Women Have to Take Charge


Written by: Victoria Wæthing


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Photo by: Truls Qvale

“Women make up half of the population, of course we should have female leaders. But to get there, women have to do their part,” says Signy Fardal. “Ask for what you want, but don’t be a mean girl.”  

For twenty years, Signy Fardal was the well-known leader of the iconic ELLE Magazine in Norway. A leader both admired and feared, Fardal knows first-hand the challenges of being a leader and woman. And—having worked almost entirely with women for 20 years, she also knows quite a lot about how women act towards each other, and how we can do better. So, what did she do with all this knowledge? She decided to share it with us, and together with Line Uppard, she wrote a book about it.  

“We live in a country that is one of the most gender equal in the world, but only 20 % of the CEOs within the private sector are women. Did you know that in regards to gender equality in the private sector, we are actually listed as number fifty in the world. I am sick and tired of people talking about women as some kind of minority. We are not a minority. Women make up half of the population. It is just plain fair for us to have the same representation as men.” 

Take Responsibility 

Fardal is quick to address the fact that women face fundamental and structural challenges, and that products and medicines are adjusted to men and not women. This is undisputable; women have had and still have a weaker position in a society which, for all practical purposes, was designed by men for men. Yet, this does not absolve women from taking responsibility for their own lives and their own careers. It is not enough to look towards the structures, we must also take a good hard look in the mirror and ask ourselves what we can do differently.   

Question About Confidence 

While working in the Norwegian newspaper DN earlier in her career, Signy Fardal went up to the boss and told him: “I want to be in charge.”  And her boss gave her a new job with more responsibility. However, being blunt about what you want is not so common for most women. Whereas men are clear on what they want, women tend to wait for others to discover their talent and give them the opportunity they deserve. When applying for a job, women will quite often not even consider applying if they don’t have all of the qualifications that the employer is searching for.  On the other hand, a man may apply for the job even if he has only half of the qualifications. 

“I wish more women could be like Pippi Longstocking, saying: Oh, I have never done that before. I am sure I will be good at it.”  

Women Are Tougher on Other Women 

The book, Helt Sjef (translation: Total Boss) is not a book serving up girl power on a platter, nor does it give you a way out or somebody to blame. It is a book that demands that you take charge, that you take responsibility in your own career by being clear on your objectives and how to get there. It is also a book that talks about the unpleasant, yet quite common concept of women not supporting women.  

Fardal is referring to a so-called “blind-test” where people are presented with a person that acts in a certain way. To half the group this person will be a man, to the other half a woman. And quite often, the women will react hardest towards the person when presented as a woman. The latest example is Hadija Tajik and all the criticism against her outfit.  How about caring what she was saying and writing instead?  Tell me, when would it ever happen that a man would write an angry article about what Jonas Gahr Støre was wearing? Never.  

The Infamous Ice Queen 

It is unfortunate, but quite often a woman leader referred to as either a queen bee, an ice queen—or just plainly a “she-devil.” Even more so when exhibiting what are generally considered masculine traits of leadership. People tend to dislike women more when they are decisive, and therefore will be more prone to labelling them in rather unfortunate terms. But again, this is not something that we can chalk up to only male chauvinism: the gossip between women, the tendency to mix friendship with work and jealousy.  

Networking Over Chatting 

Women are actually quite good at building their network; they build relations, and sometimes maybe too close. Women will more often than men build relations by sharing stories from their personal life. Since women also tend to mix friendship and work, they will have more difficulties using their network because they are afraid that it will come off exactly like that: using people. “Men don’t have the same scruples when asking for a favour, which unfortunately makes a lot of women’s networks a lot less efficient that the networks that men build. In Norway we often refer to the “boys club” (in Norwegian: gutteklubben grei). The same “girls club” just does not exist.”   

Mother and Leader 

“It is fascinating how so many women suffer under the misguided notion that it is not possible to be a mother and the boss at the same time. It is quite the opposite. Being the boss means that you have the possibility to manage your own day, workload and how to delegate. The question women have to ask themselves is not whether they can be leaders, but if the really want to.”  

It happens all the time. When a couple decides to make a family, they will sit down and discuss how to organize their new work-life balance, and quite often the woman will be the one scarifying her career for the family. “This is why I believe 100 percent in a fifty-fifty split in the parental leave,” says Fardal. “But it is not only about the years you spend away from work, it is also what happens when you decide to come back to work.”  

She continues, “I have had co-workers, women who will get up in the middle of a meeting to answer a phone call from one of the kids asking if they can have a cookie. That is a certain kind of behaviour that does not belong at your work place. Do you think you would ever see a man getting up from a business meeting to answer questions about candy? No.”  

Power is Not a Bad Thing 

Fardal believes that power is too often loaded with negative connotations. When a woman says she wants power, it is way too easy to think about the abuse of power.  

“Power is influence, and there is nothing wrong in wanting to have influence.”  

Fardal refers to an interview she conducted with Prime Minister Erna Solberg, where Solberg herself points out what difference it makes when a woman seeks power in public office and in the private sector. It is accepted when power is connected to public office, charitable organizations etc, basically anywhere where having power would be in the best interest for everybody. When it is about doing good, not getting ahead in your career. On the other hand, being a woman with power in the private sector is about having power over somebody, and immediately you are considered cold or even cynical.  

“Women have to embrace power if they want to create change. It is through power that you can influence your surroundings.” 

Not a One-Woman Job 

When talking about women supporting women, there is an important modification: it is not one woman’s job to help every woman get a better position. Although not a minority in the society, a female leader is still a minority, and to put this responsibility only on women, would not be fair or correct. “As a woman, it is not my responsibility to make sure there are as many women in charge as possible. But—it is my responsibility to make sure that I don’t make it more difficult for the women who come after me,” says Signy Fardal. •

You can find the book by Signy Fardal and Line Uppard here