The Buzz about Women as Leaders
By Joan Dasher and Kim Heyer, BlessingWhite
Women in leadership continues to be a topic of debate. Most of the information out there focuses on the statistics of wage parity (or lack thereof) and the low percentage of women in leadership positions.
For example, a recent report released by the University of Denver’s Colorado Women’s College entitled “Benchmarking Women’s Leadership in the United States” concludes that not much has changed in the last four years. On average, women still hold fewer than 20 percent of leadership positions across all sectors.
In September 2013, Catalyst, a non-profit dedicated to expanding opportunities for women in the workplace, published a compilation of data sources related to wage and opportunity differential by gender. The piece concludes: “Based on median annual earnings for full-time, year-round workers, women earned 76.5% of men’s earnings in 2012.”
The prevailing theory about the lack of women leaders in senior positions has revolved around the notion that “it’s a male club.” But a recent Gallup poll on American’s gender preference for a boss states that overall, people prefer a male boss over a female. Forty percent of women would prefer a male boss while 51 percent of men have no preference on the gender of their immediate manager. Does this data dispel the myth that it’s a misogynistic bias of a male-dominated senior leadership that is holding women back? Or do men genuinely make better leaders?
Is it a gender issue?
We spoke with Angela Hills, a Senior Executive at Pinstripe & Ochre House, a company whose executive team is 3/4 female. Pinstripe has experienced growth and success through innovation and hard work, almost putting aside gender. We asked her if she felt gender played a role in her leadership experience. “We need to almost overlook the fact that you are a woman and just be a great leader and do it because you want to be the best” says Hills, “Being a great leader is not about knowing everything. It’s about trust and connection and being able to evaluate needs.”“We need to almost overlook the fact that you are a woman and just be a great leader and do it because you want to be the best” – Hills
Deb Keary, SVP of HR at SHRM, concurs with Hills and responds by advocating that “It doesn’t matter if you are a male or female leader, the attributes of great leaders don’t change. A great leader inspires those they lead and establishes mutual trusting relationships.”
Is it a label issue?
The competencies of leadership may be the same for women and men, but female leaders still face a stereotyping/labeling issue. Former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright noted the “different vocabulary used to describe similar qualities in men (confident, take-charge, committed) and women (bossy, aggressive, emotional).” How then do women leaders work to remove the labels and focus on building those mutually trusting relationships with their bosses, their peers, and their direct reports?
In truth, all leaders face the prejudices and preconceptions of others. The best avenue we have for overcoming these is to discover what makes us a unique individual, and then to tap into those unique differentiators to become an inspirational leader that others will want to follow.
Why should anyone be led by YOU?
When this question is asked of many leaders, it often renders the room silent. Gender aside, great leadership is a relationship between you and your followers.
Male or female, you need to be authentic while driving the organization’s imperatives. People want to be led by a real person. Learn to flex your leadership style for different situations and stay attuned to the needs of followers. Know what they need from you.
Focus on the following leadership practices:
- Become a situational sensor. Situational sensing requires that you pick up on the “soft data” around you to guide your behavior and provide the insights you need to create an alternative, inspiring reality for followers.
- Know and show yourself — enough. You need to determine what is unique and special enough about you to excite others to exceptional performance. It may be your core values, your background, your special expertise, or even your shortcomings (but not your fatal flaws).
- Communicate with care. Communication needs to be about more than your message and your audience. You need to choose the communication channel that works best for you.
By following these guidelines you can earn the right to be heard. People will follow your lead if you take into account these four primary needs:
- Community: We all desire to belong, to feel part of something bigger (like an overarching organizational purpose), and to form connections with other people.
- Authenticity: We won’t follow a mere title or set of credentials. We need human beings who reveal what makes them unique and worth following.
- Significance: We’re all looking for meaningful work and the recognition that what we do matters.
- Excitement: We want passionate leaders to inspire us. And sometimes we need a bit of a push to spur even greater achievement.
Women have to focus on the “A” (Authenticity) in making our CASE (Community, Authenticity, Significance, Excitement). We have got to embrace our nurturing side and bring our passion to work. But, we also need to take the time to communicate with care — prepare our communications thoughtfully, channel our emotions into our passion, and take criticism calmly.
Women leaders need to demonstrate consistency and constancy. Trust is something that is built. It doesn’t come from one interaction…it develops over time. And, by so doing, perhaps the labels will grow outdated and women leaders will be judged by their performance and results.
It’s not about being a man or a woman, it’s about being you.
What is your answer to “Why should anyone be led by you?” What are the personal differentiators that make you a compelling leader? What strengths and unique traits do you have that you can put to work in engaging with your followers? Self-reflection is certainly an important leadership practice, but don’t stop there. Seek out your followers. Ask for feedback. Listen to what they say — and don’t say. Man or woman, the secret to being a successful leader is to be yourself, but more, and with skill.