As a feminist, and someone who teaches a course on Women in Management, Disney movies are not really my thing. I watched them growing up but knowing what I know now, the movies present some issues: the moms are always dead, teen marriage, wholly misogynistic plots, unrealistic portrayal of female bodies, Belle clearly suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. You get it. But recently my son convinced me to watch Encanto.
The movie started with what we expect from Disney. Wide-eyed, beautiful women; gorgeous scenery; magic; quirky family members; the usual. And then Luisa showed up. She has a magical gift of strength and can carry several donkeys at a time with zero effort. Luisa is amazing. Now, it’s not that Disney has never had a powerful female role, it’s just that they are usually the villains (The Queen of Hearts, Cruella, Ursula, The Evil Queen, Maleficent). Luisa is different. Luisa is relatable.
She’s a normal size woman with killer muscles (gasp!). Her family depends on her for way too much and she never complains. She’s a perfectionist, her worth is tied to her accomplishments, and she puts up a tough exterior. Luisa is basically every woman I know and she is burned out! So burned out that she has to sing about it. Her song, “Surface Pressure,” is spectacular. In it she laments that she has to keep up the front, be strong, and just do what needs to be done with zero complaints.
Pressure like a drip, drip, drip that’ll never stop.
Towards the end of the song, Luisa wonders what would happen if she could, “shake the crushing weight of expectations?” She considers what space that might open in her life. It turns out that Luisa and I both want answers to that question.
I asked over two hundred non-animated women a very similar question to Luisa’s (please note it is not often that your research questions are replicated in Disney lyrics) because I have been trying to understand a phenomenon I call “tightroping.” It is the idea that, in order to succeed, women need to constantly change, hide, or tamper down parts of ourselves to fit in at work and beyond. We are constantly (and often unconsciously) managing the expectations that other people put on us. It is time consuming and exhausting and, like Luisa, I want to shake those expectations and find success without having to tightrope.
When I asked women to consider what they could gain if they no longer engaged in tightroping, their responses floored me. Actual answers included: happiness, relaxation, time, and empowerment. Women said they would have freedom from their mental load, authenticity, opportunities for developing new skills, improved creativity, self-respect, and better mental health. One woman said that not having to worry about fitting in would make her whole. One simply responded: everything.
Pressure that’ll tip, tip, tip ’til you just go pop.
This is clearly an issue that needs to be addressed, so what’s the solution for Luisa and the rest of us? What should we do to stop tightroping? Short answer: Nothing. We aren’t the problem and we don’t need to fix anything. Like Luisa we are a bunch of tough ladies, but we are working in a system not designed for us to succeed.
Leaders need to realize the time and energy we are spending to “fit in” is at the expense of actually showcasing our talents. Organizations are missing out on us bringing all of our fabulous selves to work. And do you know what else they’re missing out on? Making more money! If we are able to be this amazing and productive while managing all of these ridiculous expectations, imagine what we could achieve when we didn’t have to spend our time tightroping?
If organizations want to eliminate tightroping and reap the benefits they need to do two things. First, they need to truly understand the women working with and for them. What skills, talents, and interests do their female employees have that would be useful in their roles? How can systems be created that reward women for no longer tightroping? What does that look like in this organization? Actually engaging with your female employees to understand the answers to these questions is key. To do it right takes time and compassion.
Second, everyone in the organization needs to understand that what may seem like no big deal is impacting every woman they work with. This isn’t about micro-aggressions or training on diversity, equity, and inclusion. This is about embracing empathy and human decency at work. No more excusing ridiculous and unprofessional behavior.
When someone makes a comment to a woman about what she is wearing, cracks a sexist joke, takes credit for her work, or talks over her it needs to be addressed immediately and in public. No more justifying bad behavior by saying, “Oh, that’s just how he is!” giving excuses, or having discussions behind closed doors about problematic behavior. Leaders need to create an environment where these things are publicly addressed. It’s not easy and it can definitely be awkward. But if nothing is done the message to us is loud and clear: keep on tightroping. Because the real you won’t be protected.
This type of change is hard, and it can be slow. Calling out bad behavior will ruffle a few feathers and altering reward systems is a serious undertaking. But if you fail to do so, and you run a business or manage people, then you are missing out on the full potential of your female employees and it’s your money and talent to lose.
Luisa sings that she moves mountains. That she’s as tough as the crust of the earth is. We all are. Release some of the surface pressure and see what happens.
This guest post was authored by Tara Ceranic Salinas
Tara Ceranic Salinas, PhD, Department Chair of Management, Law and Ethics. She is a Professor of Business Ethics at the Knauss School of Business at the University of San Diego.
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