This post explores human development as it relates to gender and its implications for female leadership for two different women raised in different cultures. The theoretical foundation for these joint entries will be Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory to illuminate our understanding of how different environments called “ecological systems” impact the development of girls, their understanding of themselves and their place in the world as it relates to their gender. Other human development theories are woven throughout, as well as explorations of how gender roles relate to different stages of development and how this translates into leadership. From that foundation, each author will explore the ways in which their development and gendered understanding of self influences their role in the workplace and as leaders, with some final considerations for the role of women in society during and post-pandemic.
“There is never just a you; and at this very moment your own buoyancy or lack of it, your own sense of wholeness or lack of it, is in large part a function of how your current embeddedness culture is holding you.” -Robert Keegan
Thinking back on my gender socialization as a child and through adulthood is both interesting and perplexing. It seems there were two key factors at work with helping me understand my “role” as a girl/woman in the United States: family and society. In this article, I will highlight conflicting life experiences that shaped my conceptualization and enactment of gender and connect these learnings to my understanding of female leadership. Human development theory from Urie Bronfenbrenner will be applied to demonstrate how my meaning-making of gender was shaped and embodied through different socialization forces: microsystem (family) and chronosystem (entering the workforce). Additionally, Donald Winnicott’s Object Relations Theory is used to demonstrate how my “good enough” holding environment as a child allowed me to enact my True Self and later, create a Healthy False Self in the workplace as an adult.
Urie Bronfenbrenner was an American psychologist who developed ecological systems theory, where child development is viewed as “a complex system of relationships affected by multiple levels of the surrounding environment…” (Guy-Evans, 2020, Key Takeaways). Bronfenbrenner identified five ecological systems and recognized them as interrelated and interacting with one another to influence the child’s development: the microsystem, mesosystem, exosystem, macrosystem, and chronosystem (Guy-Evans, 2020). While Bronfenbrenner’s research was primarily focused on child development, there are aspects of his theory that can be applied beyond childhood and into adulthood. From a sociological perspective, varying degrees of social influence from each of these systems are viewed as consistently influencing personal beliefs and behaviors (Faris & Form, 2020). This applies to gender socialization roles, where we “learn our culture’s gender-related rules, norms, and expectations” through primary agents such as parents, teachers, peers and media (Vinney, 2019, para. 1). Examples of this include children learning specific toys correspond to a particular gender, same-gender peer expectations for “appropriate” behavior, and media messages about what it means to be a boy or girl (Vinney, 2019).
Using Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory, there are two systems that largely shaped my gender socialization: the microsystem (parents/family) and macrosystem (workplace). As a child, my family provided an environment where I was able to have more gender-fluidity and less restrictions in my gender enactment. For example, playing with Construx, disliking jewelry and/or skirts/dresses, going to the raceway, having an aggressive attitude, and building furniture are not likely to elicit images of how a girl “does” gender. Yet, these activities and ways of being suited me during childhood. I was allowed to explore both sides of institutionalized conceptions of gender without significant criticism. Many other examples exist, but the main thing was that I realized a lot of my interests and attitudes aligned with my dad’s way of being. This holding environment allowed me to experience my true self, which Winnicott (1965) describes as “the theoretical position from which comes the spontaneous gesture and the personal idea” (p. 148). Being able to have the “best of both worlds” and not having to fit a gender mold in the home as an adolescent later translated into an enactment of a healthy false self in the workplace.
My experience in the workplace comprises primarily of customer service or public service jobs. Many of these jobs consisted of approaching others in a caring, courteous, and/or harmonious manner. When I consider my innate approach to others, it usually is not highlighted by these qualities. However, my ability to overcome appearing distant or disconnected from others was strengthened over time by building a healthy false self. Winnicott describes the false self as when a person “has to comply with external rules, such as being polite or otherwise following social codes” (Changingminds.org, n.d., Discussion). The false self can either form as healthy or unhealthy, depending on how the caretaker interacts with and provides room for the child’s independence to assert their true self. It is when the child feels “forced into compliance as opposed to a loving adaptation” that the false self becomes unhealthy (Changingminds.org, n.d., Discussion). In my situation, the ability to interchange between “typical” gender roles in the home as a child (allowing me to assert my true self), seemed to enable my ability to enact a healthy false self in the workplace as an adult. Without feeling constrained to behave in a gender-specific way at home as a child, I felt more at ease with gradually taking on gender-specific roles expected in the workplace. Most importantly, the different gendered perspectives I had growing up provided me with more fluid understandings of how to lead among diverse groups. I felt that as a leader I had insight into how gender-role expectations were impacting those around me, thus providing me with important tools for these interactions.
