The unexpected suicide of prominent designer Kate Spade has shed light on the sometimes unequal pressures faced by women in leadership and the struggle for mothers to "have it all."
Fans and fashion insiders reacted with shock Tuesday when news broke of Spade's death. The surprise wasn’t just rooted in the fact that they knew little-to-nothing about her possible mental health struggles, but also because Spade seemed to evoke the common misconception that wealth, success, and fame somehow preclude someone from emotional suffering.
In many cases, it boils down to the societal expectation for women to be perfect, said Dr. Zainab Delawalla, a licensed clinical psychologist who often works with high-achieving women in executive roles. “Men are allowed flaws. Their high status can even make a flaw look like an asset. Women do not have that privilege — and are scrutinized even more.”
“A male boss with alcoholism or a problem with anger is more palatable than a woman with depression,” said Delawalla. "And women are twice as likely than men to have depression.”
“One of the hard parts about being a female CEO is that there are just so few of them in number — so people are watching you and scrutinizing your choices about not only leading the company, but yourself and your family,” said Catherine Shea, assistant professor of organizational behavior and theory at the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University.
“As a visible minority, people use what you do to generalize what all women do," she told NBC News. "Your decisions are not idiosyncratic to you, but used to judge half the world’s population. Having to represent other women — that’s a lot of pressure.”
Speaking from experience is Mandela SH Dixon, founder and CEO of Founder Gym, an online training center for tech startup founders.
“As a woman of color who founded a company, I see a lot of pressure in the tech world that isn’t there for a white or Asian man, who make up the majority of tech CEOs,” said Dixon. “You get pushed up to being this kind of golden child who’s representing an identity, when you already have enormous pressure to build something. On top of that, you’re navigating this space knowing that most people you're engaging with at a high level probably don't think you deserve to be there or think you will make it.”
Dixon sees a lot of women founders struggling to know they’re doing enough — even when they’re doing more than their male peers.
“Often we see female founders applying [with Founder Gym] who do not realize that they’re further along than their male counterparts,” said Dixon. “They may need a confidence booster, whereas men, even when they’re not as far along as the women, tend to feel like they’re ready to go and will figure it all out later.”
Dixon has also observed that men tend to be more ready and willing to fail than women.
“Because their network is with other men who already know that failure is part of the process, it’s not as detrimental to them to make a mistake,” said Dixon. “They know you just keep going. With under-represented founders they do not come from the same networks and by consequence do not have the same psychological safety net. It’s important to normalize that when you sign up as a CEO your path will be riddled with failure. But women often don't feel safe to be vulnerable.”
Women can struggle with underlings "not taking them as a legitimate boss and questioning their decisions, or talking down to them in a certain way, more so than they may with a male boss,” said Delawalla. “On top of those struggles, they feel they can't express this because they fear they will be seen as over emotional. When it comes to traditionally male jobs like heading a company, you have to lose your femininity to some degree. You can't be perceived as emotional or soft yet you also have to have certain feminine traits. It’s a hard line to straddle.”
"When it comes to traditionally male jobs like heading a company, you have to lose your femininity to some degree. You can't be perceived as emotional or soft yet you also have to have certain feminine traits. It’s a hard line to straddle.”
Shea refers to this balance as “walking a narrow tightrope” where you have to “show you’re competent but also be warm; aggressive and decisive but also nurturing and nice,” said Shea. “Is she dressing well? Does she spend time with her family? Is she attractive? These are all areas where men get a free pass.”
These deeply systemic prejudices will die hard, but both one major change can help make progress: more women in positions of power.
As of right now, we seem to be regressing. Only 24 of the CEOs leading the companies that made the 2018 Fortune 500 list were women, down from 2017’s record-breaking number of 32.
“We need more female CEOs so we can start seeing diversity within women, so that we can know that not all women do X, Y or Z. There are different prototypes,” said Shea. “I think the biggest problem is women get over-mentored and under-sponsored in the workplace. [Higher ups] love to giver her advice but not to push her forward.”