Women Need Resilience To Rise To The Top


Why are there so few women in top jobs? Instead of asking ourselves why there aren’t more women running the joint, maybe we need to ask why the joint is organised so it can only be run by superheroes or people with their own entourage.

In the lead up to Blue Knot Day on October 28, a day of support for the estimated 4-5 million Australians who are survivors of childhood abuse, some unexpected research findings are changing our ideas about resilience and leadership, particularly for women whose mental health is so closely tied to their experience of living in the world. And the evidence for what continues to restrict women’s choices seems to be pointing directly towards the health of our workplaces.

A recent study by University of Queensland academic Dr Terrance Fitzsimmons found huge differences between the childhoods of male and female top executives. The male CEOs he interviewed were brought up in traditional homes with mothers whose full time role was to care for their husbands, home and children. They reported relatively happy upbringings and held their current positions with the support of stay at home wives and mothers.

In contrast, the female top executives had working mothers, often in small business. And most strikingly, nearly all of them had lived through a major trauma between the ages of eight and 15. Death, family violence and major illness had been a part of their lives when they were becoming independent and forming their identities. And it was the resilience that came from living through these traumas that they credited for their ability to work hard and bounce back, including their capacity to take on the majority of the load of managing home and family.

So what does it mean when childhood trauma is part of the formula for getting women into top positions? If men are becoming successful with the help of their mothers and wives, and women are springing up from the resilience of traumatic recovery with a kind of superhuman determination, then maybe some of our most revered workplaces are designed to benefit from both trauma and privilege.

Practicing as a feminist therapist, I often see this double-edged sword of childhood trauma. Painful childhoods leave lasting scars, but they can also result in some magical abilities. Many of the high achieving women I work with developed incredible skills while living through violence or neglect. Some are multitasking wonders after being left to hold a family together when a parent died. Some have become so good at reading other people’s emotions in order to protect themselves and their siblings from an alcoholic parent, that they could outdo the Empath on the Starship Enterprise in a battle to read the mood of a room. The hard work of trauma can sometimes lead to incredible and unexpected strengths.

Wendy Lynne Mills also found evidence of this in her dissertation on what she calls survivor leadership, a term she uses to describe the phenomenon of post-traumatic growth that can occur when hardship meets intelligence and opportunity. In a study of a handful of school principals who had experienced abuse and neglect as children, she found evidence not only of resilience but also of transformative changes that helped to forge strong leadership skills among the survivors. But these skills were often partnered by coping strategies forged in childhood that were taking their toll on health and wellbeing.

The sad fact is that for women who begin to work on facing and processing their childhood traumas, the workplace can often be unsupportive and downright toxic. A lot of the gifts of a traumatic childhood history, especially things like self-reliance, highly tuned interpersonal radar and incredible attention to detail, are valued in the workplace. It’s painful to watch the push back that women often get in their jobs as they begin to strive for more balance in their lives.

What Dr Fitzsimmons’ research reveals is that many of our top executive positions are reliant on wives and traumatic histories in order to function. This makes the positions themselves inherently pathological. If you need full time staff at home to do your job, or you require a fierce strength of will and deep resilience developed by living through experiences you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy, then the structure of work itself is the problem.

As we continue to study leaders, and particularly as we ask ourselves why there are so few women in positions of leadership, we need to question the sanity of our workplaces. The evidence continues to mount that our top institutions are run on the servitude of women. And now we’re beginning to see that some of our female leaders have been spun into gold from the straw of deprivation.

The litmus test of a healthy society is no different to the current measurements for mental health. Flexibility, enjoyment, resilience, actualisation and balance are part of the experience of all happy creatures and all healthy societies. As we assess the impacts of childhood trauma, let’s look beyond the individual to the institutions and structures that contribute to and benefit from the inequity that particularly disadvantages women.

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