Overall, I am thankful for the ability I had to enact different gender roles while growing up. It has facilitated my ability to interact more insightfully with others, both personally and professionally. Furthermore, the holding environment I had as a child allowed me to enact my true self at earlier development stages and later, develop a healthy false self in the workplace where gender roles were more restrictive. I cannot help but wonder though, what the implications of this are for those who may not have such leeway in gender enactment during their youth. While every person’s situation is unique, gender expectations truly impact the way we shape and define ourselves and ultimately, interact with others.
“The coronavirus pandemic is wreaking havoc on households, and women are bearing the brunt of it. Not only have they lost the most jobs from the beginning of the pandemic, but they are exhausted from the demands of child care and housework…the uncomfortable truth is that in their homes, women are still fitting into stereotypical roles of doing the bulk of cooking, cleaning and parenting. It’s another form of systemic inequality within a 21st century home that the pandemic is laying bare.” — Pallavi Gogoi, National Public Radio
Statements like those above began appearing last summer in a trickle of articles such as “Enough Already: How the Pandemic is Breaking Women,” “Latinas Drop out of the Workforce at Alarming Rates,” and “The Pandemic Has Given Women a New Kind of Rage.” By Fall of 2020, roughly six months into school closures impacting millions of families nationwide, that trickle had become a flood as everyone from news outlets to the Center for Diseases Control acknowledged what many women had been keenly aware of for months: the COVID-19 pandemic was having a devastating and disproportionate impact on women, particularly women of color, and we were, simply put, ‘not ok.’ During this time, I found myself floating between my more developed self, using my cognitive abilities to carry out my work and other limited tasks, and an early stage of development akin to the beige Instinctual Self stage of Wilber’s Spiral Dynamics characterized by automated and instinctual behaviors focused on self-preservation (Wilber, 2001, p. 8–9). When some bit of health returned to our family and we settled into some semblance of a routine, clearer cognition returned and I responded to that flood of articles and reports on the impact of the pandemic of women with a deep sense of both comfort and dread.
The comfort came from a sense of relief at knowing I was not alone, not broken, not defective in my individual struggle during the pandemic. So much of the language in America around struggle for all genders is about personal accountability but that message of personal accountability can be all the more isolating and painful for women who are socialized to care for others but be responsible for themselves. Stepping outside that individual mindset enough to notice the collective pain saddened me but also immediately reconnected me to those green and yellow memes in the Spiral Dynamics, where we are capable of seeing our interconnectedness as people and the systems within society (Wilber, 2001, p. 10–13). Despite the relief I felt from the knowledge of my connection to others, that same knowledge also produced a feeling of dread best described as bouts of alternating anger and fear. As Brofenbrenner’s Theory of Ecological Systems demonstrates, we are nested within ever changing larger systems, from the microsystem created by our family to the macrosystem created by the society and culture within which we reside. Though Brofenbrenner’s original theory was developed to explain the forces impacting child development, that system has been acknowledged to apply to individuals in other life stages and is very much akin to a simplified version of his Ecological System, the Socioecological Model, widely used in the public health field. I recognized that although some of what I and other women were experiencing was under our control and remedy, there were large and powerful forces, from our socialized gender expression to systems of inequity, that would not and could not be relieved by any one of us alone. It is from this perspective that I tried to answer: how can I get relief from the relentless impact of the pandemic on me as a woman and mother with limited choices?
Complex, multi-layered situations call for an equally complex, multi-faceted answer and so a year plus into the pandemic that answer is incomplete. One part of improving my reality has involved exploring the various ecosystems at play in my own life. Reflecting on the writings of female, socially conscious scholars such as hooks, Anzaldúa, and Gilligan, has helped me recognize how every system within my ecology converged to construct my understanding of my gender as being premised on caretaking, sacrifice, and giving, all which contributed to this state of unequal burden and struggle. First and foremost, I could see that though for some women, their gender is less a part of their identity as beings, both the Mexican society to which I was born and the US-Mexico border society in which I was raised centered my sense of self on my gender. Furthermore, as a female in what hooks (2000) describes as the “white supremacist capitalistic patriarchy” (p. 45), my gender was deeply rooted in expectations of caring for others, constantly producing, and sacrificing my needs for the well-being of others. As the eldest child and only daughter of a deeply Mexican Catholic family born and raised on both sides of the U.S. Mexico border, I was so imbued with a sense of responsibility to family, that sense of responsibility became like the air I breathed.
