“When a man gets up to speak, people listen, then look. When a woman gets up, people look, then if they like what they see, they listen.” —Pauline Frederick (1906-1990)


Pauline Frederick knew what she was talking about. As a war correspondent and international journalist, she had a unique perspective on world culture and leadership. Born in 1906, Frederick was a pioneering female in broadcast journalism, which at the time she began her career was an emerging new field dominated by men. She began the print journalism part of her career in high school working part-time as a reporter for several local newspapers. After college, she re-entered the world of print journalism as a reporter for the Washington Star.

Frederick got her start in radio as a part time off-air assistant in 1938. Her boss advised her to “Stay away from radio. It doesn't like women.” She did not listen. Frederick chose her path and went on to achieve many broadcasting firsts. She was the first woman to moderate a Presidential debate and the first woman to receive these broadcasting awards: the Peabody, the DuPont and the Paul White. She worked as a war correspondent during World War II. Later in her career, she covered the United Nations for the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) for 21 years.

Although Frederick died in 1990, her words still ring true today. It's the 21st century, and even with women breaking new ground all over the world, men and women are still judged and treated differently in many arenas. One study found that when a man and a woman are waiting for service in a department store, the man is most likely to be served first.Another study performed on college campuses revealed that women achieve more in single sex classes than in co-educational classrooms. In the co-educational classroom, women become “spectators”. They are called on less often, their contributions are not regularly discussed at length and teachers are more likely to do things for women rather than show them how to accomplish the tasks for themselves. Women are taken more seriously than they were in the early 20th century, but just how much progress have they really made?

Why are women judged and treated differently? Obviously, women and men do have tendencies that lead them to behave and think as if they are from different worlds. But there are also cultural influences, including upbringing and family religious affiliations. In addition, physiology and genetic makeup contribute to personality and behavior.

Throughout time, mothers have noted what science has confirmed. A person's unique temperament is usually displayed soon after birth. Some of these temperamental traits include activity level, distractibility, approach, adaptability, intensity, attention span, quality of mood and threshold of responsiveness. People are born with a certain personality and it seems that many of them retain that personality throughout their lives.

In addition to temperamental traits, characteristics associated with sex roles appear very early in life. Once a person's sex is identified at birth, the roles are cast and therefore predict how he or she will be treated. Many people (including parents) treat boys and girls differently. They might have the tendency to handle female babies more gently than male babies, or give gifts and toys that are appropriate for the cultural perception of a child's sex. Since parents are role models for their children's behavior, this traditional sex-role behavior will often be passed to their children.

Not to be discounted, the study of human psychology also plays a role in how the genders are viewed and treated. In the book, In a Different Voice, Carol Gilligan makes the point that early studies of child development involved primarily male subjects. Female subjects were not included in the studies or the evaluations. Therefore, psychologists such as Jean Piaget and Sigmund Freud designed personality development theories without taking the female child into account. Excluding female study subjects resulted in norms set on male tendencies and designating female strengths as weaknesses.

One example of the difference in gender tendencies is how males and females experience relationships. According to Nancy Chodorow, the source of these differences can be found in early childhood. Consider that a child's primary caregiver for the first three years is usually a woman. The female child will form an identity based on her sameness with, and in relationship to, the female caretaker. The male child, experiencing himself as different than the female caretaker, will separate himself from her as a part of defining his identity. Thus, male identity is based on becoming a separate individual, and female identity is based on an on-going relationship.

When females are left out of personality development studies, the cultural conditioning that gives the mistaken impression that women are not fit for leadership roles, especially in business and government, is continued because the standards for maturity and leadership skills include the male developmental traits of individualization, focus on achievement and competition rather than the female strengths of inclusiveness and relationships with others. This also encourages the situation in which many women find themselves today where corporations and governments are run based on male norms and analogies, using a language and unwritten set of rules that is unfamiliar to many women.

