By Tracy May, Managing Director at TPC Leadership
Traditional ideas about leadership are being challenged as never before. The old ideas of leadership as a set of fixed competencies belonging to those who are ‘pale and male’ are decidedly ‘stale’. In the volatile, ambiguous and diverse workplace of today, there is a growing appreciation that leadership is highly contextual and involves a range of capabilities that have much more to do with agility than strength. What works ‘here’ (in my organisational setting), doesn’t necessarily work ‘over there’ (in your organisational setting) and our renewed appreciation of the contextual nature of leadership is making us re-examine everything we thought we knew about it. This paradigm shift is focusing our attention afresh on gender and leadership. We have much to learn by paying attention to the gender-driven differences between men and women in leadership and in better understanding and leveraging the unique attributes that women bring to the leadership table.
Research reveals that men and women leaders share similar ambitions and success strategies. Despite this commonality, they don’t appear to share the same leadership approach. The popular perception amongst leaders and followers is that women leaders are better at multi-tasking and are more nurturing and relational (taking care) than male leaders, who are perceived generally to be more single-minded, action oriented and task focused (taking action). Is this perception evidence-based or simply a stereotype shaped and reinforced by our expectations?
In this blog, we will explore some of the emerging findings on women in leadership that show that women face a unique set of challenges and, at the same time, offer a unique set of capabilities to organisational leadership.
WOMEN LEADERS – UNIQUE CHALLENGES
A 2010 study by Catalyst of 296 corporate leaders (128 men, 168 women) reveals that women face barriers to their achievement rarely experienced by men (1). Some of these barriers are external, such as low representation at senior level, gender bias and stereotyping in the workplace. In our experience with working with women leaders, these external barriers can often create other, internal barriers for women, such as lower self-confidence, a feeling of lack of support, concern about raising an alternative ‘voice’ in the leadership group, and so on. Women in male-dominated leadership groups often have a sense of being more visible/exposed, whilst enjoying less status than their male peers, thereby inviting more scrutiny and less willingness to challenge the status quo.
Add to these work-based pressures, the common pressures women face in the home. More often than not, the primary domestic responsibilities tend to rest with them, either by choice or by necessity, creating multiple demands and time challenges. The ‘maternal bias’ that plays out in the workplace offers women two choices – Be a good mother OR be a good employee – you cannot be both! Given these challenges on both work and domestic fronts, it is not surprising that there is a higher attrition rate for women leaders, who opt to exit the corporate world in favour of more flexible alternative career choices/lifestyles. This attrition represents a considerable loss to organisations, which miss out on the unique capabilities that women bring to the leadership role.
WOMEN LEADERS – UNIQUE CAPABILITIES
But what are these unique capabilities? Is it simply that women leaders are more nurturing and flexible than their male counterparts? In an excellent White Paper, titled “Women Under Pressure” published by the Institute for Health and Human Potential (IHHP), the evidence is shared that women tend to be better than men at handling the complexities that arise when making decisions involving multiple stakeholders.(2) It emerges that women under pressure are more able to incorporate and consider multiple viewpoints and less likely than their male counterparts to develop tunnel vision or to create resistance by alienating the needs of key stakeholders.
At least part of the reason for this enhanced capability when dealing with complexity is attributed to physiology: Men and women have slightly different brain structures. In women, the hippocampus, which is a key area of the brain when it comes to memory and decision-making, is larger and therefore receives more blood flow under pressure. This is important because it helps women to be more effective at processing and coding emotional experiences into their long-term memory, as well as linking past experiences and recalling intricate physical details. (3)
Secondly, women’s brains have nearly 10 times more white matter than men’s brains and the structure that connects both hemispheres of the brain (the corpus collossum) is 10% thicker on average in female brains. (4) What this means is that under pressure women tend to weigh more variables, consider more options, see more context, connect more brain areas and visualise a wider array of solutions and outcomes to a problem. Men, on the others hand, when under pressure, have a greater tendency to develop tunnel vision, the tendency to focus exclusively on a single or limited goal or point of view, while ignoring everything else around them. While this can be very useful in focusing and targeting efforts towards short term (or emergency) outcomes, it is less useful in the longer term or more strategic decisions, where there are considerably more complexity and ambiguity e.g. strategic change initiatives.
Thus, far beyond their ability to ‘take care’ and bring empathy to their leadership approach, the unique capability of women leaders is their ability to continually adapt to consider and meet the needs of clients and key stakeholders, in an evolving and competitive organisational landscape.
Sadly, since women very often suffer from lower status at senior leadership level, their contribution in this regard is often missed. Lower quality decisions ensue and the organisation loses ground. This is one of the reasons that organisations that have less of a female influence underperform compared to organisations that have more of a female influence. A growing array of studies now finds that organisations that make the most of their female voices, experience significant benefit.
The challenge for organisations is to leverage the unique value that women leaders bring to the decision-making process by addressing the unique challenges that women face in climbing the leadership ladder. Organisations that get this right will find that they are able to lead the way over those that do not.
- ihhp.com/women-under-pressure: Doing Your Best When it Matters Most – White Paper
- Ruigrok, Amber N. V.; Salimi-Khorshidi, Gholamreza; Lai, Meng-Chuan; Baron-Cohen, Simon; Lombardo, Michael V.; Tait, Roger J.; Suckling, John (2014-02-01). “A meta-analysis of sex differences in human brain structure” Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews 39: 34–50.
- University Of California, Irvine. “Intelligence In Men And Women Is A Gray And White Matter.” ScienceDaily.