Like many cultures with a history of genocide and oppression, my own community added to the pressure I and other women face to be caretakers by maintaining a tribal sense of prioritizing community and family over the individual and centering women in that role (Anzaldúa, 1987, p. 40). For example, my parents always encouraged me to succeed academically and professionally, like most immigrant parents, but had the equally strong and conflicting expectation that I would live nearby, visit multiple times a week, and in other ways ‘put family first.’ My mom exemplified this dizzying mix of impossible standards, with her joy at the grandkids I added to her life and frequently telling me “los niños no esperan” (Spanish for, “kids don’t wait,” meaning kids grow and cannot wait for you to have time for them) while also expressing desires for me to be a CEO, travel the world, and/or run for public office. Though some of her expectations reflect her own repressed and unfulfilled desires, they are also a product of confused and conflicting cultural expectations that a woman’s role is as caretaker, selflessly sacrificing herself for her family and the immigrant desire for success and progress. Combined these expectations and socialization place women in the position of bearing the impossible weight of her needs/desires and those of her family and community simultaneously.
It was precisely that impossible weight that I found myself juggling when, six months into the pandemic, I was trying to manage paid work, four children at home, and starting a doctoral program, all while my partner was mostly absent due to health issues. I knew that if I gave up or deferred my dream of continuing my education, I would come to resent my children, my partner, and myself. Financially, I did not have the choice to stop working and felt privileged to work from home. I could not afford a nanny or other care for my school-age kids but was grateful the eldest two were somewhat self-sufficient enough to reduce my homeschooling responsibilities. I did not have the choice not to care for others, so I did my best to care for everyone all at once without consideration for caring for all of myself. In a country where systems are premised on the idea that women are primary caregivers, whether for children or dependent adults, it is no wonder women without the same pre-pandemic access to caregiving support, such as schools and nursing care, faced impossible choices and situations during the pandemic at an disproportionate rate.
Even as I was grateful for my privilege and ‘choices,’ I had to acknowledge a growing sense of anger that built in me as the exhaustion and guilt piled up. Once I began stepping outside of my own nested circle and saw the larger ecosystems around me, I was able to address that anger and guilt by giving myself the permission to acknowledge the impacts of the pandemic were not entirely under my control, focus on those that were, and make small shifts in my thinking to address both. For example, I had to acknowledge my sense of responsibility as a caregiver was outsized and recognize my need for breaks so that I could take advantage of the opportunities for them when they were available. As a professional supporting nonprofit organizations where I am essentially a professional “helper to the helpers,” I am also trying to set boundaries around my workload without guilt. I began asking my business partners for help more than I ever had, acknowledging my limitations and not feeling responsible for their own boundaries.
This increased sense of awareness is not something I can access at all times. Sometimes I still find myself in survival mode, unable to see the way my gendered socialization and ecosystems impact me in a given situation and focus on addressing what I can control. I expect that, like any new skill, the more I practice this greater awareness the more it will come easily, automatically. For now I am grateful when I can access the roles created for me, and even ones I have created for myself, and ask “is this who you want to be?” In both my personal life and my professional role I have various opportunities for leadership that can be opportunities for me to share this perspective with others, through conversation or simple modeling. I do not hold myself responsible to lead large scale changes but I am hopeful that small changes can ripple out within my microsystem and mesosystem and, at least, socialize my own children in a different understanding of the gender roles than the one I was given.
In this post we have explored our gender enactment through different human development models to demonstrate the challenging and facilitating factors that may result from gender expectations in various social systems. While our experiences reflect different holding environments, similarities exist with how impositions from social forces at any level (microsystem, exosystem, etc.) can either lead us towards or away from who we long to be. Our internal dialogue is often in conversation with the external world and distinguishing what we deem as important for ourselves is one key factor to our overall well-being. Building an awareness for the impositions often placed can allow us to better meet those moments that cause a sense of disequilibrium. Furthermore, it can heighten our awareness of impositions placed on those around us in the personal and professional realms.
Written by Barbara Resultan and Cristina Sanchez-Kerr. PhD students at the University of San Diego in the School of Leadership and Education Sciences.
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