Being a woman in leadership is sometimes tough. No, scratch that. Being a woman is sometimes tough. You need to be cognizant of the traditional expectations towards femininity but, at the same time, ensure that you are a progressive woman who is not limited by those expectations. Then there are the added joys of PMS, the constant guilt stemming from trying to juggle between motherhood and career and, for a few years after you give birth, tearing up at every commercial featuring a rosy-cheeked baby (I swear, for a while there, I was sure that some unknown archenemy of mine created all diaper commercials especially to torture me).
But then again, being a man in today’s world is not a piece of cake either. After all, they are often at the receiving end of those PMSs and have to come running with the tissues when you are sniffling in front of the TV. They need to navigate the ever-changing expectations towards men too. And they have to keep their potential bias towards women in the workplace in constant check.
But this post is about femininity, so back to women. And leadership.
My first gig in people management was 12 years ago. I had one direct report, and I had to manage her remotely. My then manager was very inspiring but quite authoritarian. He was very demanding and focused on results and did not tolerate being challenged as a leader much.
Of course, having no experience in management, I tried to emulate his style and failed miserably. I still cringe when I think back at my management techniques at that time. For a few years after that, I was utterly convinced that I am not cut out to be a people manager, and I would never succeed in such a role.
(At some point, I realized that his management style worked so well for him because he would hire only young women and easily slip into a father figure role for them. You would think that at this point, it would occur to me that I could also use a role that comes naturally to me, such as a mother figure, to be successful and authentic in my leadership. But insights never come easy.)
My second people management role came unexpectedly and without any aspirations on my end for it. At the time, I was working at a business processing outsourcing company, and the trends in leadership I had observed there scared me a bit. Due to the nature of their business, BPOs cannot afford to be very people-centric. The focus is almost solely on numbers and results.
But at this point, I had not realized fully how the organization culture interplays with the leadership styles and efficiency. What I saw was that the most successful leaders were men and the few women who were celebrated as good managers displayed qualities that are traditionally viewed as masculine – authority, assertiveness, ambition, task-orientation and very few feminine traits such as care, communication, and vulnerability.
I had a brief run of attempting to be like them, but the truth is I like the fact that I am a woman. I believe in putting people above the results; I like the fact that I care so much about the work that I cry at my desk when something falls apart (at least I am not bawling over a diaper commercial, right?). I am even ok with the fact that to this day, I cannot always tell left from right.
So I resigned myself to the fact that I would never be a successful leader and embraced my vulnerability and femininity. I focused on cooperation rather than competition. I put the care for my team first and put my personal ambitions to the side for the sake of joint success.
Five years later, I lead nearly 60 people and manage managers and managers of managers. I have led my teams through tremendous challenges and built their confidence, credibility, and reputation. And their engagement scores are consistently off the charts. You could say that I am a decent leader.
And it seems it is not just me
I have often found myself irritated by articles that advise women on how to get a seat at the table and achieve their rightful place as leaders. More often than not, the guidelines provided to women is to emulate behaviors considered primarily male – show assertiveness, be ambitious, lean in. And that’s bogus.
On the one hand, as Leonora Risse’s research shows, such behavior does not have the same results for women as men. While confidence increases the likelihood of promotion for men, it is not the same for women. So why change who you are and get nothing in return?
But even more importantly, I have always wondered, what benefit would organizations get from getting more women at the table if they display the same leadership styles and behaviors as men. We need women to be heard precisely because their voice is different and they bring a diverse leadership approach.
And an even better one, some research says.
In their study from 2011, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman evaluated 7,280 leaders. The data came from 360-assessments and considered the evaluation of the leaders’ direct reports, peers managers, and other associates. Their results show that women outrank men in 12 out of 16 competencies linked to outstanding leadership. This was not confined only to qualities traditionally viewed as feminine such as building relationships or developing others. Women scored higher also on dimensions that were considered a male domain like taking initiative and driving for results.
In another study, Silva and Mendis review the different approaches men and women have in terms of three leadership styles – transformational, transactional and laissez-faire.
Transformational leaders act as role models for their teams. They instill values and work on establishing trust and empowering their teams. They mentor rather than punish.
The relationship of transactional leaders with their subordinates is based on exchange. Such managers focus on clarifying subordinates and punishment and reward.
The third type of leadership examined is the most passive. The laissez-faire leader provides much freedom to their teams and only gets involved when they do not meet their goals. They provide little guidance and coaching to their employees and rely solely on the team’s intrinsic motivation and responsibility.
Research shows that in most contemporary organizations, the transformation leadership style is most effective and most closely aligns with reaching a company’s business goals and objectives.
And according to the results of this particular study, women had higher scores in transformational leadership and one of the aspects of transactional leadership which relates to rewarding achievements and positive behaviors. They scored especially high on their ability to communicate values and corporate mission and their focus on mentoring and developing their employees while addressing their failures to ensure they are not repeated.
The male leaders who participated in the research were rated higher in management by exception and laissez-faire leadership, characterized by focusing on addressing employee mistakes, but addressing them only when an issue escalates.
And these are not the only studies that show that female leaders may be more effective in today’s organizations, and their approach may address contemporary employees’ needs.
So why is it so difficult to embrace femininity in leadership?
For starters, there is the double-bind of social expectations. On the one hand, leaders are expected to be authoritative, confident and assertive (qualities considered predominantly masculine). But many times when I have displayed such behavior, it was perceived as being authoritarian, brash and pushy. On the other, in general, women are still preferred to be gentle, caring and cooperative. But some of my male colleagues have recognized such conduct as being soft and weak (often to their own detriment, because I do have claws).
Also, some men find it uncomfortable to be managed by a woman. I have had several such employees in my teams, and working together was quite challenging for both sides. For them, the hard part was dealing with the cognitive dissonance of having to take direction from someone who did not look, act or think the way they expected a leader to do. And for me, it was the utter helplessness of not being able to get through to someone because of factors entirely outside my control – after all, I was born a woman.
Some of them managed to get over their preconceptions and stop focusing on who is talking and how they are saying things and actually hear what I was trying to tell them. With them, we managed to build fruitful relationships, and in the end, they were able to accept my authority. Others were not able to overcome their bias, and we had to part ways.
But not only this. Even though research and experience may show that feminine leadership approaches may be more effective, the coin has a flip side. Just like the considered for a predominantly male trait of confidence may turn into arrogance or ambition into ruthlessness, some otherwise positive feminine leadership qualities may become negative when taken to an extreme.
I have found myself in situations when the desire to defend my team has turned me into a vicious mama bear trying to protect her cubs. The maternal instinct to keep the ones I care about from harm, at times overshadows my intention to be a cooperative partner to my peers and stakeholders.
At other times, my empathy and care for the individuals in my team have hindered my ability to make promptly difficult but necessary decisions such as implementing corrective action for a low-performing employee or terminating the employment of a colleague who is unable to meet the requirements for their role.
And there are more of those. In all these situations, I have felt guilty. And I have attributed my failure to act in a manner I find professional to the fact that I am a woman.
But the truth is…
That no matter if we are a male or a female leader, we have to keep our behaviors in check and be careful not to turn the coin to its flip side too often. And I could make just as many mistakes as a leader if I turned my back on my femininity, but I would be a lot less authentic and at peace with myself.
As for social expectations, they, too, are changing. My son read a bit of this post over my shoulder and asked, “Mom, are you a leader at work?” and when I answered, “Yes,” he said, “Cool. Then you could be my boss.”
After years of struggling to find a balance and the right way to be a woman leader, I can now say that I try not to unleash my inner mama bear too often, but I am glad she is in there. I sometimes need to rely on her strength.