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  • Writer's pictureSharon Beck-Doran

Brighter Together: The Feminist Legacy of My Grandma Beck

When I think of the feminist movement, I don’t think of burning bras or bored housewives. I think of my grandma Beck who supported her family and by doing so blazed a trail for women leaders of the future.

Like me, Grandma married later in life. Born in 1911, she went to college and had a degree in mathematics. She was a career woman—smart, talented and I suspect she enjoyed earning a living. Her husband pastored a small church in rural Oklahoma and they had to work together to make ends meet.

Sixteen years into married life, my grandpa had a heart attack and left her as the sole provider for her mother and two teenage boys.

By the time my grandma retired she was supervising the records department at Tinker Air Force Base. She was well respected and admired. I have no doubt that she was an excellent leader.

I feel like now is a great time to be a woman. Not that we’ve overcome every obstacle, but that there are more opportunities than ever before. The messaging in our culture is overall affirming. While there is certainly a lot of work to be done, especially for women of color, we have made a lot of progress.

I remember the first time someone called me “boss.” It was the weirdest feeling. Tom Baker was a foot taller and 10 years older than me. People would often assume he was actually my boss, which we both found funny.

I was in good company. The 2022 Women in the Workplace Study conducted by and McKinsey & Company found that “Women leaders are 2X as likely as men leaders to be mistaken for someone more junior.”[1]

The corporate world has figured out that women make excellent leaders. Not that we are better than men, but that eliminating half your workforce from consideration for leadership positions hurts the business.

When I worked for Home Depot, they intentionally developed female leaders. At first it was all very home grown. They would pull all of the female supervisors, assistant managers, high potential associates, etc. out of the store for a day. We would do some networking and the two female store managers in the district would give a speech about how we should all pursue promotions.

The second year our women in leadership meeting took place, one of the store managers, Becky, gave a presentation that I guess was titled, “Women Do It Better.” Becky explained that when she first started no one wanted to promote women. Eventually she proved that women do it better. They are more organized than men. Women are better at communication and understand store appearance better than men. The list went on and on. Each sentence punctuated by the phrase, “Women do it better.”

This made me very angry. I wrote to HR that if a man were to say even one of those sentences like, “Men understand store appearance better than women,” he would be severely reprimanded. We should be encouraging women to recognize their unique skills and contributions to the workforce. The fact that we are less likely to pursue a leadership role is the issue, not asserting our gender’s superiority. That’s trading one kind of discrimination for another.

Eventually, Home Depot realized that women’s empowerment wasn’t just for women. I was a little bitter after Becky’s speech, so I was “unavailable” for the next few women in leadership events. A few years later when I showed up, it was a completely different environment. By that time the divisional president was a woman. She shared her story of growth with the company. It was inspiring. But we also heard from our Regional VP, a man, who explained how important women are to the workforce. There was an effort to include both men and women in the conversation. There was never a sense of one of us is better than the other. The message was clear: the business does better when we work together.

I think there’s an unspoken assumption in our culture that we should promote diversity because it’s fair. Everyone deserves a chance. We don’t want women and people of color to feel left out or like they have been overlooked.

Listen, I worked for a big corporation for a long time and they don’t gave a shit about people’s feelings. While PR, compliance and employee retention are all top priorities, they are priorities because they drive the company’s bottom line. The most important measurement is profitability. For good reason, if the business isn’t profitable, eventually there is no business and no employees with feelings to care about. Corporate America learned not too long ago that a diverse workforce and specifically a diverse leadership team makes companies more profitable and productive.

Despite concerted efforts at equality, women leaders are still underrepresented at every level. While they make up 48% of the work force, they make up only 26% of the C-Suite (up 6% from 2017). The article referenced below lists several reasons for this like “microaggressions that undermine their authority and signal that it will be harder for them to advance—such as having colleagues question their judgment or imply that they aren’t qualified for their jobs.”

Yep, this outfit is all wrong!

Um yeah, I’ve been there. Like the suggestion that I was promoted to District Pro Account Manager because I was a good looking female. Thank you? I had worked with contractors long enough by that time, I knew I was well qualified. But it was still annoying. Or like my boss telling me in an annual review that a district manager said that, “compared to Christine, you don’t really dress for your job.” First of all, Christine and I had to call each other ahead of group meetings just to make sure we didn’t wear the same blouse from Maurice’s. Second, can you imagine a manager saying the same thing to a man? “You know Jack, compared to George, you really don’t dress for your job.”

Now, the truth is, I wasn’t in the right job for me. But that had nothing to do with my gender, my looks or my outfits. The same boss ripped me a new one for being a little drowsy in a very boring business meeting (among other things). I didn’t care for his delivery, the obvious fact that he was very angry with me, but his feedback was warranted. That’s how I learned I wasn’t excited to be in outside sales. Also that I shouldn’t stay out late with a guy I met on Tinder the night before boring business meetings.

