What does Authority Look Like?

What does authority look like?

Answer: it depends.

If you are a white man, you don’t have to ask what authority looks like, you just have to look in the mirror; it looks like you. When someone says CEO, Fortune 500 business leader, Chief Operating Officer, President, more often than not, people assume a white male body.  Could be young (brilliant WizKid), could be old (wise elder statesman)— it doesn’t matter; if you are white and male you do not need any external trappings of authority to convey that you are the one in charge. You walk into the room, and people assume it’s you.

For women, it’s another story. If a woman, not already known to the group, walks into a business meeting, she is likely to be taken for the administrative assistant, and asked to bring coffee.  Even if she is chairing a meeting, it is likely that she will be talked over, and that someone else will get the credit for her idea. She might even be openly belittled, or dismissed.

A woman in leadership is an anomaly–in some situations a unicorn–and she often has to take significant, deliberate steps to prove herself, whereas a man walks in with the benefit of the doubt right away. For a woman, everything about her appearance matters: every word she says, every show of emotion–she is judged on all of it, and her credibility hangs in the balance.

And for women of color, this is exacerbated. Their bodies are doubly disadvantaged, and they often must go to extraordinary lengths to be seen as credible and authoritative.  Don’t take my word for it; ask the women you know.

I have been thinking about all of these things as the Vogue cover controversy has swirled around Anna Wintour and Kamala Harris. [Read the story here: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/11/style/kamala-harris-vogue.html?referringSource=articleShare]

I’ll be honest, I liked both covers, and I certainly understand Wintour’s argument that the image they chose did depict Vice President-elect Harris as more approachable. But good heavens: doesn’t Anna Wintour know that the last thing women in leadership need to be seen as is more approachable? [Well, it is Anna Wintour after all so maybe she doesn’t know that.] The fact is, the vast majority of the time, women do not have the problem of being seen as unapproachable and out of reach. Rather, everything about us is open to comment–easily accessible–and people feel free to take liberties. [Ask a pregnant woman]. People make extraordinarily inappropriate marks about our hairstyles, the length and color of our skirts, the size and fitness of our bodies [ask Serena Williams], and they don’t hesitate to put an arm around our shoulder, pat us on the back or squeeze our arm. Believe me when I say that the last thing the bad ass first female Vice President-elect of this country needs is to be seen more informally, more casually.  

There are going to be plenty of people who just by taking one look at her won’t feel like she’s up to the job, who will dismiss her as a token without even giving her a chance to prove herself, who have already written her off and are eagerly looking for opportunities to criticize her and tear her down. Women, and especially women of color, shouldn’t need the external trappings of authority to be taken seriously: the suit, the lapel pin, the authoritative posture, the title [this relates to the controversy around DR. Jill Biden, too]. But the reality is that even in 2021, we do. And Vogue took those away from her by using the other cover. And for that reason, it was a mistake.

I want to conclude this post by telling a story I know I have two told before, but it has been such an important lesson that it has stayed fresh for me all these years. I was at a professional leadership conference a long time ago for faculty members and others teaching in theological institutions, and we were talking about power in the classroom. And one [white male] professor said with confidence that it was important to him to “lay his power down” so that the students wouldn’t be intimidated and he could participate in the class as a co-learner. Make sense, doesn’t it? Well, I’m sure it did to some people, until a [young, female, white] professor spoke up and said, “I would like to have some power first before I have to lay it down.” Full stop.

Let’s let our new Vice President elect enjoy her power for awhile, before we ask her to lay it down in some casual photo shoot.

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