Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

A silhouette of a 1950s housewife emblazoned with the words “emotional,” “bossy” and “too nice” stood out among the other magazine covers depicting skyscrapers and suit-clad executives. I grabbed the magazine off the rack, wondering what exactly the editors meant that cover to convey. Were they suggesting that those descriptors were as outdated as the woman’s bob hairstyle? I sure hoped so.

It was the Harvard Business Review. I flipped to the article, “Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers” (by Herminia Ibarra, Robin Ely and Deborah Kolb), and marveled at the image selected to illustrate it: a two-page spread of artist Janet Echelman’s soaring Amsterdam Light Festival sculpture installation. Vital and cerebral, the hi-tech yet animate work evoked the kind of unfettered intelligence and creativity that leaders should possess.

But this article, unlike Echelman’s acclaimed TED Talk, wasn’t about taking imagination seriously. Instead, jargon like “second-generation gender bias” and “identity workspaces” jarred against Echelman’s breathtaking art. The sculpture’s buoyant spirit couldn’t have contrasted more sharply with the article’s neutered corporate speak.

The color and vibrancy of Echelman’s realm met the traditions and constraints of another and underscored just how far we have to go in our efforts to spur women’s leadership in male-dominated organizations. Beyond that, it underscored that we have to change behaviors and language, culture and context, not only in corporate workplaces but also in the way we think about them. The article strove to illuminate a path to female success in a constrained corporate world but, not unlike the underachieving women it seeks to help, it came up short.

As Liz Ryan, CEO of Human Workplace, puts it: “Corporate jargon is a hedge against recalling and reflecting on what we know to be true, that work is just another place where people gather. The jargon protects us by reducing real people and their emotions to columns and rows and policies. It helps us to think about our lives at work as something outside of our true selves.”

In this case, the article’s language neuters the urgency of its recommendations. To hear the authors tell it, women’s leadership potential isn’t snuffed out by the overwhelming force of considerable institutional and interpersonal barriers. Rather, women’s leadership “learning cycles” are “disrupted” and eventually their “leadership identity” withers away. In their account, men and women can be taught to recognize subtle gender bias and, if that goes well, the next step is to focus on “a ‘small wins’ approach to change.” In 2013, I would hope that some big wins were in the pipeline instead.

Perhaps the women authors felt that they had to adopt anesthetized tones to be heard by the publication’s overwhelmingly male audience. A more forceful description of the remedies might get them labeled “emotional” or “bossy.” As written, I’ll have to give them a “too nice.” While the article’s stated mission is to help CEOs understand why their training and mentoring programs for women suck (or underperform gender diversity targets, as it’s described in MBA-land), the text doesn’t really go there.

Perhaps with a more soaring vision, the authors could have broken through to ideas to truly reshape the corporate environment. Instead, the authors’ rather tame recommendations essentially show women how to stay afloat in toxic waters, when they should learn to slice through tumultuous seas to the safety of shore. The difference is one of scale, imagination and force. The authors propose that bias awareness, the safety of support groups and an anchoring purpose are necessary to help women thrive as leaders, but there’s got to be something more. There’s got to be some passion, some urgency and a willingness to abandon custom for creation.

Luckily, Echelman’s knowing smile in her bio photo, squished into the story’s margin, points women readers (the magazine’s secondary audience) in the right direction. The artist’s headshot seems to be saying: There’s another, more joyful path. You have the imaginative power to envision yourself as a creative force (isn’t that what leadership is anyway?) and you have the tenacity to pursue that vision into reality. I did it and so can you. Click here to read more about Echelman and her work.

Have you witnessed or experienced gender bias at work? Was it subtle or overt? How did you respond and how did that work for you? What do you think the company’s leadership could have done to mitigate bias or, better yet, spur dramatic increases in the number of women at the top of the ladder?