president cory aquino

#RBF. I had to look up the hashtag when I first saw it. What could it possibly mean? Resting Bitch Face. I couldn’t believe people would ‘critique’ someone’s resting face. But it wasn’t just any resting face. The face belonged to a woman. In particular, a woman who dared to lead.

In the United States, the public reaction to women in leadership tends to be polarized. Let’s take a corporate example: Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook. People either love her or hate her. The reasons vary. When you ask women, one group likes her because of how empowering she is to women and girls. Another group hates her because they think she’s a bad mother and disempowers women who don’t work outside the home. And then they tear apart her fashion, her tone, her hair. This is what’s public. One can only imagine what’s inside people’s heads.

In college, I was the founder and president of a club on campus. I led the club for a year and it was growing. To my surprise, during a leadership meeting, one of the club officers said he didn’t trust my leadership, that he would prefer it if a different officer (white male) became the president. His reasons? I couldn’t remember all of them but one reason was that I was too stylish – I wore hats –  and therefore couldn’t be trusted to lead.

It’s hard enough for a woman to lead, do we have to tear her apart when she does?

Growing up in the Philippines, women led companies, churches and the country. There’s a saying, “She has beauty, brains, and boys” that captures the cultural ideal. Beauty and brains go together to make a woman leader, and as a side benefit, she gets the boys. This is what parents tell their girls. In fact, the bias seems to be if a woman is beautiful, she’s also smart. Beautiful women are smart. Smart women are beautiful.

The question for me has never been, “Can a woman lead?” Instead I ask, “Does she want to lead?”

Being Both/And

As a woman who exercises leadership in my community, church and workplace, I have to constantly juggle many demands and priorities. I have to plan way ahead for summer camps every year knowing I will need to have my kid enrolled before all the spots are taken. I have an Excel spreadsheet with all the weeks of summer, the camps, camp hours, and costs. When my spouse or I travel, I have to block time on my work calendar for school pick-up and drop-off and expect to not get much done beyond regular work hours. When the school has parent/child meetings, I am the parent that makes it there barely on time due to my work schedule. I don’t volunteer at school much because that means taking time off work. Consequently, the other parents don’t really know me and tend to give me a judging look when I walk in with my plate of Lumpia for the school potluck. 

Being Better Than

In college, I majored in Business but switched to English Lit because I hated Math. Also being an immigrant, I subconsciously wanted to prove I could write, and not just write, but write better than most people in my class. You see, that’s one thing about being an ethnic minority. You can’t just be good. You have to be really good.

In the workplace, when I interview for a new role, I am aware that as an ethnic minority and a woman, I can’t just be good, or really good, I have to be better than. The unspoken biases are there from the moment I submit my resume and my name gives me away. Woman. Ethnic minority. How’s her communication? How’s her leadership? Can she stand up against The Man?

Being Human

I have been working for 20+ years but it wasn’t until last month I realized what I have contributed to all the relationships and teams I have been a part of. I make them more human. Through how I treat customers, I make the company more human. Through my hospitality, I make the workplace more human. Through my authentic relationships with my bosses, I make them more human.

But making work more human is not top of mind. It is not really high on anyone’s agenda. They tell you in corporate America to align your priorities with that of the leaders of the organization. This is how you get visibility, you succeed, and get promoted.

As a Christian woman leader in technology, I have to ask myself every day, “Do I want to lead?” Like low-grade pain, I constantly feel the costs of leadership – scrutiny of my superficial appearance, need to be both/and, better than, and the lack of value for the things I bring to the table. Sometimes the low grade pain turns into a sharp shooting pain.  Do I still want to lead?

Let’s come up with a new hashtag for women in leadership. Something that captures our courage, beauty, mind, heart, and abilities. Not in a cheesy way, but in a way that kicks ass. That way, more of us will want to lead. Because it’s not a question of can we lead, it’s whether or not we want to. 


Photo: Corazon Aquino who later became president