On waking up every morning, one of the first things I do is read the news. A few weeks ago, I woke to the now viral news of State Street Global Advisors’ statue of the “Fearless Girl” that was placed in front of the Wall Street charging bull in lower Manhattan. The statue, which prompted much media, including social media, interest, was part of a State Street campaign to “increase gender diversity in Wall Street’s traditional male environment.”
After seeing the picture of the statue and reading the story that morning, I was neither amused nor excited. Instead, it angered me.
Now before you lump me into some anti-feminist or anti-Wall Street leftist group, or point your finger and tell me to “get a grip,” “compartmentalize,” “let it go,” “appreciate the action for what it is,” “not read into it,” “be nice,” or whatever else you want to blame my anger on, let me explain.
I’m willing to admit that the statue is art—good art. And what makes art so powerful is that it provokes all sorts of emotions and provides a different perspective to the viewer. Upon seeing Fearless Girl, I thought back to my own perspective of childhood. I was born and raised on a ranch in western Kansas where I got to be quite familiar with bulls—literally and figuratively. For one thing, back then the ranching world was still dominated by men. Second, there are a few things you learn (very quickly) when you come face-to-face with a real bull.
First, you never stand directly in front of a bull by choice, because it sends a powerful message to the bull: “Let’s compete!”
Standing in front of a bull creates a dare, and daring someone (I don’t care who it is) to a contest is basically telling them you haven’t figured out your own power or the limits of your strength. If you’ve ever had the privilege of working with very successful men and women, you rarely, if ever, see them take on a challenge when someone dares them: it’s a waste of their time. They quietly and silently fly under the radar. In contrast, the little girl in the statue is standing right in front of the bull saying, “I dare you to come at me!”
Believe me; he will.
Second, her posture was all wrong. If you are face-to-face with a bull you must be ready—ready to move. To do so, you place your body low to the ground, your feet in a running position, one slightly in front of the other. You do this so you can move side to side, right or left and be ready to jump over or dive under. And you put your hands up high in front of your face, so if the bull comes at your head, you have some protection.
But instead of taking a sensible stance, the little girl is in a “power position” with her hands on her hips and feet spread apart. I get it; I know what you see and what the artist was trying to convey. There are women and men all over the country teaching us how to state our “power” through our non-verbal body language (if you haven’t heard one of these speakers in person yet, just go to any recent industry conference.)
They will tell you to stand up, open your body up, place hands on hips and show you have power.
But when I saw the picture of the statue, I didn’t see a fearless and a powerful little girl. I saw a little girl who is in serious trouble and soon will be a victim.
That girl is standing in front of an animal that is faster than she is, bigger than she is and, worse, she’s not ready for a fight (or flight.) Her feet have been positioned for minimal movement and, not to be morbid, but her hands are nowhere near her face, leaving her wide open for a catastrophic blow to the head—mentally, if we’re being figurative, and physically, if we’re being literal. And if you have ever been around little kids, you’ll know they are quite literal. I pray to God some little girl isn’t truly in front of a bull someday and pops a power position because that will be a sad, sad day for the girl and her parents.
Now, I can appreciate—really—the message State Street was trying to convey. They are right. There are barriers to entry in a man’s world—glass ceilings, lower pay and lack of diversity bedevils women. Believe me, I know. I don’t think it’s right and I don’t think it’s fair.
But I also know being ‘fearless’ is not the solution. I will illustrate my point through a recent experience I had.
I told you I grew up on a ranch, but unfortunately I haven’t been hanging out on many ranches as an adult. However, three years ago I flew from where I live in California to Texas and went to the well-known ranch 44 Farms. I was there with my cousin, a rancher in Virginia who is in the business of buying bulls for his cattle herd. We were attending the 44 Farms annual bull sale—for real—to buy, well, a bull.
Right behind the big, red “sale” barn is an actual bull pen housing about 50 bulls. To help buyers determine if they want to buy one of the bulls, they can walk into the pen to get a closer look. My cousin, a man a few words, opened the red bull pen gate, paused, and then, like any gentleman rancher, motioned for me to enter the pen in front of him. There was not one woman in the pen with all those bulls and the other male ranchers. The women who were there were on the fences, literally.
