Our Ideas About Leadership Are Toxic, Hyper-masculine And Bad For Women. They Don't Have To Be.

An excerpt from No More Nice Girls, a new book by award-winning Canadian journalist Lauren McKeon about how women are disrupting male standards of power.

The cover of Lauren McKeon's No More Nice Girls, and a photo of the author

Award-winning journalist Lauren McKeon has a new book out about women and power.

I don’t believe that the end solution for women’s power relies on eschewing children and motherhood. But these issues are all tied together. Much of what has kept women from power in the past is connected to the limits we put on their perceived roles and “natural” interests. Women’s life-narrative leans heavily on who we should be, what roles we should play, how we should find fulfillment. But how one woman defines a successful life, can—and should—be different from how another woman does. We will have power not when we’re all motherless world leaders, but when the variety of possible roles, jobs, and life paths reflects our freedom to choose for ourselves. Instead, we have a toxic, divisive, hyper-masculine version of leadership that prefers to subsume women under one monolithic vision. We tell women what they should want, starting from a very young age, and then we punish them whether they achieve it or not. People fear child-free women so much because an absence of motherhood is seen, at its core, as a rebuke of traditional, masculine power. It says: I want more than what I’ve been offered, what everyone has told me I should want, since the beginning of all time. This rethink is an essential part of reimagining motherhood, as well. We’ll never figure out the answer to a woman’s work–life balance without dismantling the idea that her first responsibility is to be a good mother: to mother well wherever she goes, care-taking everyone she encounters, from colleagues to constituents.

There’s an everyday pervasiveness to women’s and girl’s “role-making” that feels monotonous. It grinds us down. It may shout “dream big” but it whispers constantly that “this is what you should want.” Our achievements are relentlessly measured against patriarchal standards. We must look and talk the right way. Our bodies must be sculpted to just the right degree, with the right amount of curves and at planes, so that our clothes are pleasing to the eye. Our voices must be soft but not too high, deep but not tilting toward vocal fry. We must measure out the right amount of ambition, teaspoon by teaspoon, and we must never announce just how badly we want that success, unless we’re also willing to grit our teeth and say we want it so that it will benefit everybody but us.

Too often it feels as though we need permission to cooperate and build coalitions, and even then we must pretend it is not because we want to advance ourselves and others who seek equity; we are allowed to build these things calmly and to do well only within the confines of a wider, patriarchal society. We must play our roles and we must perform them flawlessly to criteria we never set. If we want to achieve equality, we will do so by measuring ourselves against men’s goals, by moving through men’s systems, and then we will fail, because these things society has demanded that we do—these contradictions—are impossible. They are a way to maintain and exert control, and it’s time to say that we are done with them.

Because if we define power as also having the ability to control our own fates, then many of us do not have it yet. We don’t have the power to decide for others and we don’t have the power to decide for ourselves. Any solutions we undertake now are corrective: we are unlearning everything we were taught as children, trying to undo and remake systems and socialization methods that have been ingrained in us for generations.

These are urgent, worthy goals. But what if we could interrupt the cycle before it even begins?

Excerpted fromNo More Nice Girls by Lauren McKeon. Copyright © 2020 Lauren McKeon. Reproduced with permission from House of Anansi Press Inc., Toronto. All rights reserved.