Men and women behave very differently when they first enter a boardroom. The men identify the alpha person in the room, then position themselves in relation to the alpha. Every man will take a seat indicative of his perceived rank in the hierarchy.
Once the meeting begins, rank is confirmed by who speaks the most quickly and confidently. Extroverts and quick processors have an edge. Introverts and slow processors are at a disadvantage.
Women are expected to find their place in this patriarchal ranking system. That’s why there are books targeted to women with titles like, Lean In and, Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office. If they refuse to play by the rules, the women are summarily dismissed.
Other even more unsavory determinations are also made when men first walk into a room. If they are straight males, they are inclined to sexualize females. There are exceptions. Men do not sexualize alpha females. In fact, they run in the opposite direction. Castration anxiety is real. If the woman is not an alpha, however, the men will be inclined to sexualize her at the same time as they rank the woman in the power hierarchy.
It is important for males to acknowledge this reality, because if it is not acknowledged it can wreak havoc. If men had good role models and appropriate instruction in their formative years, they quickly stop themselves from sexualizing women, almost before they start. They have been made aware of these male tendencies and of their agency to refuse to empower them.
But those are some awfully big “ifs.” A lot of men did not have good role models or appropriate instruction. A lot of evangelical men had no instruction at all. They were taught to deny their sexuality, which leads to shame and an increased lack of ability to recognize when they are sexualizing females. It also leads to a lack of owning the fact that a man does indeed have agency when he is with a woman. He does not have to act on his impulses.
When both sexual attraction and agency are denied, what you end up with is the Billy Graham rule, also known as the Mike Pence rule, where a man refuses to be in a private meeting with a woman. What is not acknowledged is how this diminishes the humanity of the woman in favor of “protecting” the man. Talk about patriarchy!
There is something even more sinister. As a male, I spent most of my time with other powerful males. The narrative they told themselves was that they needed to avoid private meetings with women because, “there are a lot of women out there who want to bring down a powerful man.” Yeah. Right. I cannot tell you how often I heard that ridiculous narrative. A lot of evangelical males will go a long way to deny their fundamental sexuality.
Bill Hybels, the founding pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, comes to mind. What he did was so far outside the bounds of acceptable behavior that he should be suffering severe consequences. The last thing his church should be doing is trying to reconcile prematurely with the women he abused. What they should be doing is educating other male leaders about what is and what is not acceptable behavior.
I can’t help but wonder if things would have been different if Hybels had come to grips with his sexuality early in life. What if he had learned to acknowledge it, and control it, long before he gained the power that gave him so many opportunities to make inappropriate advances toward women? Unfortunately, if you deny the reality of your sexual impulses, it should come as no surprise when you deny the actions that result from those impulses.
Alpha males set the tone for how women will be treated. If an alpha male sexualizes women, the rest of the men are likely to follow suit. If an alpha male ignores women, the men will likewise follow suit. If you have any question about the power of an alpha male in a boardroom, you need look no further than press pool video of cabinet meetings in the current White House. It is frightening.
There are few places in my life in which I feel more upside down than in a boardroom. Are the men ignoring me because I am an alpha, or because I am an older woman, or both? I have no idea. But I can tell you with certainty that it annoys the hell out of me.
Watching everyone ranked and/or sexualized is disturbing. I think, “Oh please, dear God, tell me when I was a male I was not like that.” I know I did not sexualize women. I refused to do so. But when it came to the ranking system, I was more of a participant than I would like to admit.
There are so many difficult lessons I am learning. Hardly a day goes by that I do not find one more thing to grieve about my male life, and many of those discoveries are about power and patriarchy.
How do we move from a system of alpha leadership to a system of collaborative leadership? I am not sure. There are some of us who have moved toward a Trinitarian-inspired leadership model, but I’m not kidding myself. The alphas still carry a lot of weight. But the first step toward fixing a problem is recognizing its existence. And oh my, am I recognizing its existence!