By Anna Quindlen
I know what I don’t want for the future of women: I don’t want it to consist of the old familiar model. By its very nature women’s leadership has been about redefinition, while men’s leadership has been about maintaining the status quo. That’s how it works when one group has all the power and wants to keep it and another has none and wants some righteous parity. Take that dichotomy down the road most traveled, however, and what you could eventually wind up with is a new status quo, jealously protected by a power structure that includes female leaders working with the psychological equivalent of ties and wing tips.
That would be a tragic missed opportunity. The insiders have simply made a hash of things, from corporate malfeasance to a disconnected political system, and everybody knows it. It’s difficult to see that clearly from inside the endless loop of accepted custom. Insiders come with deeply ingrained assumptions and the inevitable sense of business as usual. Outsiders often bring clarity of vision, as well as a sense of discovery and innovation. Women are not the only ones capable of this. But the difficulties they’ve encountered while seeking representation and respect may provide the steel and strength needed to embrace innovation. You’re less wedded to the shape of the table if you haven’t been permitted to sit at it.
We find ourselves in a new era with an old problem. More than ever people yearn for someone worth following, someone interested in more than self-aggrandizement. Our world is filled with prominent women now, women who manage law firms and give out grants and run museums and oversee the Ivy League. Yet virtually all of them came of age, and came to power, with the institutional pushback that grows out of prejudice.
There’s been a fire in the belly that that pushback breeds, a willingness to step off that treadmill of custom. It’s created a new breed: the Inside Outsiders. Powerful, accomplished, yet among their male peers still in some essential way apart. Often you will hear them say, “I never expected to wind up here.” That’s been a good thing, and I hope it will continue among new generations of women whose expectations of position and privilege are more optimistic. For whatever reason, we women may be inclined to run things in a different way, at a time when a different way is badly needed.
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