I hesitated. No words were exchanged, but mentally I was saying to my cousin “I don’t know if I want to go in.” He smiled, tipped his hat and left the gate open. Why did he leave the gate open, I thought? In ranching, leaving any gate open is a cardinal sin: leaving open the gate to a bull pen is insane. In the cattle business, being careful “whom you let in” and “what you let out” is a basic rule.
I stood there for a minute. I was either going to walk into the bull pen and close the gate behind me. Or I was going to close the gate and stay behind it. My choice.
I walked in.
I felt as exhilarated as when I was a child. I maneuvered around the bulls—never head on. I stepped up or ducked down when I needed to get around them. I kept moving with my hands up through the pen. Whenever a bull challenged me, I stepped up on the fence and went around him, beating him at his own game.
In doing so, I earned the respect of the men at the same time the other men were earning the respect of each other, and let’s not forget, they were earning mine. We began to help each other. They’d wave their hats to get the attention of a threatening bull away from me. I waved my ball cap to help them. We were working around the bulls together in one cohesive, equal team to do what we had to do.
I walked out of the pen with my cousin and said: “You knew I’d go in the pen. You left the gate open for me.” This time he didn’t tilt his hat or smile. The man of few words stopped me with these words. “No. I didn’t know you’d go in the pen. I knew when you hesitated at the gate you still feared it. So I left the gate open for you to make your own decision.”
Now an outsider might think he was saying to me, “be fearless…walk in the gate…take on the bulls…just do it.” However, I knew, based on how I was raised, that he wasn’t saying any of this at all. He was saying that fear has a powerful place in driving all humans. It makes us stop and think about going through the gate and it keeps us alive once we enter in. Most important, the fear that keeps us from both going into the bull pen, and helps us to come out alive, is no different for a man than it is for a woman.
These days, popular culture tells women to be fearless, to open the gate, force yourself in, have no fear. But I believe this advice is not only off the mark but downright dangerous.
Why does anyone, including a woman, need to be fearful or fearless? If we are fearful, we are the victim. If I had been fearful, i.e., controlled by my fear, I would have never walked inside that fence, and never experienced the joy of having faced my fear. But if I had been fearless when I went in the bull pen that day at 44 Farms, more likely than not I would have become a victim—gotten seriously hurt, or even worse, gotten others hurt.
Let me tell you, fear is okay; sometimes, it’s downright essential. You don’t need to be “fearful,” but you don’t need to be “fearless” either. This is, of course, easier said than done.
There have been many times in my career when I let fear control me: it stopped me from what I really wanted to do. There also have been times when I ignored my fear, didn’t prepare properly, got hurt and hurt others in the process.
Today, I have learned to do neither. I now put fear in my pocket: I allow it to guide me when dangers are real—and serious—but I don’t let it control the choices I make. Over time, and with some experience, you learn to accept fear, using it to help you walk in to a bull pen and then use it to help you survive once you earn your way in.
Fear also helps you fight the bullies when they knock you down. That’s diversity.
In my experience, this “diversity of fear” is the solution to gender diversity in male-dominated industries. It’s ironic, really, that State Street’s goal in placing the statue is to promote diversity in a male-dominated field. And as I see with my consulting clients, they may be able to identify the right problem, but the solution is often not the obvious one, like the girl assuming a power pose when it won’t be effective (and may be dangerous).
If I were asked (and, of course, I wasn’t), how I would construct a statue to promote diversity and empower women in financial services, I would have done it a bit differently (although it likely wouldn’t have won me any PR awards). Based on my experience having successfully maneuvered in two all-male worlds (ranching and financial services) and having been knocked down by true bulls and bullies, I would have had two statues.
To the right of the bull (not head on) a little boy would be in a running position, waving his little cowboy hat. To the left, a little girl would be ready to move, waving her ball cap. They’d be working together, pointing and signalling the way around the bull. Then, of course, she’d go around the bull first, leading the way.
Both with fear; neither a victim.
— See these additional postings and columns by Angie Herbers: