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Women in Leadership

Not long ago I had the pleasure of speaking to a large group of business women, all of whom were in leadership roles. In my talk I invited the audience to come with me to a jazz gig, and to imagine the scene as we entered the club and wove our way through the crowd to get to our table.

I asked them to see the jazz quartet up on the small stage – pianist, bassist, drummer and saxophonist – playing sweet, swinging music.

I talked about how the musicians reach peak performance because of soft skills such as communication, trust and teamwork.

And as I described the process of improvisation I suggested that the audience close their eyes…

get a clear picture of the quartet in their mind’s eye,

relax into the vibe of the club,

and enjoy the groove of the music.

I asked them to watch how the musicians were fully engaged, how they worked together and listened closely to each other, while each player was simultaneously expressing themselves.

Then I asked the audience the question: “How many players in your imaginary jazz group are women?”

I watched as everyone in the audience

grimaced with internal embarrassment.


The response to my question was typical, and in no way reflects upon this particular audience. However, the context of the talk highlighted the depth of these unconscious biases, and how they trip us up, even when we are fully aware of their existence and their destructive impact.

It was a reminder that if we tell girls “you can do anything you choose”, then we do them a disservice; we’re giving them a glib platitude rather than the less palatable, more complex truth.

Unless girls know the extent of biases – their own and those of others – they’ll be ill-prepared for reality.

And the biases will continue to hold sway.

It’s hard to be eternally vigilant.

But, as they say, that’s the price of liberty.


p.s. How many women would there have been in your group?


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