The Rise of the Feminine @ Work — Part Two

Updated: Mar 22


There’s a process of Feminine re-integration underway in the culture and in the workplace that goes beyond quotas and #metoo. We can facilitate its progress by trusting what feels foreign but also deeply familiar. In this 3-part series, we look at how.


My on-the-ground experience trying to seed Feminine integration into a corporate world that has actively suppressed it has been harder than I ever imagined. Even when individuals understand the importance of integrating The Feminine, even when they want it, the system rejects it. How do you create space for receptivity in an environment that rewards pushing to unforgiving deadlines? How do you foster caring and empathy in an environment that is innately competitive and self-serving? How do you create real diversity and inclusion in an environment that thrives on homogeneity and adherence to a set of values born largely from one ethnic group? How do you encourage leaders to be vulnerable when the system is quick to mistake kindness for weakness? How do you encourage surrender to the unknown in a culture that fetishizes control?


While the system is running semi-unconsciously (automatically), the human beings within it are waking up. Every day I meet individuals who feel in their hearts that the way we’re working isn’t working, but even for them it’s hard to do it any other way. In Part One of this series, I talk about the larger societal context for the Rise of the Feminine and how the workplace is just a microcosm of the larger cultural integration.


What I’m finding is that there are conditions within organizations that pave the way for Feminine integration on a deep and transformational level. (Likewise, there are conditions that will halt her ability to be generative in a space altogether. I’ll get into that in Part Three.) Here I will share three. Not because there are actually three, but because we need to start somewhere and these have become most pressing in my view. This is by no means a comprehensive list. It’s just a small part of a discussion we’re destined to be in for many years, if not generations.


Here they are:

  1. New Models of Integrated Leadership

  2. An Invitation to Include Emotion

  3. Willingness to Sit in the Discomfort of Operating Counterculture


1. New Models of Integrated Leadership


We need great leadership more than ever as we enter this turbulent transition phase, but how will we recognize the leaders when they must necessarily look and feel vastly different from the type we’re habituated to? How will we recognize leaders from the new paradigm while we are still mired in the old ways?


For a start, we have to assume they will look, act, and sound different, maybe even unusual. And we can assume that trusting them might feel uncomfortable at first in that it will force us to surrender to something outside our current comfort zone. We’re seeing this play out in the diversity and confusion of candidates for the presidential election in 2020.


The model of leadership we’re currently growing out of was born out of the masculine imperative for control. In this model, authority was derived from external sources: bona fides, physical qualities (white, tall, male…), and proximity to other loci of power (nepotism, financial wealth, the “good old boy network”). People who had the right pedigree ascended the ladder because, in essence, they had demonstrated an ability to “control” and “subdue” the external factors of a messy and unruly world. What this paradigm of leadership offered was a kind of limited and conditional “safety” to those in agreement and alignment with it. And because the quest of the masculine is for liberation, the material accumulation of power and goods seemed to support a kind of temporal liberation.


As The Feminine rises it will change — already IS changing — what power looks like and how it works. The Feminine is the compassionate force behind a massive shift from a power over paradigm to a power with paradigm: a partnership paradigm. In a partnership paradigm no one modality is emphasized or valued over another. People are not judged by external factors, but by their ability to summon an internal authority, move and inspire the best in people, and engender trust. Power is distributed and as an energy, it moves around, among, and between…it cannot be hoarded or captured in hierarchical structures or neat and tidy boxes.


If all of this sounds incredible, you got it. An integrated way of working is far superior than the extractive, draining, out-of-balance conditions we now call normal. What then prevents us from leaping in? Fear. Fear of change. Fear that we’re somehow fundamentally unsafe if we expose ourselves. Fear of being cast out for being different. Fear by some currently at the top of the pyramid that they will lose what power they have. The irony is that embracing this change can only lead to a power more real and abiding than anything they currently feel they have. And the fact of the matter is, the change is already upon us.


I will never forget the first time I met a female leader embodying the kind of integrated and grounded leadership we need now. I was co-organizing a climate summit at the headquarters of a tech giant in Silicon Valley. The idea was to gather non-profits and activists at the company’s headquarters to identify ways we could potentially use the platform to educate people about climate change. We sat there in the command-central-like conference room of this internet behemoth for two days debating and brainstorming. The group was (accidentally, not accidentally) composed of four women and sixteen men…most of us white.

