I have always been fascinated by Women in Leadership. It's a topic that has been on my mind for as long as I can remember. When I was just three years old, I used to take charge and organise my family's activities. While my family indulged me and found it amusing, I saw it as an opportunity to lead. Today, I see the same qualities in my niece, which makes me even more committed to the subject.
However, as I grew older, I realised that the path to leadership is far from straightforward, and many factors beyond our control can positively or negatively influence it. Things like our education, the colour of our skin, the perception of women’s roles, the organisations we work in and even the country we're born in can all play a role. My own leadership journey was not linear. I took several lateral moves, which were difficult at the time, but looking back, I can see how they prepared me for the next step in leading organisational transformations, mobilising for change and understanding stakeholder needs.
The reality check came when I left a global organisation focused on competence, performance and inclusion. I entered the real world, where I observed how cultural norms and beliefs precede achievements and competence.
That’s when I realised that my experiences, while valid, didn't provide a complete perspective on women's paths to leadership. Since then, looking at research has become my way of calibrating my perspective. In this article, I share some of my findings on women in leadership. However, it's worth noting that research is ever-evolving, and our organisational realities are constantly changing.
Some of the research has been disheartening:
People tend to penalise women who don't conform to gender norms. Examples of such areas of nonconformity are manifesting explicit behaviours of dominance, not getting married, not having children etc. So, as a result, in leadership roles, people tend to penalise women more for explicit behaviours of dominance or agency, even when such behaviours are in the scope of the role.
People report a lower desire to have a woman versus an identical man as their boss.
Women in leadership positions have a harder time eliciting respect and admiration from team members. They're often perceived as less legitimate than their male counterparts, even when equally competent. This can lead to negative behaviours from their direct reports, making women leaders feel rejected and challenged.
Female leaders may experience a precarious mental state and display unfavourable reactions towards direct reports if they reject them. This behaviour can validate preconceived negative beliefs about female leaders and perpetuate a cycle of decreased credibility and authority for women in leadership positions.
Becoming a woman leader is a challenging journey, fraught with obstacles and barriers that require navigating. However, despite the difficulties, I have gained valuable insights through my experiences. I continue on this learning journey every day. I have been gifted with many mentors, allies and people who supported me on the path. So, I was never alone.
I am grateful for these insights and believe that by sharing them, we can begin to find solutions that address the systemic issues that prevent women from achieving and navigating leadership roles. To this end, I offer several suggestions to empower women in leadership roles and their co-workers.
While organisations are also responsible for promoting gender equity and inclusivity, my recommendations focus on what women and their colleagues can do to break down barriers and create a more level playing field. It is my hope that these suggestions will provide a starting point for discussions and action to create a more equitable and inclusive path to leadership for all women.
Emphasising qualifications and competence: Women in leadership positions can emphasise their qualifications and competence to establish their legitimacy by sharing their strong credentials and exceptionally high performance or by providing clear evidence of prior work competence. It’s worth noting that this emphasis works best when positioned in support of the organisation and the work rather than a defensive approach.
Giving credit: Leaders can provide support by acknowledging and crediting women for their accomplishments, specifically highlighting their skills, decisions, and actions, rather than attributing their success to external factors such as market conditions.
Establishing networks and key stakeholder relationships: Frequent interaction with stakeholders can reduce stereotypical thinking about them over time. Women become familiar faces and can consistently demonstrate exceptional competence by investing time and effort in creating key relationships across the organisation. They are then likely to be evaluated based on their merits rather than judged according to gender stereotypes or credited according to shared results.
Building support systems: Women can build support systems within and outside their organisations to overcome the challenges of being less accepted than their male counterparts.
Role modelling: When other women have previously held similar leadership positions in an organisation, the probability of gender stereotypes is decreased. Consequently, women in leadership roles can act as role models for other women, motivating and empowering them to pursue leadership positions and establishing a pathway for future generations of female leaders.
Overall, addressing these challenges requires a concerted effort from all of us: individuals and organisations. Diversity and inclusion is a shared responsibility that starts with self-responsibility, awareness, education and consistent small steps.
We owe it to ourselves and future generations, regardless of gender, to continue pushing for progress towards an inclusive environment that enables everyone to thrive. I am deeply grateful for the organisations and leaders I work with, who have proven that this future is possible through their commitment and dedication.