkel's book, first published in 1984, was rereleased this month by Random House.

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