I was hooked just from reading the cover note, “All across the world, women are rising to incredible heights of leadership – in their communities, in their careers, and in public office. One of them will become America’s first woman president. This book is for them – and for all women seeking to cast off a man’s version of how a woman leader should act, talk and dress.” Wow, this is the book for me!
Jennifer Palmieri was Director of Communications for both Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign and Obama’s administration and in “Dear Madam President” (Dear Madam President) she uses the insight that she gained to write a letter to the first female President, giving her a heads-up on the issues she’ll face, and a guide to how to navigate the most powerful role in the world without having to warp in to some pseudo-alpha-male power figure. And she nails it. Boy, does she nail it.
Readers will know that I’ve become a bit more vocal about life as a mother and professional woman with a view to shining a light on some of the difficulties and inequalities that we face. I have rarely read a book which I related to so much. Palmieri’s key message to Madam President is to be her authentic self; to not hide the fact she is a woman, to not try to play the boys at their own game, but to rewrite the rules in which diversity, emotion and pausing for reflection are welcomed, rather than seen as weakness. It really got me thinking, especially the bit about not hiding emotion.
I’m a crier. I can’t help it. Put me in a situation that I have strong feelings about, and I cry. Despite all my best efforts to ‘man-up’, I have been in countless (non-client, I hasten to add) meetings discussing my career and the tears start running. It’s not because I’m sad, it’s because I care so much about the issue at hand. My frustration or fear or feeling of not being heard bubbles up inside and rather than erupting in some authoritative power display, it literally flows out, down my face in big, undignified salty tears.
I can remember, years ago, a difficult meeting. I had a very young baby and had been up all night breast-feeding. My body was knackered, I was mentally and physically tired from juggling family and a very stressful time at work. The meeting was to discuss my career progression. I admit I was quite surprised when one of the male attendees said, with no hint of irony, ‘no one understands the issues facing a working mother better than me.’ Really? How’s that then? Have you had to dash to the office bathroom to express milk before your boobs leak those two tell-tale patches through the blouse that you frantically ironed only the front of this morning because you were so busy trying to get everything and everyone in its or their right place before you settled down behind your desk? Did you have (at best) three hours’ sleep last night, with the majority of the night spent with a human being literally sucking the last bit of energy out of you, or wiping said human being’s crap off of its bum, several times? Oh no, wait, I’m sure you set your alarm for half an hour earlier than the rest of the household so you had enough time to undergo the ridiculous charade of applying photo-ready make-up (what even is that?!) and styling your hair so that you look suitably ‘professional’ (Palmieri speaks on this – why are women expected to dress in this way? Why have we adopted this uniform modelled on a male look and expectations? Why can’t we wear flat shoes and flat hair and not be judged?). And then you get to work – early – and perform at the highest of standards, advising on complex technical issues with knowledge and alacrity before racing home to begin the family tasks once more.
No? You didn’t do any of that? Well then, whilst I genuinely appreciate you acknowledging the fact that I have children, I guess maybe you don’t quite understand the issues facing a working mother as well as you may think, eh?
Anyway, I digress. The meeting started and so did the tears. Whilst I said what I wanted to say, I could see that my message wasn’t being heard through the water running down my face. I remember stopping and, in frustration, blurting, “just because I’m showing some emotion about this, and just because I’m not reacting the same way you would, doesn’t mean it’s wrong!” And I guess that’s it in a nutshell. When did displaying natural female behaviours in a work context become ‘wrong’? Does it mean I’m weak? In my defence, I’d say growing a living being for nine months in your body and then pushing it out is a pretty tough thing to do. Completing the 48-mile round-Jersey island walk – half of it with a broken toe – is also in my humble opinion, pretty tough. Speaking out about issues of inequality, cognisant of the fact that it may not enamour me with many is also, shall we say, ballsy. So, please, don’t suggest that because I happen to have a propensity for tears, I’m weak or not perfectly as capable as the next man.
Palmieri urges Madam President to remain true to her femininity as her intuition, her emotional reactions and the way she looks can all be assets. Just because men dominate positions of power, she says women shouldn’t have to replicate that style to succeed. Indeed, wouldn’t it be refreshing if a woman stood up (in her brogue flatties!) during a meeting at which she was struggling to be heard and called them out on it? Or recorded the meeting then played it back to them. How many times were the women’s voices heard, if there were any women in the meeting at all? If a woman spoke, was her opinion truly considered, or lost or overlooked? Palmieri speaks about Obama’s inclusive style – if you were in the room, he assumed you had a view and so wanted to hear it, whether you were male or female and he encouraged diversity of opinion. Contrast that with Trump – invariably, when pictures of his Oval Office meetings are released, the women are not sat at the table, they’re taking notes at the side. It’s all table-banging, ‘you’re fired’ made-for-TV stuff, isn’t it? And it makes my heart sink.
I wish I’d written this book. As a consolation, I wish that every man and woman who is a leader of their business, or aspires to be one, reads it. Men should read it to get an insight into how it is to be a woman in business and what balance those women could bring to the office if they are allowed to just be themselves. Women should read it to be reminded that being a woman isn’t a weakness, it’s a strength, and that just because it’s different to what business has become used to, doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
Palmieri finishes her letter with, “The generations of women before us, who made countless, mostly anonymous, sacrifices in the struggle for equality, paved the way for real change. In spite of the long odds against them, they went after the impossible. It is up to us – the women in America today – to finish the job. It’s a thrilling challenge. Go show us what a woman leading us in this new world looks like. We can’t wait to see.”
No, we absolutely can’t.