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Iron Butterflies: How Women Can Rule the World Without Compromising Their Best Qualities

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When women decide to climb the corporate ladder or enter politics, before entering the fray they are usually forced to gird their loins and emotionally armor themselves like men. However courageous, adopting a command-and-control style of leadership often comes at great personal cost. In her new book, Iron Butterflies: Women Transforming Themselves and the World, developmental psychologist Birute Regine makes clear the extent to which women contort themselves to make it in a man's world. If they're not acting like Amazons, they're becoming what she calls "shape-changers."

But that's only the beginning of the story. Ms Regine documents how, at a certain point in their development and often out of necessity, successful women bring traits and values traditionally associated with women to their callings and into the marketplace. In fact, writes Ms. Regine, a female-led revolution in leadership style, however off the radar, is underway.

In a complex environment and an interconnected world, skills associated with women will prove more and more effective and keenly pertinent: their holistic view of the world, their ability to see interconnections among things, their relational intelligence, their tendencies toward collaboration and inclusion, their ability to empathize."

She calls these women Iron Butterflies. To head the jokes off at the pass, the author borrowed the phrase from a poem by poverty worker and poet Janice Mirikitani, who infused it with much more meaning than a second-rate psychedelic band ever did. To Ms. Regine, the term captures "their individual resilience and fragility, conviction and poignancy, their inner beauty and outer strength."

Iron Butterflies is especially essential reading for young women who often fail to appreciate just how hard-won are the opportunities they enjoy today. Nor do they realize, as Ms. Regine points out, that sexual discrimination still exists -- as they'll find out when their heads start thudding against the glass ceiling. It's also an important book for men, who need to learn that they've got to get with the program or get out of the way. In fact, if they too adapt some of women's ways in the working world, they may not only find they can breathe a sigh of relief, but, in the long run, achieve more success.

Ms. Regine interviewed a staggering 60 successful women from all walks of life and throughout the world including businesswomen, CEOs, a Congresswoman, a governor, an ex-prime minister, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, a winemaker, artists, doctors, and nurses. These women discuss their fallibilities and struggles, which, women at the lower end of the job spectrum will find, are striking in their similarity to their own. Among the qualities that make Iron Butterflies exceptional: 1. how they prevail over a Job-like procession of obstacles that are a revelation to white male readers in particular, 2. their willingness to look deep into their souls and open themselves to change when they learn the extent to which they've been contorted by adopting a man's traditional approach.

The word "inspiring" is tossed around way too frequently. But in its depiction of the hardships that many of these women endured, sometimes from their earliest ages, and their emotional resilience and flexibility, this book inspires.

The advertising copy for Iron Butterflies notes that women who were interviewed for the book speak about their lives with "disarming candor." Talk about understatements. For example, wait until you read the interview with anti-landmine campaigner Jodie Williams, who, of course, was awarded the Nobel Prize Peace Prize. You'll swear that the author got her drunk. But that's doing Ms. Regine a disservice. Whatever she's sharing of herself that induces them to open their hearts to her is testimony to the extent to which she's an Iron Butterfly herself. We'll use that as a jumping-off point for questioning Ms. Regine.

How did you get women like Jodie Williams to open up like they did?

Being a psychotherapist and coach for three decades helped. I'm a good listener and pretty good at asking thoughtful questions. But the way they opened up, their willingness to show their vulnerabilities, really says more about them than me. These women want to help other women by sharing their stories. Adrienne Rich wrote that when a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her. The brutal honesty in some of these stories shows women's reality as it actually is, not as how we wish it were or how we would like to think it is. We don't often see the blood, sweat and tears behind the success stories. These women are pioneers, in actually doing what Adrienne Rich said: by telling their own truths they are inviting other women to do the same. As a result, readers will realize they are not alone trying to improve their lives and the lives of those around them.

You said that while writing your previous book with your husband that you came to believe that women are in a position to lead in the twenty-first century. What were you seeing or hearing that led you to that conclusion?

