Why women in leadership positions should not be judged - HR Future helps people prepare for the Future of Work and is South Africa's leading print, digital and online Human Resources magazine.

Why women in leadership positions should not be judged

It is well known that female leaders have been obliged to think and act like men in the workplace.

They have often chosen to do this because they do not feel that they are entirely accepted in their positions by their male colleagues and because women who choose to fit the gender stereotype to act feminine and with compassion often lose impact and credibility. As a result, unfortunately women in leadership positions often appear harsh, rigid and over-assertive.  

A Stanford School of Business study on power and influence found that women who are perceived as competent are also often perceived as unlikeable, while men do not face this likeability/competency issue. In fact, as a result of this, women in leadership positions get very little support from other women.

The recent elections in the United States demonstrated a prime example of the above syndrome as one of the reasons Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign failed was that her critics accused her of being cold or aloof during her campaign. The election shows that sexism retains a deeper hold than most imagined. But what was highlighted in all of this is that women do not stand together. Women voted for Trump over Clinton by a whopping 28-point margin - 62% to 34%. If they had split 50-50, Clinton would have won.

There is a growing body of evidence showing that women are equally and in some instances, more effective leaders than men. Research by the Institute for Inclusive Security, a think-tank focused on women’s contributions to peacebuilding has shown that women are more open to “collaboration across ideological lines and social sectors.” According to the Institute for Inclusive Security, when women are involved in negotiating peace deals, these are 35% more likely to remain in effect for at least 15 years.

So where do women find themselves at this juncture in the corporate world? Women have simply stopped making progress at the top in any industry anywhere in the world. For the last 10 years, in the United States, women have occupied 14% of the top corporate jobs and 17% of the seats on the Board. However, despite the fact that women are obtaining more and more of the graduate degrees - and more and more of the undergraduate degrees - there has been no more progress as this has translated to more and more women occupying entry-level and lower level management jobs. So, no real progress … One of the biggest contributing factors is that women do not support other women.

The benefits brought by women to leadership positions far outweigh the changes business needs to make to accommodate them. More startling perhaps - in view of prevailing attitudes - are the results from new data from the Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIIE) and Ernst & Young (EY) which shows that having more female leaders in business can significantly increase profitability.  

Stephen R. Howe, EY’s US Chairman and Americas Managing Partner says: “The research demonstrated that while increasing the number of women directors and CEOs is important, growing the percentage of female leaders in the C-suite would likely benefit the bottom line even more.”

While it is critical for organisations to increase access to leadership roles for women it is equally important to develop equitable strategies and programmes to ensure both men and women rise to the top - ultimately increasing the bottom line of the organisation. Women leaders need to be coached to develop the leadership and communications strategies they need in the workplace such as strategic and complex decision-making utilising the female whole brained analytical/intuitive style. They need to develop their strength and resilience by learning how to handle the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of an increasingly unstable and rapidly changing business world.

South Africa ranks among countries with the highest female representation in government. Laudable as this statistic may be, in corporate South Africa only seven of the 293 companies listed on the JSE have women at the helm (2015 Women in Leadership Census). Discriminatory practices, social norms and persistent stereotypes continue to shape inequitable access to opportunities, resources and power for women and girls.

As women have made greater impact on companies, it has become clear that they are no longer “optional” extras. Recent studies among multinational corporations show that with just one woman on a Board, a company’s share price will rise an average of 26%. Gender collaborative decision-making makes more money for companies!

Pragmatic thinking, spatial awareness and problem-solving style are the characteristics of the structure and usage patterns of the typical male brain while the female brain processes information from both hemispheres simultaneously, bringing about multi-tasking, collaborative decision-making, empathy, and a complex decision-making style incorporating people and processes more effectively. These women add a different perspective and voice to the leadership group. Women have the natural characteristics that have been missing in leadership.  

So why do women not help other women get ahead? Firstly, the women who advance to leadership, do this by not calling attention to their gender or their minority status.  It follows, unfortunately, that they are not there to advocate for other women - they simply do not want to be seen as having a “feminist agenda.” A woman may distance herself - consciously or not - so that she has credibility with her peers and shows that she’s “one of them.”

Secondly, women face subtle or not so subtle disapproval from their male peers especially when they congregate with other women, women helping one another is viewed as feminism - considered a negative thing in the workplace. Thirdly women helping other women is not considered valuable work.

The problem of women not helping other women will not be resolved until both men and women change the existing dynamic and begin to see women coming together and helping one another, not as feminism but for what it is - a critical component of business health and success.

Susi Astengo is the Managing Director of CoachMatching.

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