Robyn Wynne-Lewis has been developing leaders for over 20 years as a Hawke’s Bay-based facilitator, coach, and trusted advisor to organisations throughout New Zealand. Although Robyn works mostly with mixed gender groups now, she has also facilitated hundreds of female leaders through ‘Leadership for Women’ a two-day course which provides a safe environment for women to explore the particular challenges they encounter when taking on leadership roles.
Leadership, Success and Gender
I think any discussion about women and leadership needs to begin with clarifying what we mean by leadership. Most people’s perception of a leader is the person at the top – the captain of the team, the CEO, the prime-minister, the ‘front’ person. I have come to see leadership quite differently. I believe that leadership, at its essence, is about having a positive influence. It’s about using our unique gifts in service of something bigger than just ourselves – a greater good. By this definition all of us are – or can be – leaders and leadership can take many forms.
The contribution of women as leaders (people of influence) has often been overlooked or undervalued partly because of these narrow definitions of what a leader is, and what success is, but also because those ‘top jobs’ have historically been designed for and by men, and the set of characteristics deemed necessary to carry out such roles weighted heavily towards the masculine: eg strong, outwardly confident, charismatic, authoritative, competitive, results- oriented. This creates an unconscious bias towards males for senior roles.
It is well documented that for women to ‘make it to the top’, many feel they have to suppress, or at least keep in check, their feminine side, and be prepared to play a man’s game. No wonder that women are still under-represented in senior leadership roles, despite the huge advances in child care, paid maternity leave, flexible working arrangements, and diversity policies.
Many highly competent, wise and wonderful women I know are simply not interested in climbing the corporate ladder. They want to make a difference, and they are finding other ways to do that whilst also honouring self, family, community, and environment.
I believe that we are in the midst of a significant shift away from a masculine way of operating and towards a more feminine way of operating, and that this has benefits for everyone.
The ‘new order’ in business for example, is towards valuing wellbeing, culture, corporate social responsibility (CSR), and how the business treats people – as opposed to just making money and meeting KPI’s. Covid 19 and climate change have contributed to this swing of the pendulum, although the changes were starting to happen anyway, due to public demand.
Against this backdrop, more women are coming to the fore, finding their voice, and creating transformational change for the greater good. There are many examples throughout this magazine. These women are not only re-shaping our view of what’s important and what’s possible, they are, critically, becoming role models for a style of leadership that is more in line with feminine values.
What is unique about women’s leadership?
I did a bit of informal ‘research’ within my own network to check my own observations about common threads in women leaders. Both males and females felt there is a certain mindset/skillset that women bring to leadership, and that this is a natural extension of how women operate within the home/family/community. Here are the common themes:
- Women are the consummate jugglers. They are used to keeping an eye on everything at once, filling gaps, making sure everyone’s needs are met. They will go the extra mile to get the job done, without seeking kudos or recognition for that.
- Women are naturally inclined to show empathy, to care, to listen. They are seen as more approachable when others have problems or challenges – more forgiving, less judgmental. They provide a safe place for people to be themselves and show vulnerability. This helps to create a more human, caring, authentic culture.
- Women collaborate. They often excel at networking, team-building, engagement, and bringing the best out in others. They know when to push, when to stop. They can see when others are overloaded or struggling, and they will step in and help.
- Women know how and when to compromise. They are better at acknowledging that there has to be give and take in most major projects and they accept that. They are more thoughtful about the ‘right’ scenario for compromise. They understand that the best possible outcome requires you to have people on your side, and will work to accommodate the needs of all parties.
- As the life-givers, the carers, women often have a deeper connection to the wellbeing of people and planet. They recognise that wellbeing is multi-faceted, and also unique to each individual. It is often women who create a sense of wellbeing by bringing beauty, comfort, food, or just a kind smile.
- Women are moving the focus away from economics-only to a broader, more wholistic model that includes environment, social issues, mental health and spirituality even. Women are good at seeing the big picture, the inter-relationships between things.
Is anything still holding women back?
I would love to be able to say that there is nothing holding women back these days; that gender inequity is a thing of the past. Sadly that is not the case.
And some of the contributing factors are so deeply ingrained that it’s hard to stand back and view them objectively. For example, research shows that even when both partners in a male/female relationship have full-time jobs, women are still doing the lion’s share of the extra work – housework, cooking, gardening, childcare, social organising, caring for elders or extended family. There is also the unconscious bias towards males for senior leadership roles that I touched on earlier in this article.
But I want to highlight one key factor that is not so commonly mentioned in the literature: confidence.
When I first began offering leadership courses (at the turn of this century!) I would ask people: What is the one thing that would make a significant difference to your development or effectiveness as a leader? Almost inevitably, the women would say ‘confidence’.
And when prompted, this could be the confidence to speak up, back themselves, ask for what they want, challenge others’ opinions or behaviour, draw a line in the sand, say no, put their needs first.
Twenty years later, I still ask the question, and the majority of women still say ‘confidence’ is their biggest work-on. For men, the responses are generally much more varied, and include other factors such as self-awareness, ability to influence others, focus, empathy, staying calm under pressure, and becoming a better communicator.
So why is confidence still such a big issue for women?
I think it goes back to the way we define leadership, and success. Our masculine definition of these things, though unconscious and unspoken, creates a culture that many women do not feel ‘at home’ in. They fear that what they have to offer may not be valued or respected.
Closely related to the confidence issue is Imposter Syndrome: the belief that “I’m not quite good enough, or ready enough, or experienced enough – so I’ll just stay beneath the radar so they don’t find out.” In my experience, this is much more common among women. There can be a divide between those women who are confident/over-confident/hard even, and those who aren’t.
Paradoxically, I am observing, even just in the last 2-3 years, that men are more ready and willing for women to take charge than women realise. Notwithstanding the unconscious bias, (which may still be operating in the background) I see men making the mental shift to ‘level playing field’ faster than many women are. The majority of senior male leaders that I work with take their female colleagues seriously, respect their opinions, and are ready to share power. But it’s almost as if the women haven’t quite caught up, and are still holding back. I would encourage women to see themselves as equals and trust their colleagues to ‘have their backs’. Lean on them when necessary, don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Do we need a more feminine approach to leadership?
Many of the great thought leaders of our time, including David Attenbrough, Kate Raworth (author of Doughnut Economics) and our own Dame Anne Salmond have signalled the need for a radically new approach to the way we currently live as human beings on the planet.
In short, we need to stop consuming finite ‘resources’ and live regeneratively, putting life at the centre of every action and decision. Many have said that this shift calls for the rise of feminine values and leadership, along with indigenous values and leadership. For too long now we have prioritised growth over stability, GDP over wellbeing, humans over environment, and we are paying the price for that.
I personally welcome this shift, and am optimistic that transformational change is possible. To quote David Attenborough “We have come as far as we have because we are the cleverest creatures to have ever lived on earth. But if we are to continue to exist, we will require more than intelligence, we will require wisdom”.