Women in leadership: Despatches from the front line

April 13, 2017

Starting a conversation about women in leadership requires a clear head and a deep breath. It is a hot topic, raising issues and temperatures in offices and boardrooms around the world, and the subject of much academic study.

The statistics are many and varied, and whichever way you spin them, the news is still frustrating and bewildering – women are poorly represented in C-suite roles, yet there is a growing body of research that suggests that companies that do employ women in senior strategic positions are more profitable and great places to work; it is obvious that potential is being overlooked and mediocrity rewarded by current practices in those businesses that persist in recruiting in their own image, and fail to identify talented women to bring on.

There is a paradox at the heart of this debate: the qualities displayed by the (overwhelmingly male) leaders of successful companies are the traditionally ‘feminine’ or (grrrr) ‘soft’ skills: encouraging people to do their best, listening and coaching, creating working environments where compassion, collaboration, resilience and openness to diversity are the norm, and innovation and change welcomed, yet the image persists of strong, heroic leaders who undervalue those same qualities and hold in contempt those who demonstrate them. What to do?

Part of the answer is to tackle the cultural and systemic barriers to women being accepted as legitimate leaders and decision makers in all sectors, and that is work for the people who are already in those senior roles; part of it is to build confidence and capability in women so that they want to take on leadership roles and seek out opportunities to do so, and are resilient enough to face up to the slings and arrows that assault all leaders, and particularly any woman who is impudent enough to claim a place at the top table.

One solution, then, is to run leadership development programmes, for example targeting women at the point of their working lives when ‘job’ starts to look like ‘career’; supporting women who are thinking of crossing the bridge from operational to strategic roles; and providing ongoing development and networking opportunities for women leaders across sectors. This is not by any means to suggest that it is women who need ‘fixing’, rather than the systemic and cultural barriers to their progression (where are the programmes aimed at the people who are not hiring women?). Nevertheless, such initiatives have an important role in keeping in the spotlight issues that are so familiar, perhaps, that we have stopped taking them seriously enough, believing that the work is done. The best programmes, in my opinion, are those which see the world for what it is and shine a light on the ways in which women and men in leadership recognise and seize opportunity, develop resilience and strategic skills, and carve out new paths of influence and authority, creating successful and profitable organisations which retain talent by enabling people, as Daniel Pink suggests, to develop mastery, relish autonomy and find meaning and purpose in their work.

There are three particularly thorny issues that I see endlessly catching at the clothes of women trying to climb the leadership ladder (none of them, sadly, new or surprising): lack of confidence, unconscious (and sometimes conscious) bias, and an old story that women don’t really want to be leaders.

The issue of confidence is perhaps easiest to tackle, with reference to the astonishingly pervasive experience of imposter syndrome (not unique to women) and the reticence of some in stepping into the limelight of leadership, or in asking for equal pay or applying for jobs for which they feel underqualified. When groups of women get together, they often share, with weary smiles, stories about being talked over, left out of decision-making, or hearing their valuable insights and ideas reiterated and owned by male colleagues. There are many techniques and practices for building confidence in presenting yourself well, finding your voice, and successfully influencing others, and the training is generally of a high standard, as long as it’s experiential – the real challenge is often just getting people to stand up and try, rather than hoping that by listening to lectures, reading articles and watching TED talks, they’ll somehow learn it by osmosis. Confidence and presence are two of those pesky things you can’t learn from a book; you can, on the other hand, learn volumes by doing, observing and giving and receiving feedback.

The second theme, unconscious bias, is more difficult to tackle, not least among women themselves, who are after all not immune from unconscious bias towards – or, rather, away from – other women. There is a frequent cry of ‘I had a woman boss once, and she was awful!’, to which the response must be that women leaders and managers can’t all be ogres, so what is it that reinforces the old canard that in order to succeed and be promoted, women must behave like men – or perhaps more accurately, behave like men who are ‘behaving like men’ – which then invariably turns them into Lady Macbeth (‘unsex me here, and fill me… top-full/Of direst cruelty’)? The reluctance of women to step up into visible leadership has some of its roots here. There are opportunities online and through training to surface unconscious bias (not just about gender) which is a valuable first step to self-awareness; the important leadership development work is focused on developing a compassionate and intelligent understanding of the different ways in which leadership shows up, bringing to the surface and recognising the portfolio of qualities and skills that great leaders have access to, and developing awareness of the shadow or unconscious behaviour that can sabotage them.

For the last, although it’s stating the obvious, it still needs saying: that while many women have a clear sense of why pursuing leadership is worth the effort, and are prepared to organise their lives to enable it, nevertheless they are too often hampered by careless assumptions and prejudices around caring responsibilities and the notion that leadership is too hard, too tiring, too much. Building a sense of purpose and self in the world helps many women in career stasis re-evaluate their ambitions and find the strength to challenge the old story that says they don’t belong.

By Phyllida Hancock

Source: Training Zone