Note: Kendall College of Art and Design was founded in 1928 in Grand Rapids, MI, by Helen Kendall, widow of David Wolcott Kendall, who was known as the dean of American furniture designers. In celebration of its 75th anniversary, and in honor of the vision of Helen Kendall, the college presented a lecture and discussion series entitled "Gender and Leadership." The following article is adapted from a presentation given by the author as part of that series.
When Dr. Oliver Evans, president of Kendall College, first asked me if I would speak on the subject of gender and leadership I agreed enthusiastically because I was then reading books on leadership with my management group. But after some thought, I came to feel a bit hesitant, not knowing what I'd really want to say about the issue of gender. When it comes to accomplishing what I want, I have never really paid too much attention to the fact that I was female. I grew up riding very large horses on the show jumping circuit, where I regularly competed at top levels against men. This is one of the few sports where men and women truly are equal. Our Olympic equestrian team is made up of both men and women, so competing on an equal basis has always been normal for me.
But then I thought back to my college days and remembered how I imagined the male- dominated world would be when I entered the workforce after graduating. I remember thinking for the first time that I might not be on equal footing out there. It intimidated me, and it also infuriated me. I attended Wofford College, a Methodist school in Spartanburg, SC, that was all-male until seven years before I enrolled, which may have had something to do with my perspective. However, while I was at Wofford I befriended two extraordinary women. One was Elizabeth Patterson. She was a Democratic Congresswoman from South Carolina and a real lady as well. She married a man who graduated from Wofford, managed to have children and educate them, and still pursue a very powerful career. She let me know that as tough as it seemed, the world outside of college did not have to be as male dominated or patriarchal as it looked. She assured me that there was plenty of room for women to make contributions in the real world.
I was also greatly influenced by my professor of art history, Dr. Constance Antonsen, who was a woman of great accomplishment. She spoke seven languages fluently, including ancient Sanskrit. She was an Olympic fencer and the coach of our fencing team. She had been an agent for the CIA, and she was the head of the Republican League of Women Voters.
I was Dr. Antonsen's personal assistant and helped prepare her lectures. I remember her gliding gracefully into her office wearing sweat pants after coaching the fencing team and then quickly changing, in her closet, into a very smart suit and four-inch sling-back Yves St. Laurent heels—before entering the classroom to teach medieval sculpture.
Both these women inspired me with their strength and their grace. They taught me that being a powerful woman doesn't mean one has to sacrifice being a mother or being a lady.
In the beginning
The road for women in leadership positions throughout history has not always been paved or easy, but the exceptional women who have trod this road over the centuries have made it smoother for us today.
When I ponder the issue of men, women and power, I always hear James Brown in the background singing, "It's a Man's Man's World." Well, in the beginning it wasn't really that way. According to one of my favorite authors in anthropology, Helen Fisher, who wrote The First Sex: The Natural Talents of Women and How They Are Changing the World1, ancestral woman was more or less equal to man. Fisher says that different but equal was the order of the primordial day. While men hunted, women gathered, bartered and established social connections. They were on equal ground in the original two-income system. Then something came along that would destroy this system and destroy the balance of power—the invention of the plow, in the fourth millennium B.C. With the plow and the domestication of animals, men became the primary producers and soon came to own the land that they worked. The agrarian culture of men left very little place for women except to bear children. This is when women became "the second sex," to borrow Simone de Beauvoir's phrase.
In about 1750 B.C., the legal codes of ancient Babylon classified women as chattels of men. This stereotype persisted for centuries, although there were many cunning and ambitions exceptions.
Stories of women in power and nontraditional roles also date to the time before Christ. There are legends of Amazons, women warriors of the ancient world, and reports from European explorers in the 18th and 19th centuries of women warriors in Africa.
As a girl of 17, Joan of Arc led a French army against the Burgundians to see that King Charles VII was properly consecrated. She was regarded as a mediocre warrior by her male compatriots, but she was chosen to lead because of her great conviction. That quality, the ability to inspire and the confidence to lead regardless of gender, are required for success in today's world as well.
Elizabeth I ascended to the throne of England at the age of 25 in 1558. There is a great book on her leadership style by Alan Axelrod called Elizabeth I, CEO: Strategic Lessons from the Leader Who Built an Empire2. Axelrod points to her ability to persuade, to inspire, to listen, to surround herself with good advisors and to set priorities. Elizabeth turned England from an unhappy realm to a prosperous kingdom in a golden age. She was arguably the greatest monarch to rule England, and she did so against great adversity, another quality of successful leadership.
