The metaphor of the borderlands was introduced by Gloria Anzaldúa in her landmark book, Borderlands/ La Frontera (1987). Anzaldúa was a woman of multiple identities—a poet, social justice advocate, lesbian, of Mexican heritage, and from what is referred to as “el valle,” the Rio Grande Valley, Texas. Her lived experiences of negotiating multiple borderlands brought public attention to the relevance of this metaphor for women in different workplace sectors. 

What does it mean to walk the borderlands?

Walking the borderlands for women is about always having to engage in “dual consciousness,” assessing how to respond in different situations or in the same situation when the players around the table change and introduce their points of view, often not respectfully. Gender-based expectations that women should be nice, supportive, and smile, especially when it comes to men in the workplace, further contribute to the “borderland” dilemmas. How does this look in real life?

Borderland challenges

In our work as executive coaches and organization leaders, and researchers, consistent themes appear that highlight the continuing challenges that can jeopardize women’s authority. First, sexism persists at all levels of an organization, for women in senior administrative roles, supervisors, and the lowest wage earners. Second, women perceived to hold lesser status, including women of color, younger and older women, and newcomers, far more often are the targets of mistreatment. Though women may not be asked to make the coffee, they may be given menial assignments that do not uplift their talents.

Specific challenges

In our coaching sessions with women, they describe consistent negative behaviors.

  • Aggressive communication in the form of verbal and nonverbal communication.
    1. Being interrupted, questioned, ridiculed, and silenced.
    2. Having one’s speech criticized, though it has always been acceptable. 
    3. Concerns are often trivialized, ignored, and dismissed when speaking up to supervisors.
  • Managing dynamics for those who have never been supervised by a woman, woman of color supervisors, or of other “marginalized” identities.
    1. In these situations, the woman of difference confronts the borderlands. Supervisees may be quiet even when invited to speak.
    2. The woman wonders if her leadership skills are falling short because of others’ nonverbal behavior. 
  • Women who receive consultation from external committees and boards have interference and questions about “why” they are strategizing as planned.
    1. Committees we have heard of are typically male-dominated. Because they are not used to working with women leaders, they may engage in oppositional behavior or, at the other extreme, deferential behavior.
    2. Though a woman may be well-prepared for a meeting, some men question the why of the agenda—among other prepared documents.
  • Triangulation by supervisees means two individuals form a team to challenge the supervisor. 

Though there are many more specific challenges, these highlighted invariably are reported in executive coaching and organizational climate surveys. Often, they are labeled microaggressions, but unpacking these with more specificity is necessary to identify how women are managing these challenges.

Leading with authority

These are not minor challenges, and the women we coach consider the coaching sessions to be the space to problem solve and gain a sense of empowerment to persist. The mindset is pragmatic and generally involves these statements: “This is serious,” and  I do not want to avoid,” but “I want to get to the real issues,” and “put everything in order.” Some of the strategies we use in the coaching session are as follows.

  • Perspective-taking: Trying to understand others’ viewpoints.
  • Examining power dynamics: Is there a power play going on?
  • Planning one-off meetings with those who are involved.
  • Reviewing discussions with one’s supervisor for a reality check.
  • Taking a problem-solving approach.

On-going reminders

  • Do not go it alone.
  • Keep believing in yourself. 
  • Review your resume and take note of all of your accomplishments.
  • Do not give the “aggressor” (s) the benefit of the doubt” more than twice.
  • Re-read your position description and that of your direct reports. 
  • Be clear about the deliverables for your area; what is the purview of your responsibility?

Celebrating Women and our message to all women from Renée Middleton 

In closing, we are mindful that March is Women’s History Month. Celebrate and embrace the power of your influence and impact. Continue to carve new pathways through the borderlands, excelling within your career path on your terms. Your impact is rooted in making meaningful changes as you navigate multiple borderlands. Your place and your presence matter. Ripples of change are made through the waters of the borderland with the disruption of a stone passing through the water at just the right pace and angle, creating ever-increasing spheres of influence. You are the change we have been waiting for, and we celebrate you this Women’s History Month!