Jewfem Blog

Inspired female leadership by Susan Weidman Schneider at Lilith

The first thing I noticed when I walked into the offices of Lilith was the books. Piled up in every corner of desks, chairs, shelves, and the floor, the books were an almost unintended design concept. They tell the visitor that this is a place where people love to read.163517 Lilith-text OFC copy

Really, though, Lilith is a place where people love to *eat*. Well, maybe not eat so much as to work around the conference-table-slash-kitchen-table. My meeting with the Lilith staff took place around the table in the center of the office that was filled with all kinds of salads and baked goods that the multi-talented and multi-tasking staff members made.   “Lilith is a place where people love to talk, and our conference table has always been a place where good talk happens over food--much like at a wonderful dinner table, or even a salon,” Lilith editor-in-chief Susan Weidman Schneider said. “Despite the yumminess of the victuals,  the important part is, of course, not what food each person brings to the table, but what *voices* are at the table. The food is just a signifier of our hospitable impulse to invite in guests and their ideas. For example, the Lilith staff has mentored more than 150 interns in our 35 years of publishing, and almost every one has told us that what they valued most about their experience here was being heard at that very table.

Lilith is probably the most intellectually welcoming office I have ever encountered. And what’s amazing about that is that the atmosphere is definitive part of the working culture, a purposeful outgrowth of the feminist ideology that drives the magazine content. “Everything gets done around this table,” Susan told me over salmon salad and soft fennel-molasses bread made by Lilith’s inimitable managing editor Naomi Danis. Every issue and every article gets created over food, slowly, with cooperative input, tossing in and kneading new ideas as the staff chews and digests. The entire magazine is a product of group thinking and collaboration, mostly over food.

This is a remarkable model of feminist work. It’s about giving women power and voice in a way that strengthens everyone rather than adopting patterns of being controlling, aggressive, manipulative or hierarchical. That’s not an easy thing. Expressions that are ambivalent, uncertain, hesitant, or help-seeking are not valued in most workplaces. They are often taken as signs that a person is not serious, or intelligent, or “management material”. Definitions of professionalism are often a function of being single-minded, unwavering, determined, loud, aggressive and abrasive. The person most unflinching is often the one whose ideas are adopted and who seen as the “leader”.

In fact, much of the current literature on helping women “get ahead” in the workplace focuses on teaching women to adopt these behaviors – drop the qualifiers, we are told, get rid of all the “I think”s and “perhaps”es, and don’t forget to unabashedly self-promote and publicly give yourself credit. If this is the model that developed from generations of women’s exclusion from working life, then what we are seeing today is the trend of urging women to adopt male cultures of organizational life.

But Lilith presents a viable, workable alternative that business and organizational leaders need to learn from. Rather than adopting a male culture, women can be creating an alternative culture, one in which ambivalence is a welcome part of the creative process, where people are urged to change their minds as they actively listen to other people’s ideas, where the entire person – cook, mother, friend and worker – is considered a valuable member of the team.

I left this meeting/lunch with my stomach full and my mind bursting with ideas. One pressing thought is that it is vital for organizations – especially women’s organizations – to exemplify their ideologies throughout the organizational culture. This is not as common as it sounds. I have unfortunately worked with women’s organizations that are hierarchical and controlling of female staff, that do not pay women properly or and fail to invite everyone on staff to be part of the collaborative process. This is really important. Feminism is not just about the work done outwardly but also about the work done inwardly. It’s an entire worldview.

Another pressing thought is that we need to be careful about the advice we give women for getting ahead. The trend towards teaching women aggression runs the risk of devaluing a female work culture that is no less important than assertiveness. Listening, hesitating, and collaborating are at least as important as learning to self-promote. And taking one’s time over decisions, or mulling over ideas over an aromatic, satiating, team-built meal, can do wonders for an organization’s product. To wit, Lilith has produced phenomenal magazines that way.

Finally, I think it’s time for women to start training men rather than the other way around. In my recent conversations about the role of men in feminist movements, it has become increasingly clear that for society to progress towards equity and fairness, men need to be an integral part of the process. But that doesn’t mean that the male culture of discourse and professional behavior should be made central. Rather, I think that for men to be equal partners in this endeavor, organizations and communities need to invest in training men to adopt a female working culture. It’s about giving men tools like those of the Lilith team: listening, hesitating before deciding, being comfortable with uncertainty, and letting go of the need to control. Training men in female cultures of discourse seems to me a crucial next step for developing a healthier society.

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