Winona Laduke by Annie Liebowitz

Midway through the second day of the session, a special guest arrived. I had invited the Native American activist and environmentalist, Winona LaDuke. I had a clear sense that we couldn’t have a climate meeting of this magnitude without representation from the original people of this continent. She never confirmed her attendance, but after lunch that day I got a call from the front desk that she’d arrived.


I met her at reception. She had a presence that hit me on all levels…a self-assuredness, a steadiness, and a complete disregard for the entire structure we were entering — both physically and energetically. She carried none of the awe people generally can’t help but feel when they’re inside one of these powerhouse companies. She had come to represent her people’s perspective and to teach. What she ultimately did was lead.


Over and over again the rest of that day and the next she calmly and confidently brought us back to the truth: the truth of what we were talking about (not abstractions and intellectual ideas). Sometimes she did it vocally, telling a story or quoting wisdom from her tradition. Sometimes she did it without words. Sometimes she was funny. Sometimes she was harsh. Always she was commanding of attention and respect. She was tapped into something the rest of us were not. She embodied the feminine as described by the radiant Nikki Silvestri:


“That is leading from the feminine: when you can bring them to their knees with your presence; bring them to their tender place with your presence.”

When we stop looking for ways out of or around our troubles and start accepting the full truth of where we are now, it will necessitate a change in the way leadership shows up. Our leaders will still be trailblazers. They will still be courageous and wise. They will still be strong and smart. But, all of it in different ways.


Trauma-informed leadership shows up differently, not least because that leader has already dealt with or is in the process of dealing with their own trauma. That leader will have faced themselves in the mirror and loved everything they see there. That leader will not have to pretend they are perfect or wear masks because they know from experience everyone…and I mean every human being…has flaws, blindspots, shadow, and lessons still being worked out on this earthly plane. That leader can therefore be vulnerable, without losing their authority. In fact, the authority is now grounded in the vulnerability. And that leader will always work within communities of collaborators; will always have supervision and their own mentorship; will constantly be checking in with trusted advisors (not cronies or yes men) who can show them where they can’t see the whole picture. Because no one can see the whole picture alone, but together we can piece together something workable.


The leaders who will take us to the future will feel like they come from the future…or the past…or both. A friend of mine calls this new typology: Modern Ancients. They will be speaking from a level of development and with a perspective that encompasses more of what we innately know and have always known (“the past”) and what we are capable of becoming in our highest states (“the future”). They will be able to see more and know more. They will walk as if they know the way, because they do. Do not follow anyone into the future who has not already been there. An old mystical axiom is that a guide can only take you as far as they themselves as been. I want to follow the guide who knows the way to integration by heart because they have been there and come back to tell the tale, to deliver the elixir, to bring more of us along.


2. An Invitation to Include Emotion


There’s a lot being said right now about emotion at work. Mostly, people are advocating for it. Now’s the time to bring our whole selves to work…so they say. But, what does that mean in practice?


The Feminine is relational in its nature. It cares about how we feel and how we relate through our feelings with the feelings of others. It enjoys when we are happy and it feels the pain of others’ sadness. Feminine power is grounded and earthy. It has roots. The internal resourcing of feminine power comes from this connection to the energy of the planet, the wellspring that lives in the core, the base, of all of us. Feminine power comes from within and is body wise. It feels the room, senses danger and opportunity, knows without thinking. The Feminine is the energy that powers empathy and emotional intelligence.


Because The Feminine is sensation-based and experiential (versus the masculine which can be abstracted and conceptualized) we can feel when it is present … and also when it is not. I’ve come to lean on one word as a clue that I am in the presence of The Feminine: Belonging. A sense of belonging or at-homeness is the effect of The Feminine at work. Most of us have — at some point — experienced the power of that sensation of belonging within a company, an organization, a family, any gathering. When we feel we belong, we feel safe to share openly; safe to express the truest aspects of ourselves; safe to step back and safe to step up. It gives a group an authenticity and range of motion that make even seemingly impossible tasks quite simple. It also makes many seemingly important tasks reveal themselves as the useless, ego-driven exercises they always were. In this way, The Feminine can make a group more efficient, more agile, more capable, and more wise.


