When you picture a leader, quick: What kind of person comes to mind? Someone strong, decisive, cool under pressure?
Now, be honest in your reply: Were you just now thinking … male?
In a recent experiment, TinaKiefer, a researcher at the U.K.’s University of Warwick, asked subjects to draw a picture of a leader. Almost universally, the subjects, both male and female, drew a man. But that result, as disturbing as it may be, didn’t, and doesn’t, mean that we haven’t experienced a huge societal change.
In fact, in the wake of #MeToo and #TimesUp, the boys’ clubs running the business world are facing an existential threat; and the essence of that threat is that you can’t put the genie back in the metaphorical bottle and unlearn what we now know. In short: It’s high time for us all to have some real conversations and right action around rebalancing power in the workplace.
How we approach this rebalancing act will have consequences for generations to come.
We can paint a new picture.
Before the feminist movement of the 1960s and ’70s, a woman’s “place” was often at home, where traditionally “feminine” traits were thought to create a nurturing household. By the ’70s and ’80s, however, women were entering the workforce in huge numbers, and the traits seen as leadership qualities remained decidedly male. It’s telling that around that same time, working women differentiated themselves from stay-at-home moms by “power dressing,” in shoulder-padded business suits that mirrored their male counterparts’ attire.
Today, the tradition of working women being expected to act in “masculine ways” to get ahead has created a culture that asks many women to hide their authentic selves. But, the moment we’re in right now offers an opportunity to change that. We need to bust the myth that so-called “feminine” leadership doesn’t translate to hard dollars.
There’s science behind that statement: A study by EY suggested that when it comes to leadership, “increasing the percentage of women in top spots from zero to 30 percent is associated with a 15 percent jump in profits.”
Another report, by Credit Suisse Research Institute in 2016, looked at how women-led businesses performed around the world. In analyzing 3,000 global companies, the company found that the higher the percentage of women in top management roles, the greater those businesses’ returns were for shareholders.
A world in which we achieve true gender parity in leadership is entirely possible. But first, we need to re-envision our collective picture of leadership by redefining both “masculine” and “feminine” traits as strong, desirable leadership qualities. This will open the door for women to lead in their own way, versus being forced to adopt only “masculine” leadership traits to climb the corporate ladder.
We can recognize self-awareness as key.
Imagine a working world where women are empowered to draw on their most valuable traits — and how much more impactful this world could be. We need to be real with ourselves about our own conditioning and challenge ourselves to grow beyond it. We need to recognize that most of us are guilty of the same sort of limited thinking Tina Kiefer found in her studies.
Through no fault of our own, we grew up in a culture where leadership was narrowly defined as the domain of males, and usually white males. We all have a responsibility to investigate our own conditioning, and to work to change it.
We can start by taking a step back and asking ourselves, what is the difference between male and female leadership? Of course, not all women act a certain way, or men another. But, in general terms, we can probably agree on certain traits that are traditionally seen as more feminine: listening, compassion, collaboration, patience, nurturing and intuition.
And, in our long history of male-dominated leadership, the power and impact of these traits hasn’t always been acknowledged; in fact, these qualities have often been overlooked and incorrectly perceived as being signs of weakness.
While societal awareness around the powers in feminine leadership has improved, these biases are still very much alive today. According to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey, 37 percent of women surveyed who said their workplaces were mostly male also reported that they had been treated as if they were not competent because of their gender.
And men aren’t the only ones who need to reflect on their gender biases. In a global survey of 9,000 women and men by Unilever in 2017, 55 percent of the women reported that they believed men made better leaders in high-stake projects.
Hopefully, this bias won’t continue indefinitely: In the future, when gender biases will (hopefully) have further dissolved, the traditionally “feminine” leadership traits will not only be perceived as strong and powerful ones but, ideally, as fundamental qualities of any conscious and compassionate leader, male or female.
The reasoning is clear: These valuable leadership characteristics, no matter what physical body they’re expressed through, already have been proven to positively impact a business across the board, from communication and team-building, to overall business performance.
We can lead through integrity.
To create a real culture shift, change must be led by those already in power. It’s not enough for business leaders to say they wish they had more women at the executive level, even as they keep the definition of “leadership” within those roles decidedly male.
Instead, every industry must turn inward to examine if, and how, it is perpetuating myths and stereotypes around gender in its own way. The role that the advertising, marketing and media sectors all play in our society, for example, in terms of shaping cultural stereotypes, is a big one. In Unliver’s global survey of those 9,000 women and men, nearly three out of four respondents (70 percent) said that they felt the world would be a better place if today’s children were not exposed to gender stereotypes in media and marketing.
Rebalancing the gender power dynamics in our businesses and our workplaces doesn’t equate to advocating for the rise of women and the fall of men. Rather, it means creating space for a wider and more encompassing spectrum of positive leadership qualities.
It also means that, in our increasingly diverse and complex business environments, the attributes of feminine leadership will be essential not only to help us thrive in a more collaborative world, but to build a more equal and inclusive future. In the end, we won’t just see more female leaders, we’ll see more evolved leaders — of either gender.
By Rebecca Angus Smith
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