What’s so different about female leadership?

Being a female leader is about understanding what you can change, when you need to back yourself and get others on board and in turn creating a path for younger female leaders, writers Jane Chater.

For years women have kept their heads down and played by the rules. We’ve been certain that with enough hard work, our natural talents would be recognised and we would be rewarded. 

We’ve made undeniable progress and yet, as we’ve worked, ever diligent, the men around us often continue to get promoted faster, paid more and achieve their goals.

I am often asked about female leadership and why this is an important topic. Shouldn’t we just believe that women can be, and are, good leaders? Why do we have to make a specific distinction between male and female leadership? Why does it have to be a ‘thing’?

There are many reasons, with one being that typically we associate leadership with being male (McKinsey, Women in the Workplace study, 2016). When we look at the facts, it is no wonder this is so. Recent NZX statistics showed us that 32 percent (39) of the 122 companies that are listed on the NZX have no female directors, while another 45 percent (55) have boards that are at least 70 percent male. (NZX Annual Statistics) As of July 2013, there were only 19 female elected presidents and prime ministers in power around the globe. In the business world, women currently hold only 4.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEO positions.  

As women look to continue their upward trajectory in the business world, they have yet to be fully appreciated for the unique qualities and abilities they bring to the workplace. 

Even when they manage to reach the top of the ladder, the issue of gender equality remains, where women are often not always viewed in the same way, or paid the same, as men. 

A high-powered male boss is often admired for being strong and assertive, whereas a woman in the same position may be referred to as ruthless or overbearing, if she operates in the same way. We also see a related issue portrayed too often in the movies, where a hard-working professional woman has to choose between career success and a family. These can become subliminal truths and make it harder for women to achieve their full potential.

A lot has been written about why women are so under-represented in senior leadership with reasons given ranging from poor childcare provisions to institutional bias. One thing researchers can’t agree on is whether there are fewer women leaders because they’re less effective at the job, or because society expects them to be.

One theory ties into that mentioned above, where society generally associates successful leadership with stereotypically ‘masculine’ traits such as assertiveness and dominance, and so disapproves of female leaders because they go against these gender norms. 

As a result women experience greater obstacles to reaching the upper levels of leadership. In the 1970s, Virginia Schein came up with the phrase ‘think manager-think male’ to explain the automatic association between leadership and masculinity. It is disappointing to note that 40 years on, that association still exists, in certain circumstances, today. 

But with the recent rise of ‘transformational’ leadership and its emphasis on traditionally ‘feminine’ traits like empathy, collaboration and emotional intelligence, perhaps the expectations on female leaders is shifting. The value of more “feminine traits”, is now being increasingly recognised which is why it is now time to fully embrace female leadership. 

Fundamentally it’s about being confident in operating in a way that uses your natural talent and traits, being true and authentic to who you are as a female leader. 

We believe working on key elements such as understanding what your purpose is, (why you do what you do); understanding your strengths, and your blockers (the key barriers that will hinder your success); understanding who you are and what you stand for; are all vital to your success as a female leader. 

Being a female leader is about understanding what you can change, when you need to back yourself and get others on board and in turn creating a path for younger female leaders, following in your footsteps. 

It is about having courage and choosing to lead, rather than choosing to follow.


Jayne Chater is a business partner at Altris and is passionate about working with female leaders. www.altris.co.nz

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