Channeling your Inner Olivia Pope (part 3): Women leaders and the double bind

Women in leadership face unique challenges in light of gender stereotypes, and these issues are further complicated if you are a woman of color

In my first two installments of this series, I used the television program “Scandal” as a springboard to share my perspective and suggest best practices for in-house and outside counsel whose company or client finds itself in the middle of a scandal. The television series is, after all, based upon a real person—Judy Smith—who is the founder and president of one of the leading strategic and crisis communication firms in the world. 

Smith is a highly sought after counselor and advisor for Fortune 500 companies, entertainment and sports figures, and heads of state. She is a successful, fearless leader in her field and enjoys a wide-ranging and trailblazing career. This third and final installment will utilize “Scandal” to address the unique challenges for women in leadership in light of gender stereotypes and the overlay of race, ethnicity and culture.   

Gender, race, and leadership are usually handled very subtly on “Scandal.” How many of you remember the scene in season 2, episode 16 in which Olivia Pope is retained by a woman CEO (married with two children) who is accused of having an affair with the President’s Supreme Court nominee?  When Olivia and Abby arrive at the client’s home, the client looks at Abby and assumes she is “The revered fixer Olivia Pope,” the subtext being that she assumed Olivia would be Caucasian and not black because of her accomplishments and accolades. There are other times when all subtlety is tossed aside, such as the beginning of season 3 where Papa Pope is lecturing Olivia about her affair with Fitz and tells her, “You have to be twice as good as them to get half of what they have”—an oft-quoted statement within the black community about the impact of race on advancement and achievement. Issues of gender were addressed in Shonda Rhimes’ storyline involving Congresswoman Josie Marcus’ bid to be the first woman presidential nominee. Remember the back and forth between Congresswoman Josie Marcus and interviewer James Novak, in which the Congresswoman tackles the stereotypes regarding women in politics after seeing the “fake commercial” done by the OPA team: 

“It’s not just Governor Reston speaking in code about gender; it’s everyone, yourself included…. [Y]ou call[] me a ‘real-life Cinderella story’. It reminds people that I’m a woman without using the word. For you, it’s an angle, I get that, and I’m sure you think it’s innocuous, but guess what, it’s not….You’re promoting stereotypes, James. You’re advancing this idea that women are weaker than men. You’re playing right into the hands of Reston and into the hands of every other imbecile who thinks a woman isn’t fit to be commander-in-chief.”

Some practical advice that was given to me:

1) Focus on developing individual relationships so that people know you both personally and professionally and invest time, energy, and effort in deepening those individual personal connections;

As a practical matter, what can be done? One step is to redefine what it means to lead and the attributes of a leader. Ely has provided a potential definition for leadership described above. Another step is to be aware of the issue and act upon that increased awareness.

Question your assumptions and impressions, encourage others to do the same, and make a commitment to not follow the path of least resistance. Ask yourself, would I have a negative impression of this person or assume the worst about this person if “she” were a “he” and then ask yourself why or why not? Have you worked with a “he” who exhibited similar attributes as the “she” and how did you and your colleagues respond to him?  If you responded differently to the “she,” ask yourself why? A third step is to use your sphere of influence to actively recruit, hire, advance and promote talented women leaders not because they are women, but because they are excellent at what they do. Our presence in higher numbers “at the table” helps to shift long-standing cultural paradigms—slowly, but surely.  

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Cari K. Dawson

Cari K. Dawson is the chair of the Class Action Practice Team at Alston & Bird LLP. She concentrates her practice on complex litigation matters,...

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