By the early 20th century, women generally still did not enter the workplace, but were expected to stay home and raise children. (This, by the way, is one of the toughest and most important jobs on the planet. I don't know any woman who has worked harder than my own mother in raising my family.) But during World War II, women were recruited to join the workforce in numbers never seen before, and the image of "Rosie the riveter" became their symbol, her slogan being, "We can do it."
Kindel Furniture had its own version of Rosie. During the war, Kindel produced wooden glider wings, and women were recruited to work in our factory for the first time. This was a period of liberation, but when the troops came home, these women put down their tools and went back home to clean house, cook dinner and tend to the great task of raising a family.
Thus began the postwar baby boom. Nearly 70 million Americans were born between 1946 and 1964. While women remained at home, many young women also began attending college in increasing numbers during this period. These women, however, seldom entered the workplace after graduating. The running of the household was the woman's responsibility, while the man "brought home the bacon." This is what the author Nancy Friday, in her book The Power of Beauty: Men, Women and Sex Appeal Since Feminism3, calls the patriarchal deal: the man as provider and the woman as homemaker.
A major social factor up to and during the baby boom is how the lack of birth control affected the lives of men and women. In some states during this period birth control of any kind was still illegal. The pressure of having a happy marriage along with a healthy sex life combined with almost continuous pregnancy was stressful for both men and women. The patriarchal deal, which was not really designed by men to begin with, was perpetuated by the fact that families could not plan pregnancies. However, as acceptance of birth control widened, women were able to make choices about their careers and they were actually able to use their educations. What birth control did for the advancement of women in the workplace cannot be overstated.
The 1960s saw the sexual revolution—brought on in part by the pill; it was also the time in which the women's movement gained real momentum. I think the women's movement tended to isolate women from men. Some women felt compelled to choose between the love of men and the new feminist sisterhood. In Betty Friedan's book, The Feminine Mystique4, which is the first manual of feminism, the author portrays men not as the enemy, but as victims of the same system. The patriarchal deal was not healthy for either gender. Forty years later, I think that many of the differences between the sexes have diminished and that we can and should now enjoy all that is different between us.
Good ol' boys and new women
As far as I know, I am one of only four female presidents of furniture manufacturing companies. In the Carolinas, the center of the residential furniture industry, they refer to furniture executives as "good ol' boys" or the "bubba network." This is more factual than derogatory. Yet it is ironic that while women make most of the decisions when it comes to decorating the home, almost all the top managers of furniture companies are men. This is something I haven't paid a lot of attention to when it comes to my management style. When I came to Kindel, I was highly aware of the "bubba network," my father having been in the business all my life. I was concerned about how I would fit into the industry, but much to my surprise and relief, I found many strong women already in management at Kindel and in leadership positions.
The reason we have such an unusual number of women in these positions is not because the company favors women, but because it favors the right people for the right jobs. We received an award in 1996 from The Women's Resource Center citing the number of women who hold leadership positions at Kindel. Of our 20 management positions, eight are held by women. An important thing to remember about leadership is that it takes place at many levels, not just at the top, although the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that women make up 40 percent of middle management in America and the rest of the industrialized world. So I think that it will be easier and easier for us to get to the top as we fill that well of middle management.
Over one third of our production workforce at Kindel are women, and 30 percent of those are single mothers, the superwomen. Real leadership requires teamwork, and I have a group of very talented women in leadership positions on my team at Kindel, including managers and forewomen in cutting and sewing, touchup and trim, cabinetry and inspection, human resources, purchasing, executive assistant, sales and marketing, customer service, information technology and data processing, and advertising and public relations. In addition, one of our designers and four of our master carvers are women.
The common thread with all of these women is their passion for quality, their attention to detail, their ability to organize information and to follow through. Of course, these are all leadership qualities required for success whether one is male or female. After all my years in a predominately male industry, I think gender mania is now passé. Today we need to focus on cultivating leadership skills in both men and women for the greater good of an organization and, for that matter, the home. Men and women are undeniably different, but both sexes are equally capable of leadership.
The qualities of leadership
There is an excellent book that was required reading for my management—Execution5 by Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan. The lessons in this book seem pretty simple, but unless they are really internalized, you can't be effective in any position. The subtitle to this book is The Discipline of Getting Things Done, and that is a discipline all successful leaders have. Here is a summary of the characteristics Bossidy and Charan cite as key to leadership:
Conviction. This quality comes from deep passion for what you are doing, coupled with the belief that you can achieve your goals. Conviction provides the courage to overcome adversity, and it inspires others. Joan of Arc had the quality of conviction. So do Carly Fiorina, Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm and the women at Kindel.
