At twenty-three, after a year of job searching, I finally found a position in the field that I wanted: I became a Jr. High youth pastor. But when I started, in addition to thinking about what most new youth pastors think about (like what their first teaching series is going to be or what small group curriculum they would use), I also was unexpectedly faced with this question:

What was I going to wear?

Not because I am a fashionista or super image conscious, but rather because all the other youth pastors I knew or met, where men. “What does a female youth pastor wear?” I wondered. I had just come from a more business-type job where I wore dress pants and button up shirts–which I definitely wasn’t going to wear working with students. I also felt this weird pull not to dress too feminine, so that I could try to fit in with my male co-workers, and be taken seriously. Soon, I began to realize my concern went a lot deeper than the clothes I wore, and that the real question of my heart was:

What does it look like to be a woman in this job?

I had no other examples. More important than what I wore, part of my job included giving a message to the students on a regular basis. I was really new to the public speaking part, yet I soon realized my teaching style as a woman, was going to be different than my male co-workers. I tried to find women preachers/speakers to learn from. Sadly, many of the examples I found preached in a deeper voice and took on a similar style as their male counterparts. As if there is really only one way to preach; speak like a man. But my heart knew that wasn’t right.

God made me a woman for a reason, and I was in that position to bring something to our students that I wouldn’t bring if I was spending my time trying to lead, speak, and dress like my male colleagues.

They say “dress for the job you want, not the job you have,” but what they are talking about is more than just clothes. In essence, they are saying if you want the job, “act the part.”  But because there are few examples of what it looks like to be women in certain professions, we can at times feel pressure to change our style of leadership–to “act the part”–and match the style of the men who have gone before us. Yet when we do this, we are committing a disservice to ourselves and the companies we work for.

During my seven years as a female youth pastor I learned that:

  1. Showing my femininity, didn’t make me a lesser leader; it made me a more approachable one.
  2. When I taught/spoke from my most authentic female self, student’s responded the most.
  3. When I started dressing in a style that reflected who I am as a woman, I felt freer to be myself as I did my job.
  4. Figuring out who I was as a women leader was not just important for myself, but for all those I was leading–both female and male. 

If we have the passion or burden inside of us to lead, we are not only responsible to pursue it for ourselves, we also are called to become the examples for the women who are to come.

This past week, the CEO of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer, gave birth to a baby boy.  But rather than a slew of media stories offering her congratulations, Mayer has been met with criticism for saying she will only take a two week maternity leave, and for using a photo of herself pre-pregnancy, for the cover of Fortune Magazine’s 50 Most Powerful Women issue, in which she is listed at number 14. Yet, this is not the first time she has felt pressure from the media.

A few months ago, when she announced her pregnancy soon after taking her CEO position at Yahoo, Mayer also found herself under scrutiny.  If a man found himself in a similar position–becoming a new CEO and a parent in the same year–it wouldn’t make headlines. But for Mayer the combination brought much criticism, questioning if she could handle the pressure. (And we wonder why she’s not taking a longer maternity leave?) We all know there is a double standard for men in our culture–whether they want it or not–in regards to business and having a family. But what makes me most concerned is what stories like this do to us as women in our thoughts on taking roles of leadership.

From the time we are young, we overhear phrases that make us as women out to be “less than” our male counterparts.  The most common phrase being “you throw like a girl.” Though revealing some truth that generally men have more upper body strength than women, it makes boys believe that its a negative thing to be like a girl. But it doesn’t just effect the boys, it effects us as girls too.  Phrases like this one enter into our psyche, and our view of our abilities begin to diminish slowly, over time. Whether we realize it or not, because of our media and cultural stereotypes, one of our abilities that we begin to doubt the most, is our ability to lead.

In the documentary, Miss Representation, Dr. Caroline Heldman, explains that little girls and boys, when they are seven years of age, equally want to be president of the United States. But she says when you ask the same group of students when they are fifteen, you see a massive gap emerging. Miss Representation powerfully shows how the media is effecting the world’s view of women, and therefore our view of ourselves.

One of the phrases that keeps occurring in the movie is “you can’t be what you can’t see.” Because we have seen so few positive examples of women in visible positions of power, I think you and I, as everyday women, can subconsciously fall into believing that we aren’t leaders where we are, nor could we be leaders in what we do.  This line of thinking isn’t just dangerous for our future, it is also dangerous for the young women and our daughters who look up to us.

If they don’t see us leading now, what will inspire them to lead in the future?

One of the things, I believe, that holds us back from taking leadership roles is that we think we don’t have much to offer.  But have you ever looked around a business or work meeting and noticed who was doing most of the talking? Are you in a situation where it is usually the men?

When we don’t speak up and share our knowledge or opinions in meetings, it is as if we are saying that a woman’s perspective isn’t needed. We are denying all that we do have inside of us that is important, and forgetting that we are in our positions for a reason.

Now, I am not saying for you to go into work this morning, and totally change who you are. What I am saying is that your voice matters. Your actions matter. Are there ways–as a businesswoman, teacher, mother, student, etc.–that you are leading and you don’t even know it? Areas in which you have been holding back, that your voice and perspective is needed? Ways that you can speak truth? Ways that you can encourage the best out of those around you?

Whether you are being followed by one or by many, you have a lot more to offer than you realize.