In a recent article, I wrote about the myth of the C-suite and why so few women are reaching the uppermost echelons within companies and organizations. Despite years of progress by women in the workforce – they now occupy more than 40% of all managerial positions in the U.S. – within the C-suite they are far scarcer. When you look at Fortune 500 companies, the most highly paid executives with titles such as chairman, chief executive officer, president and COO, only 6% are women. More importantly, only 2% of the CEOs are women, and only 15% of the seats on the boards of directors are held by women.
One of the obstacles along the career path to the C-suite has to do with leadership style. Women often struggle to develop an effective and appropriate leadership style, one that balances the “communal” qualities people would rather see in women with the “mover and shaker” qualities people think leaders need to be successful. Women are not “men in skirts,” and there is the possibility that women who behave like men will be penalized. It’s not easy for a woman to strike that authentic balance as a leader.
I thought about this today after coaching a client who is frustrated with the double standard she feels exists between how men and women lead. She is a collaborator by nature, a trait that is normally seen in a positive light, but in the leadership arena consensus often equates to an inability to take a stand. Wishy-washy. Indecisive. If she acts in an autocratic manner she is seen as “behaving like a man” and her approval rating takes a hit. This double bind wreaks havoc on her ability to lead, and she struggles to strike a balance that is both effective and authentic.
Women leaders regularly find themselves in this Catch 22 situation. If they exhibit traits typically associated with males, they will likely be resented and considered “too aggressive” for the position. Studies that have tracked reactions to men and women displaying different types of dominant behavior have consistently shown that this behavior is more damaging to women than it is to men. Assertive behavior can reduce a woman’s chances of getting a job or advancing in her career. Interestingly, studies bear out that men can communicate in either a warm or a dominant manner without experiencing a penalty either way.
Think for a moment about the word “leadership.” Now with that thought in mind, add the picture of a man and what comes to light? Do the words ambitious, decisive, commanding, demanding and aloof (among others) trip off the tongue? Do we envision such traits as collaborative, social, communal, nurturing and compassionate when we think about women and leadership? Do we begin to get uncomfortable if we flip flop these traits, or when men and women behave in a style that clashes with our assumptions?
Research and statistics have pointed to women leaders as more socially oriented and collaborative while male counterparts are seen as task oriented and dominating, and while I don’t doubt the validity of these findings, I do question their origin. How much of this has to do with biology and how much is due to sociological factors? How much of this is true nature and predisposition, and how much is conditioning and gender stereotyping?
Talking about gender stereotypes and leadership success is multifaceted and complex – it’s way more than just a set of numbers and statistics. Yet it’s crucial that these conversations take place in order to break down and change longstanding beliefs about gender roles and dynamics. Breaking down gender stereotypes requires that we examine our presumptions. Often that involves painful excavation and removal of the false beliefs, judgments and restrictions we hold around what constitutes male/female behavior. Until these are brought to the surface and acknowledged, true change cannot take place.
By observing, understanding and transforming past patterns that dictate today’s beliefs about leadership we can take steps to create a new paradigm; a new set of beliefs that aren’t based on defined gender roles or qualities, but on what factors constitute the best in leadership.
That’s what my client is trying to do. She’s not ready or willing to throw the baby out with the bath water when it comes to leadership style. For her, a collaborative approach is a strategic and systematic one that creates levels of accountability and alignment that drive results. She refuses to jettison that trait in favor of appearing more decisive. She’s also learning to become more comfortable with the ambiguity even as she works to change it.
Collectively, we need a long lens to go back in our history to connect the dots of what it meant to be a man or woman through the generations. Then we can take what qualities are effective and necessary to good leadership and put a new face on them. Not a male face. Not a female face. But the face of a leader.