The ability to inspire. All great leaders have the ability to inspire. The reason I majored in art history and philosophy was because I was inspired by my professors. I intended to get a degree in business or economics, one I could use to get a job. Instead, I got two relatively unmarketable degrees, but I did it because these professors inspired me.
Communication. This is an area where I think women have a subtle advantage. In The First Sex, Fisher writes that, according to studies, women excel at reading a person's emotions from their body language and facial expressions, compared to men. Also, women are skilled at communicating socially and build effective networks. Traditionally we send the greeting and thank you cards, throw the parties and maintain the social ties. Women seem to maintain a broader spectrum of communication.
Peter Drucker, possibly America's greatest business philosopher, claims that the greatest asset of any enterprise is its people, and that is why team building is so important. This is good news for women, if we have more natural skills in reading and nurturing people.
Set clear goals and priorities. This is an essential part of organizing tasks. You should never have more than a few priorities at a time, because managing them becomes unwieldy and nothing gets done. I am always reminding my managers that not everything can come first. Setting priorities is really about time management.
Follow through. To me, this is the biggest one of all. Finish what you start. The discipline to follow through is critical to our education, our careers and the work we do for our customers.
Accountability. Leaders must be honest enough to account for their mistakes. When failure to perform goes unaccounted for, the whole team suffers, and good leaders know that being accountable for their own performance is a winning strategy for the whole team.
Expanding capabilities. Stretching your limits and expanding your capabilities into other areas makes you a more valuable team player in any situation. The more diverse your talent and experience, the greater contribution you can make in any environment.
Know yourself. Self-discovery requires emotional fortitude and strength. Leaders must know what they are good at and what they are not good at. This requires some soul searching. Self-awareness helps you surround yourself with the right people, those who know what you don't and can do what you can't. Also, the emotional strength that comes from knowing ourselves enables us to make tough decisions, take criticism, learn from our mistakes, and understand what we are not capable of. A huge part of knowing who we are is knowing who we are not.
Self-confidence. I mean the kind of self-confidence that comes from knowing your stuff. When knowledge is combined with all these other qualities, an enduring leader emerges. We only gain knowledge through discipline and real curiosity.
Getting on with the future
These are only a few qualities that make a leader successful. Obviously men and women can develop these qualities equally.
In my personal experience, I have found other qualities consistently among women. In the furniture industry, I have found that women are great contributors of detail and to the way things look. Women have been the primary domesticators of the world and have done so through the attention to detail and concern for the appearance of things. The fine and decorative arts are only enhanced by the contributions of women.
We are also the ultimate consumers. The ancient Roman poet Ovid once said, "Women are always buying something." That has not been lost on the job market, where women occupy 75 percent of retail sales positions. We know how to read people. And when it comes to shopping, we know our stuff. Of course, I am not arguing that women only belong in interior design and retail sales. On the contrary, we have contributions to make in the industries that create and cater to these positions, as evidenced by my posse of women at Kindel.
One of the biggest challenges women still face today is that of balancing work and family. I cannot stress enough the importance of running a family. The act of giving birth is unique to women, and the responsibility of properly raising children determines the course of the future.
Many women have experienced burnout or depression due to the superwoman complex—the conviction that they have to do it all. I hope we have reached a point in time when this superwoman myth is being shattered. I see women and men working together now with the knowledge that nobody, not men or women, can do it all alone. I believe and hope that the culture of team building that is growing in the workplace is spilling into the home. This will benefit women with children. Also, many women in high-powered positions have very supportive husbands who take over or contribute to raising children. But whether a woman with a family enters the workforce through choice or necessity, she should try to find a company that allows her the flexibility required to keep her family as her top priority. I believe that companies are becoming more aware of the contributions women make and are willing to be flexible when necessary.
I admonish men in leadership positions to accord the women's contributions their due respect. I am a firm believer that people can accomplish most of what they set out to do if they do so with conviction and discipline. While men and women are different in many ways, the common threads of leadership qualities can unite us in achieving great success together at home and in the workplace. And while we can do anything, none of us can do it alone.
And for both men and women, I think Nancy Friday said it best when she said, "Being truly liberated means being your own person."
Paula S. Fogarty is president of Kindel Furniture Co. in Grand Rapids, MI, a residential furniture manufacturer founded in 1901 that today specializes in exquisite and exact reproductions of classic historical furniture. She joined Kindel in 1987 and later, as vice president, marketing, opened foreign markets, developed several of Kindel's top collections, and created a contract furniture division. She is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wofford College and has studied at Yale and the Wharton School of Business. Fogarty sits on the board of directors of the David Wolcott Kendall Foundation.