To restate what I hope is obvious: I’m not saying women are more empathic or compassionate. I’m saying it is the feminine dimension within all of us that governs those human functions. The masculine domain is one of autonomy, self-assuredness and self-mastery. Also, a critical function. We can’t care for others fully until we’re also established in ourselves. So, both are important, but the feminine dimension has been disregarded for a long time. Now, we’re exploring what her gifts bring to the workplace. The exploration can be beautiful, moving, and re-humanizing. It can also feel awkward and even traumatic moment-to-moment. Especially as we learn together what it means to bring more of our hearts into a space historically ruled by the head.


The realm of the emotions is in the body, not in the head. So a factor of major importance in the evolution to integrated workspaces is a focus on embodiment: an acknowledgement and including of the body, its needs and functions. Mostly, in the corporate world, we have denied the body’s existence in ways both subtle and obvious. We override basic signals like hunger, weariness, and even the need to pee. We suppress emotion. We subject the dynamic ever-moving, ever-changing vehicle of the body to long stretches of arduous computer pecking and un-ergonomic posturing. We demean intuition in favor of rational, linear thought, logic and data. We override our gut feeling about things and convince ourselves and others to do things that feel wrong. We torture ourselves, each other and the planet in the name of productivity.


A heatmap of where we feel emotions in the body from a group of bio-medical engineers from Aalto University who researched 700 volunteers from Finland, Sweden and Taiwan.

The good news is that this is changing. Many companies we work with now include the practice of a simple “check in” at the start of meetings. It’s a chance for all participants to share a little bit about how they’re feeling and what they’re bringing to the conversation. Not from their heads, but their bodies and hearts. If I am scowling at you, please know it’s because of the fight I had with my partner this morning, not because I hate your idea or think you’re a bad manager. Something as simple as a check in can change everything. It sends the subtle signal: your emotions are welcome here. And bonds teams gradually over time as they come to feel safer and safer with each other. There is nothing more liberating than a space in which the participants are all capable of speaking the truth of their emotional experience and receiving people in whatever they might be feeling for any reason or no reason at all. When you begin to work deeply with emotions you begin to learn the most important truth about them: they pass more quickly than we imagined. The clue is in the word: e-motion. They want to move. When we suppress and deny them, they get stuck. When we give them space, they move, clear and heal.


Embodiment is something an organization must commit to and practice if they truly want to create an emotion-friendly, relationally-mature and healthy work environment. You have to be in your body to know how you truly feel about things. This is remarkably hard to do when you’re out of practice. And it can be particularly hard for men who were often taught to deny their emotions from a young age (in this culture). So, patience is important. And there are wonderful tools we can learn: Non-violent Communication, transparent communication, empathy. Emotions are touchy and sensitive and vulnerable: all the things that people at work are terrified to experience and be witnessed in. It’s uncomfortable at first, but when we do the work to include them, we invite the wisdom of The Feminine in action. This may be the core of what will help us evolve.


3. Willingness to Sit in the Discomfort of Operating Counterculture


One of the phrases I use most often when I step into a new culture or start work with a new corporate client is this: slow down. Of course, I have a million ways to say it, but the need is singular: a need for the space and time to process what is truly happening in the moment, to be present.


The mental plane is very speedy and we’re mostly operating from this plane in business today. If we’re going to include the body, the emotions and the subtle realms we must take our time, tune in, and align with each other. Swapping ideas back and forth at warp speed is something computers are well-designed to do, humans not so much. Humans operate best when they call on ALL their resources. When I can not just hear you, but feel you and sense you, we’re accessing a whole universe of information that would otherwise go unnoticed. We’re obsessed with efficiency, but what we don’t understand is how precision is at the heart of it. I can be more and more precise when we’re grounded and attuned. This ultimately saves loads of time and wasted effort and spares us the land mines of misunderstanding that come when we engage in purely transactional exchanges all day long.


You’d be surprised (or maybe you wouldn’t) how hard it is for people at work to slow down. I’ve seen people get offended and even panicky at that simple request. I get it. Slowing down means we have to feel what’s actually happening in our bodies and that’s usually uncomfortable…sometimes wildly uncomfortable and destabilizing. If I slow down, I might have to confront the fear I am experiencing, the pain, the sadness, the exhaustion (which is usually some combination of fear, pain and sadness). If I slow down, I might also have to consider how you are feeling and whether you are comfortable or uncomfortable. And if you’re uncomfortable, I may not be able to handle it.


