One of my most favourite bosses was a woman. Yep, she was a she, not a he.
At the time (not that much has changed), we were in an almost entirely male–dominated working environment. She (and I will call her Mary rather than use her real name) was tough. No, she wasn’t tough – she was strong. She was streetwise and commercial in her approach. Mary made the hard decisions on operations including the less palatable decisions on resourcing/restructuring. What she did, I believe she did really well. However, she was not popular with her colleagues. Her male colleagues. I knew that at the time, but I guess I put it down to the fact she was new in the business and she was tackling the tough and uncomfortable decisions that others had preferred not to. I don’t believe I consciously considered there was a gender–based bias in this situation, although I think I was probably subconsciously aware.
I recently began reading Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, ‘Lean In – Women, Work, and the will to Lead’, a great read for women and men alike with some really important unravelling of gender behavioural mysteries. And I read the following, which I found unbelievable. With time to digest it, I now realise it should not have been that surprising.
“In 2003, Columbia Business School professor Frank Flynn and New York University professor Cameron Anderson ran an experiment to test perceptions of men and women in the workplace. They started with a Harvard Business School case study about a real-life entrepreneur named Heidi Roizen. The case described how Roizen became a successful venture capitalist by using her “outgoing personality… and vast personal and professional network [that] included many of the most powerful leaders in the technology sector. Flynn and Anderson assigned half of the students to read Heidi’s story and gave the other half the same story with just one difference – they changed the name “Heidi” to “Howard.”
Professor Flynn and Anderson then polled the students about their impressions of Heidi or Howard. The students rated Heidi and Howard as equally competent, which made sense since “their” accomplishments were completely identical. Yet while students respected both Heidi and Howard, Howard came across as a more appealing colleague. Heidi, on the other hand, was seen as selfish and not “the type of person you would want to hire or work for.” The same data with a single difference – gender – created vastly different impressions.”
(Sandberg S, 2013, ‘Lean In, Women Work and the Will to Lead’, Ebury Publishing, UK).
I am a father of two daughters and my wife has pretty much always worked full time and is very good at her job (that is an independently verified assessment). I am very proud that my daughters are strong and independent and have been working casually since they were legally old enough. These are young women who hold down jobs now whilst they work through university – jobs they applied for under their own initiative. To me, they are already displaying many of the best qualities of future leaders, including strong work ethic, integrity, authenticity and compassion. As I consider this case study I wonder whether they will be limited by their gender in the future. Could having initiative, being powerful, influential and having outgoing, extroverted qualities be unconsciously so culturally unattractive in a woman that we would prefer to derail them rather than get on the steam train with them and go the journey, as we would with a succesful male leader?
Over the last few years, the team that I managed was something like 40% female and two of five of my managers were female and appointed to those positions by me. I can put my hand on my heart and say they were put in those leadership roles because they were the best people for the job, no other reason. As a side note, I am also pleased to say that we had nearly 9 different nationalities in a small and cohesive team which made everyone about 9 times more interesting in many ways.
Here’s the challenge boys and girls (so it seems)
I would challenge most men to be really honest. Perhaps just by yourself in the corner of the garden where no one is watching. When you come up against a strong woman in the workplace, are they more threatening than a man with the same qualities? Are you less inclined to admire or be in awe of their prowess? Do you perhaps even feel slightly emasculated – what’s left for you, right, if your gender’s losing grip on the last male bastion? I must add that the case study participants who favoured Howard also included females.
Fact is, it’s all rubbish, with its beliefs firmly rooted in a bygone, less enlightened era.
It’s not by accident that women can and do make wonderful leaders, the equal of any man. There is a mountain of evidence to suggest that females are often doing better in an academic environment than males. The nurturing qualities of a woman are reflective of some of the most important leadership characterisitics – emotional intelligence is key in the best leadership. We are all talking about the importance of emotional intelligence more and more. We will all benefit from the best leadership.
When it’s all said and done
What do I want for my daughters? I want gender equality for them.They don’t need to be leaders if they don’t want to, great if they do and that’s right for them. But, like all parents, I want them to be able to have an equal opportunity to be assessed on their unique qualities and capabilities regardless of their gender. I want them to stand toe–to–toe, shoulder–to–shoulder with any other man or woman and compete and contribute as engaged employees to a successful and engaged workplace. I want them to sit in meetings where there is gender balance and a wonderful melting pot of nationalities and cultures to learn from and be inspired by.
And I believe all of this is possible. What is the difference between a man and a woman in leadership? There’s little more than there is difference between any one person and any one other. Leadership should not have to be about gender, it should be about capability – and the capability of Heidi is equal to the capability of Howard.
With thanks to Rosie Broadfoot for her editing.
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