My husband, who is a corporate honcho himself, got into an interesting debate with me on how men and women succeed in the workplace. Our argument culminated in some interesting thoughts. Both of us believe Leadership is gender agnostic. The traits that define a great leader have not changed; hence it is safe to assume that the contours of leadership change with changing times whilst the core remains the same.
I believe that all great leaders have a compelling vision, communicate extremely effectively, have deep empathy (high EQ) and are more efficient than others when it comes to execution. But I also believe that in times to come Adaptability/ Flexibility will become an essential leadership trait, more than it is today.
Having said that leadership is gender agnostic, here are a few ideas women can work with, to bring to the fore the inherent strengths they have:
Women have been known to articulate their thoughts better than men. It is important to leverage that skill to bring to the fore achievements, ideas and disagreements in your workplace. Women, despite better verbal skills, hesitate to speak up in largely male-dominated teams. It is also important to take credit for your work. In Asia, where there is almost an inherent social bias for women to be seen as maternal/self-sacrificing, it has almost become coded into our DNA, not to speak up and oftentimes not take credit where it is due.
- Raise the bar on Empathy:
It’s a well-known fact that teams with high EQ and empathy-led organizations deliver better value in the long run. Women leaders are better placed to lead organizations where the fine balance between the head and the heart is required (research says this, and I’m only paraphrasing). This is a huge inherent trait that women leaders can use to their advantage.
Especially in Asia where gender stereotypes are still prevalent, managing the home and heart typically becomes the woman’s responsibility, and for a working mother the daily prioritization between home, husband, children, pets, etc. becomes ‘de rigueur.’ This is a brilliant skill to have in the workplace as a leader if you can adapt what comes naturally at home, to your workplace leadership.
- Standing up to the gender Stereotype :
Women also need to develop a thicker skin. There are terrible media stereotypes created about women bosses, that they are high-strung, emotional, and weak, which will constantly be thrown at women as they ascend the corporate ladder. This, however, cannot be further from the truth. Most damaging to a woman leader’s credibility is the toxic stereotypes created over the years about “female leadership.” ‘A woman cannot balance her family and a high-pressure career,’ ‘Female leaders are lonely, very high strung and take a decision based on emotion and reasoning,’ ‘She is weak and covers that up by being overtly tough,’ said NO WOMAN LEADER EVER. Women need to ignore these stereotypes and persist in their quest for delivering exception value via their roles.
- Educating Corporations :
I’ve seen many Boards espouse the concept of diversity, with a huge degree of sincerity and intent but without addressing deep-seated organization policies and secondary biases on how women are perceived, especially as leaders in their companies. Whilst it is important to invest in building leadership skill and competencies within your talent pool, it is even more important for organisations to recognize, encourage and motivate the effort of women leaders as they take over the mantle. In a culture which is already conflicted about “how” or “if at all” women should exercise authority, the journey to the top of the organization becomes even more arduous as women fail to find sponsors or advocates to take up her case for leadership. Almost every single time, powerful male stereotypes advocate other men for roles when the need for leadership emerges. This has now become a self-fulfilling prophecy as the scarcity of women at the very top further exacerbates the scarcity of women leaders. This of course, further strengthens our already strong gender stereotypes.
Of course this very fiery discussion led to the understanding of a great lesson centred around gender defining leadership. The glass ceiling is just another social construct which most intelligent women understand is only a perception. Several women have effectively breached male-led bastions to reach the helm of politics, the corporate sector, the social sector and their numbers are steadily on the rise.
Ask any woman who has made it to the top in her field and she will tell you that tenacity and perseverance are the only reason she is where she is. I would expect the same answer from a man at the top of his game. It is important for women to be their own advocates, their own champions when looking at their next leadership role. Not only must they stand up and be heard but the next time a leadership opportunity comes up they must be impassioned sponsors of other women (all other factors being equal).
This can boomerang to become a chain reaction, with a powerful thrust for women leaders. As I said earlier, more women leaders succeeding will lead to an increase (in geometric progression terms) of seeing more women at the helm of companies, organisations, political parties and such!