These are the subtle dynamics underlying some of the speediness at work. It’s also hard for people to slow down because of the constructed habits and patterns related to arbitrary deadlines and a constant sense of urgency. This is what I mean when I talk about the system itself being inhospitable to the feminine dimension. The system was built in the image of our own dysfunctional, hyper-masculine drive and it works…well. It is a well-oiled machine of efficiency and productivity and striving. So, anything that goes against the grain is going to feel like friction. I sometimes feel the insertion of feminine principles in overtly masculine spaces as throwing a wrench in the works. It can actually bring the machine to a screeching halt. If this is work you are committed to doing, your culture must be prepared to experience some bumpiness until the machine itself is re-programmed.


By nature, The Feminine resists control. It is fluid, dynamic and ever-changing. It is comfortable with chaos and allergic to too much definition and structure. If this sounds like the opposite of the current corporate culture, it is. But, it is is also the medicine. It is the answer to so many of the qualities we hear leaders begging to instill: agility, flexibility, adaptability, responsiveness, innovative. These buzzwords express a genuine yearning for a more integrated and feminine-informed way of being. We must recognize that we cannot have these qualities until we are ready to sacrifice and disrupt many of our long-held work habits and also ready to interrupt the seeming efficiency and productivity (much of it unconscious at this point) of the old system.


The discomfort of feminine integration in the system is to be expected. We find that the teams we work with do best when they are warned about the discomfort; when we invite them to laugh at the awkwardness. Compassion, warmth and even love (for ourselves and each other) are enormously helpful as we love through this awkward phase…a kind of puberty…on the other side of which lies our maturity and wholeness. This is the heart of the “psychological safety” popularized by Google…a shared agreement that we commit as a group to allow for mistakes, missteps and misunderstandings because we are on a growth journey together. This commitment is an imperative in organizations that truly want to grow into the next version of themselves.


Working in this world of Feminine integration can be a roller coaster. There are days when I feel things shifting perceptibly. And days when I think we’ll never get it in time. When I meet kindred spirits on this path, I treasure them and hold them close. I am grateful for the work of friends, collaborators, and thought leaders like: Adrienne Maree Brown, Bonnitta Roy, Sean Harvey, Eileen Fisher, Daniela Plattner, LeeAnn Mallorie, Nilima Bhat, Quanita Roberson, Jennifer Armbrust, Erica Dorn, Lucy Blair Chung, Sarah Drew, Magdalena Satori, and countless others who continue to push on this front in bold and inventive ways every day.


Recently I was watching a video interview with Charles Eisenstein on the climate crisis. The interviewer asked him when he feels most despairing and when he feels most hopeful. He thought about it and responded that he feels most despairing when he personally witnesses some small action that suggests a level of obliviousness or unconcern that will surely get us nowhere. And he said, curiously, what gives him hope is much the same: the small everyday actions that remind us of the nobility of the human spirit and possibility contained within each being.


It’s much the same for me with the rise of The Feminine. Certainly the big actions are terrifying, like the systematic rolling back of women’s reproductive rights, the need for a movement like #metoo, or the demonizing of women when they seek power in the political domain. But what’s almost more despairing to me — purely because it’s so visceral — is the everyday obliviousness I witness or experience myself; the destructive decisions I see made from a place of ignorance, the hardships of the working parents I know, the disrespect for the feminine body, Nature, the way we educate and care for our children. What I find most hopeful are the small, everyday interactions and victories that suggest a collective awareness of and reverence for The Feminine is on the rise.


Just the other day I ended a meeting I was facilitating for a corporate client with a group circle and round of appreciations. The meeting of about twenty peers had been contentious at first, fraught with tensions. We made it through the four hours respectfully listening to each other and making space for emotions. We solved problems and faced the hard truths together. During the closing circle one of the women who had been mostly quiet during the session spoke up, “I’d like to offer my personal mantra to all of us,” she said clearly and confidently: “Feel everything. Force nothing.” It landed deeply in the circle. As I felt the group take that in, I thought, “It’s happening. We’re really doing it.”

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