What I saw was a need for more feminine skills in our leaders and also simply more women leading. This is needed to bring balance to a masculine and male-dominated world that is becoming increasingly interconnected and interdependent. And, with the recent economic meltdown, I think people really get that we no longer can stand alone or fall alone. We need women's feminine skills to clean up the mess that, frankly, men in power have wrought across the planet. We need women's holistic view of life, their ability to see interconnections between things, their relational intelligence, their tendencies toward collaboration and inclusion, and their ability to empathize and nurture. All these skills are keenly pertinent to our new global reality. Ironically perhaps, the qualities that have kept women out of the mainstream are now the very same qualities that empower them to lead. [Emphasis added -- couldn't let that one go by unremarked upon. -- RW]

The women you interviewed were well advanced into their careers before they metamorphosed into Iron Butterflies. Do you think young women entering the work force, government, or NGOs still need to arm themselves like gladiators?

I wish I could say they don't, but if women are working in male-dominated environments, and there is little support from other women, they have to adapt to the dominant culture in order to survive. The good news is that there are more organizations than ever of women supporting women, so that they can become Iron Butterflies, women leaders who don't play the game but rather change the game. These women are slowly but surely transforming what I call the gladiator culture that currently prevails in most business organizations. But this kind of sea change doesn't happen overnight. I do think though that we are getting closer to a tipping point.

Noting how few women were convicted in the Enron, Tyco, and WorldCom scandals, you write: "Women's presence can disperse the testosterone cloud of omnipotence that has corrupted our institutions with so much immoral and unethical behavior." Can you explain why women are more ethical?

Generally speaking women are relational for biological, social, and psychological reasons. The psychologist Carol Gilligan defined women's morality as guided by care and responsibility. When you care and take responsibility you aren't just thinking about yourself, you are thinking about the impact of your choices and behavior on others. That makes you more accountable, which in turn means you tend to think things through more carefully. Jody Williams called it "enlightened self-interest." Of course we are driven by self-interest, but in an interconnected reality it is in our interest to have concern for others. It's what we mean by the soul at work -- the individual soul and the collective soul.

One of my favorite moments in the books was the response of businesswoman Judith Baker to being sabotaged by the man she worked under. Before she was about to make a presentation to a client, he showed up uninvited and informed her of complaints that she was abusive to other employees. You write that, upon seeing his true stripes for the first time, "Judith unpacked the materials for the presentation and said, 'Here are the materials for the meeting. I resign. I'm sure you can handle it.' She got up and walked out."

The reader cheers her on, yet she later rues her behavior as "an unbridled Fury." Her description of how she might have handled the situation better seems to go to the heart of what being an Iron Butterfly in the workplace is about. Please talk about that.

Being "an unbridled Fury" has its benefits! Her anger burned its way to a place of authenticity where Judith could no longer deny what was going on. What I think she rued was that she was reacting to the situation, and so was not fully in charge. I mean quitting one's job on the spot was extreme and made her point! But ultimately giving up her job wouldn't benefit her. When the Fury comes out, it is the fed-up woman saying "enough is enough." The Fury is also an indicator of your anger at yourself for a lot of missed opportunities, all those small moments when you could have confronted the situation but didn't, until it reached an intolerable point.

When you conduct your interviews, it's as if you're a butterfly alighting upon flower after flower. How did writing Iron Butterflies change you?

Interviewing these women was an amazing experience. Minutes into the interview, I often felt like "Girlfriend!" Their wisdom, their stories continue to guide me in my own life. The journey of the book was exhilarating and humbling. I sacrificed a lot for this project. Getting the book published seemed to be an endless lesson in patience and determination. I faced delays, obstacles, and rejections from the publishing world. There were times I wanted to just chuck the whole thing, but it just wouldn't let me go! And it still doesn't. There were many layers to the writing of this book, the stories and lessons, the cultural context, and the global dimension. For me the most profound insight to emerge was a new way of looking at vulnerability and how it has the power to shake up a deeply enculturated schema. I have changed: I've never been stronger or more vulnerable.

In a final, related question, what did it take for you personally to emerge from your chrysalis and become an Iron Butterfly?

I think I'm still emerging! It's one of the paradoxes of Iron Butterflydom. I thought getting this book published and out into the world was the end of a journey. It turns out to be the beginning, because now I see that the book is a springboard for an Iron Butterfly movement. Others are telling me I am called to this service, and in truth it is a calling. At this stage of my life I unexpectedly find myself on a grand mission: to get the Iron Butterfly message out as we enter the Era of Women.