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Are Women Leaders different, and how do we encourage more of them?

One would argue leadership is leadership, gender should not be a factor in whether a person can be a great leader or not. However, with only 4.9% of women in the CEO seat at Fortune 500 companies, we need to go beyond general arguments to aid the many organizations wishing to address gender inequality. So if men & women lead differently (or if the underlying beliefs or perceptions influence their performance differently), how can we rethink current corporate ecosystem equations to view talent individually and not through latent gender stereotypic glasses?

According to a Harvard Business Study, analysis of 360 degree reviews of leaders showed that women leadership positions were being perceived as being every bit as effective as men. In fact, while the differences were not huge, women scored a higher level than men in vast majority of leadership competencies measured. If that is the case, then why is there a dearth of women leaders? One of the reasons commonly observed in such research studies is when women are asked to rate themselves, they rate significantly lower. Another interesting finding was that a man and a woman with equal credentials, who both lack experience for a higher-level position, had different self-retrospection about getting promoted. The man is more inclined to believe he can learn what is missing, ‘I am close enough’, but the woman is more inclined to be wary. This can play a crucial point for promotions. In addition to the unconscious bias, this lack of confidence exhibition can be a reason of hindrance for a manager looking to promote his female employee. But it is not all bad, this lower level of confidence is also what motivates younger women to take more initiatives, be more receptive to feedbacks, and be more resilient. This helps them be stronger and effective leaders in the long run. Maybe that is the reason why women-led countries are suddenly in news about being more effective in handling crisis. However, as research does not confirm the fact yet, let’s not delve into it.

Generally women leaders are seen as being more emotionally intelligent, more empathetic and friendly. It befalls organizations to see these talents and guide women employees to go and ‘grab that promotion’, or it requires conscious efforts from women to be self-confident and not fall prey to their own mind. How can the later be practiced in a real work setting ?

Stay away from bad advice: Identify your unique talent! Introspect and retrospect to find who you are and what type of leader you will be, as early in your career as possible. For example, if you want to be a leader who shows their ‘vulnerability’, why not? There are women leaders who argue being vulnerable is human and being able to show it at right amounts to your team makes you more authentic, which in turn makes them go extra lengths to finish the assignments. Of course, this is the advice of only a small number of people, the majority firmly believe a woman should not show weakness in a ‘male dominated world’. Being clear on your style of leadership early on can help you steer clear of bad advice. Women leaders often find that there is no shortage of advice thrown their way, be it good or bad.

Informal networks & influential mentors: Join online networks for women leaders, create networks in your workspace, have informal gathering once a while. Not only does seeing each other help with motivation, it also builds a support system to discuss, gain strength from, learn and guide each other. Ever asked the leader you adore, if he/ she can mentor you? It takes courage to ask but more courage to reject, so most people do accept the offer happily and try to guide, give feedback and introduce you to their networks. Learning from someone as mentee is far more effective than just learning by seeing people from afar. There are also women-focused leadership programs that can be highly effective.

Create a strong feedback system: Even if your career is going in the right path, have people around you who do not hesitate to give feedback, from friends and family to team mates and bosses. Set one-on-ones at regular intervals to know how you are doing. This is easily forgotten along the career journey but also something that sets you apart. Know that when you need to make a career decision, you have enough of a support system that can guide you, so you are not biased by your own confidence or skepticism.

Knowing & accepting that bias and differences exist is an important part in empowering women. Training managers to consciously avoid bias, and view talent with a wider lens is the need of the hour. There is a warning though! The current trend of women leadership researches speak heavily on how women leaders are different, better and more emotionally intelligent than their male counterparts, as all these rely on a basic logic men and women are wired differently! What is worrisome here is, these stereotypes seem to benefit women come with a hidden cost as they reinforce gender-based differences. We need to avoid creating any such stereotype inside us and around, to become a purely talent-based society. Accepting the fact that each leader has a unique leadership style is the key, chalking everything down to gender and trying to decode it is not.

By Unnathi Pai, redactor