Fortunately, women can learn ways to overcome gender issues and ensure that they are heard. Evolving from Shrinking Violet to Willow Woman refers to developing a presence that is noticeable and respected. Take a moment to reflect on the imagery. According to Webster's Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, a Shrinking Violet is a “shy, modest or self-effacing person.” In other words, Shrinking Violets tend to be meek and quiet. They do not feel comfortable being at the center of attention in a group. The violet is a very beautiful flower, but it grows close to the earth. A person has to be looking at the ground to notice a violet.

A Willow Woman is an entirely different persona. Picture a willow tree. Although some willows are called “weeping”, giving certain individuals the impression of weakness, the contrary is true. Look at a willow tree. Notice that its branches are more flexible than most trees, allowing it to sway gracefully in the wind without being damaged. The willow has a steady trunk and stable and strong roots that keep it firmly planted in the ground. A willow is flexible and grounded at the same time. Willow trees are also very hardy and grow quickly.

A woman who has an image of herself as a willow tree feels strong and graceful, yet flexible enough to weather any storm.

In imagery, trees are often used to denote wisdom and discernment because of their stately presence and long life span. Wisdom in this case has the additional meaning of being comfortable with and listening to the still, inner voice otherwise known as intuition. Discernment means having the ability to recognize what is beneficial and what is not utilizing intuition, knowledge, experience and how the body and mind responds to different situations. When a person knows that something is not beneficial for her, she has the choice of allowing it into her life or letting it go. At some point in her life, she'll learn to do this without many regrets.

Sally's current career situation is an example of how a person uses discernment. She has a job that no longer fulfills her need to learn and grow. The pay is appropriate, but Sally is a person who likes challenges and she is not being challenged anymore. A Willow Woman would make the decision to negotiate with her employer to make the job more challenging and/or update her resume and start looking for another job. Being an evolving Willow Woman, Sally updated her resume and began her job search.

Karen also has a situation that calls for discernment. She has a friend with whom she no longer relates. Karen can decide if she wants to work on the relationship or drop the friendship. Karen is not sure if her friend has permanently changed or if she is going through a tough time and needs the support of a good friend. Karen will have to have a talk with the friend or otherwise get the information she needs to determine the answer to that question. When Karen knows the answer, she may choose to keep the friendship and allow the friend time to work through her difficulties or she may choose to end the friendship. The bottom line is Karen has the wisdom and the power to make and act on this decision.

A Willow Woman is strong and graceful. She has her feet firmly on the ground, yet she's flexible enough to weather any storm. She listens to her inner voice. She has the wisdom to recognize what is good for her and allow it into her life. She also has the ability to reject anything that will not work for her.

The goal of this book is to explore ways that a woman can cultivate her unique presence and begin to counteract her cultural conditioning. Although these comments are business oriented, many of the ideas presented here are useful in other situations. You may find that changes made to improve your work environment will generalize into other areas of your life. Say you have a self-esteem problem that results in poor performance in a sales position. If you work to enhance your self-esteem to turn around your job performance, the improved self-esteem will manifest in other aspects of your life because this is a significant life enhancement.

It is important to note that this book is not suggesting that women should become more like men. Women have unique strengths and the effort to be just like a man would undermine those strengths. There are times and situations, however, in which knowledge of cultural conditioning and gender issues is helpful for women to achieve a desired outcome. There is always the opportunity to choose your actions and therefore, each reader has a choice whether or not to use this information. What is really important is having the knowledge and then making the decision.

Chapter One begins by taking a brief look at the lives of some notable Willow Women and discussing their common traits. Next, you'll have the opportunity to explore where you are on the Shrinking Violet/Willow Woman continuum. After this self-knowledge is attained, the topic of modifying your presence will be discussed.

Take the time to enjoy this process. It will not happen overnight. You may be discouraged at times, but you can change. The decision to make changes in your life is a powerful one. When working with ways of responding to certain situations, you will find that many times your responses are the result of well-worn behaviors. The beauty in life is that undesirable habits can be broken and replaced with beneficial habits. Change is work. The path to change may seem long and hopeless at times, but in the end, you, like many women, will find your unique voice and presence. You can evolve from a Shrinking Violet to a Willow Woman!

Book content copyright 2000 by Maria Richard. All rights reserved.

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