He looks big and bad, right? This youngin' wasn't even out of high school.

My husband, Adam, experienced similar challenges as a police officer. No one commented on his outfits, but they definitely judged him for the way he looked. The guys who were on the favorites list in line for promotion usually looked or acted something like Rambo—big, “manly” and a little dumb. I am entirely biased, but quite certain that despite the fact that my husband is 5’8”, he can handle himself in a fight. He knows how to clear a building and shoot a gun just as well or better than anyone. He also used good judgement, which sometimes meant he didn’t go into dangerous situations with guns blazing—an unpopular tactic with Rambo.

I would definitely call this hottie!

Adam had a particular skillset. He was trained in crisis intervention. Given the number of domestic violence and mental health calls, I don’t understand why this isn’t standard for every police officer. He was also a hostage negotiator. When someone locked themselves in the bathroom with a weapon and threatened to kill themselves, he was the one they called. In this role, he saved countless lives.

Meanwhile, Rambo accidentally discharged his rifle while cleaning it in the police station. He also wrecked his car on a light pole in an empty parking lot. Rambo got promoted and Adam was passed over.

What does a person do when they’ve been denied advancement opportunities time and time again? I can tell you what Adam did. He changed careers and started his own business. It certainly wasn’t an easy process, but we worked together to make it happen. Now he makes more money, sets his own schedule and wears much better clothes to work.

I know many women who have become successful entrepreneurs. They got tired of bad bosses and decided to be their own boss. It takes a lot of courage and hard work, but the rewards can be life changing.

Most of us can only see ourselves in the same place we’ve always been. Sometimes, especially as women, we need a friend, a boss or a coworker to tell us, “Hey, I think you’d be great at…” We get hung up on lack of qualifications and fear of a whole list of things. We stay where we are, not because we love where we’re at, but because we don’t have the courage to imagine ourselves doing something more. The comfort of a familiar unhappiness feels safer than the risk that change might offer something better.

The professional world has figured out that when men and women work together, good things happen. I can tell you from personal experience this is true. I’ve worked with all women, and I’ve been the only woman on the team. By far the best and most productive working environments had a balance of both men and women.

We have done well teaching this generation of young women that they are capable. I just hope that we are able to tell young men the same thing. Really, there is much to be celebrated in our partnerships with each other.

So what does this have to do with faith? For many of us, the church and even our culture at large has given us many ideas about men and women. Christianity is more diverse than we realize, certainly more so than the marketing teams at Mardel portray. While groups like the United Methodist and Episcopal Churches have embraced women leaders, many of the largest and most influential, like the Southern Baptist Convention still deny a woman’s ability to have any leadership authority.

If God has given both genders with the skills and gifts of leadership, why would the church discourage women from expressing those gifts? God certainly doesn’t seem to be limited to only working with men.

I continue to read through Kristen Kobe Du Mez’s book Jesus and John Wayne. I am trying to understand why Evangelicals had such a strong reaction to the feminist movement. I asked my dad. He said it was just because the Baptists didn’t believe women should be allowed to be pastors. Surely there must be more to it.

I’m tempted to think that it was motivated by men’s desire to hold onto power and preserve the patriarchy. Except some of the most vocal opponents to feminism were women. Anyone who was alive in the 50s, 60s or 70s and would like to add their thoughts on this, please feel free to reach out.

Nonetheless, this reaction by popular evangelical culture in the US to the feminist movement has far reaching consequences. To some, the impact is minimal. To others it has destroyed relationships, contributed to sexual abuse and left long lasting damage. I’m sorry to say the patriarchy is far from dead. Many congregations continue to hold tightly to these ideals, often unaware of the danger they pose for the women they intend to protect.

More than anything I want us to be able to come together. Contrary to pop culture, we aren’t from different planets. We may dress boys in blue and girls in pink, but really, we aren’t so very far apart. Both men and women tend to live into the expectations that are given to us, both high and low.

I believe that God made us for much more than the one-size-fits-most boxes we have been given. We are human beings, made in the image of God and capable of great things. It’s not just a message for women’s empowerment. It’s a message for all of us.

I invite you to imagine something bigger for yourself and for the people in your life. Bigger takes courage. May you be brave enough to pursue it.

Next week I’ll dive into some of the church’s teaching on gender roles and talk about how they may impact our relationships.

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1 Comment

Jan 13, 2023

Nicely written Sharon. Thank you for taking on these tough subjects head on! You are addressing many things that have influenced my decision not too participate in churches for many years. It’s good to see a dIscussion.

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