The problem with female leaders

women at conference

In the future, there will be no female leaders.

There will just be leaders.

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Sheryl Sandberg (Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead)

Gender equality should be discouraged

I happen to believe gender equality is something we should discourage. I believe this not because I don’t recognise the equal value of women; it’s because I do.

In the future, there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders. Sheryl Sandberg

I feel the mere concept of gender equality ignores the fundamental reality that woman and men aren’t equal; as much as apples and pears aren’t equal. Both have different qualities, both are different. Being equal is fruitless, because their comparative differences do not affect their value. Both are important, both are delightful in different contexts, but fundamentally – they are different. And I believe we must recognise this when we evaluate the proposition of gender equality.

I believe we must strive to recognise, acknowledge, embrace, accept and encourage the different qualities that all individuals present, regardless of their gender. Regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, income status, nationality, horoscope or whether or not they follow Justin Bieber on Twitter. I believe we should judge others by the substance they offer this world and by the human beings they are. I believe our potential is great because of the unique value we bring to the world. We should focus on the quality and merit of alternate leadership styles as they naturally exist, and reject the distorted gender lens we currently view leadership through.There are no significant differences in the leadership styles of men and women

Sheryl Sandberg once said that in the future there will be no female leaders; there will just be leaders. And I believe this is the future we should be striving for.

The modern leader

The traditional onus on presenting leadership as a list of carefully defined qualities (like strategic, analytical, and performance-oriented), no longer seem relevant in the modern workplace. Traditional leadership styles, as described by Max Weber in 1947, were constructed based on the belief that power is bestowed on the leader. Only, 1947 was a long time ago, and this seemingly outdated style of top-down management is being steadily replaced by more collaborative leadership approaches that empowers employees and blurs the lines between the manager and the managed.

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The ideals of modern leadership have been founded on the construct of individuality that is sometimes imperfectly expressed. Modern leaders are encouraged to strive for authenticity over perfection. I believe that a modern leader has a strong vision, a clear understanding of their why, and is able to communicate that purpose to their tribe. For a transformational leader in the modern day, their why sets them apart; it’s what makes them effective, it’s what defines them as a leader.

A modern leader must consistently promote innovation, which crucially involves the creation of an environment in which this may flourish. Modern leaders must encourage the effective integration of technology, provide quality and personalised professional development opportunities, and crucially, have an open mind. A mind, removed of limits, boundaries and traditional constraints that were once a commonality of successful managers in last century’s business operating system. The theory of followship posits that leaders cannot demand people follow, but must engage people. The ability to engage – to transform, these are characteristics of a modern leader.

Androgynous leadership

You might have noticed these qualities, qualities I feel are essential for transformational leadership potential – are gender neutral. They are simply characteristics that all humans have the capacity to present. This is how we must view leadership – leadership must be androgynous.

This sentiment was confirmed by Anne Grethe Solberg’s doctoral thesis which proved something that I have believed for many years. There are no significant differences in the leadership styles of men and women.

Solberg’s research, which has studied groups of both genders, revealed women’s and men’s leadership styles are only marginally different. The study confirmed that leadership style is independent from biological gender.

An androgynous leadership style was found to be the most effective for fostering a climate that encouraged innovation. The conditions for a productive climate for innovation requires setting clear, common objectives and visions, creating a sense of security for participants in the working group, facilitating the construction of ideas and creativity, and managing tasks and deliverables. Although, it seems that androgynous managers are in the minority, with roughly 22% of the managers who were studied belonging to this category. Yet interestingly, they were more or less equally distributed between male and female managers.

Boardroom dynamics

However, it is worth noting that while leadership value in the modern age is unrelated to gender; it would be short-sighted to assume that gender has no influence on the environmental and interpersonal dynamic in which leaders exist and communicate. In a 2006 study, Solberg and Huse concluded that boardroom dynamics are not neutral to gender, and that gender influences cognition as well as behaviour of leaders. I recognise the implication of this finding, because while I believe leadership ability and style has little to do with one’s gender, I acknowledge the significant impact of female presence in boardroom dynamics.

Thus gender simultaneously matters and is irrelevant. Research on gender and management in Finland revealed that women in top management are, in effect, simultaneously required to be different from and similar to men, and men still remain the uncontested, taken-for-granted norm in business life. This “gender paradox” has resulted in a vicious circle where any significant large-scale entry of women into corporate boards becomes elusive.

Research continues to remind us that across the globe, female participation seriously lags men, in particular in business leadership positions; and it’s hard to believe that over 80 percent of the most competent individuals, however defined, are men.

For the organisations that exclude women from leadership positions (knowingly or unknowingly), are certain to lose out on half of the talent pool, and the profitability and innovation that diversity brings. In addition, according to a study by researchers at UBC’s Sauder School of Business, the more women on a corporate board, the less likely a company will pay for its acquisitions. Cindy Padnos, an Entrepreneur and venture capitalist produced a white paper on the topic which found that women-operated, venture-backed high tech companies average 12 percent higher annual revenues. They also use on average one-third less capital than male counterparts’ start-ups.

Male-Female ratio

Industry won’t be the only benefactors of closing the gap, as Goldman Sachs JBWere Investment Research report proved that better ratios between male and female employment rates would have important implications for the Australian economy. They have estimated that closing this gap would boost the level of Australian GDP by 11%, which translates to a potential increase of $25 billion. Extending the analysis for other major nations suggest that US GDP could be boosted by as much as 10%, Eurozone GDP by 14% and Japanese GDP by 21%.

Solberg believes that in order to benefit from the alleged gender differences, organisations will need to develop a new type of culture of communication that is inclusive, if not encouraging of, heterogeneous groups. At the core, we must work towards a reality where across all organisations we take into account that people are different – regardless of biological gender. Organisations will have to cultivate the difference, and reduce the current barriers which have led to the disproportionate representation of gender in leadership roles.

Janet George, managing director of Accenture Technology Labs in San Jose;

“Women are different. How we think is different. Women are much more detail oriented,” George said. “This diversity can be a huge strength in meetings, team collaboration, and how a company develops partnerships.”

Powerful women become the norm

We need to strive to acknowledge and leverage the qualities that make us unique. Only in order to do this, we require an obvious collective cultural mind shift to overcome the apparent dichotomy between women’s history and gender history, and between oppression and agency. We need to encourage a dialogue with the feminist and postfeminist intellectual work; to debate between generations the interpretation and transformation of historiographical categories, – essential to progression. Yet, such a debate will not be fully realised if future agendas do not include, as a fundamental point, a new academic-scientific leadership where young female scholars are the main actors.

Real change will come when powerful women are less of an exception and as more women continue to enter the business arena, the landscape of leadership will continue to be significantly influenced by their presence. Yet, true equality will not – cannot be facilitated by the current, poorly developed perspective of ‘gender quotas’. Legislative measures that facilitate quotas to increase the number of women on corporate boards are preventing equality in its true nature to exist, because gender stereotypes contain status beliefs that associate greater status worthiness and competence with men than women, something which is emblematic of a struggle for a paradigm shift in notions of gender equality.

The discourse of competence rejects gender-based quotas because it is not possible to simultaneously be competent and a “quota woman.” Gender quotas by definition and in practice; undermine the individual value of a leader. Proponents of quotas seek to replace the classic liberal notion of equal opportunities with the notion of equality of result. In today’s business environment, such strategies do more damage than they do progress the gender inequality in leadership cause.

In order to move forward, our collective position on what equality means must be redefined. Equality must not be paired with any other discriminatory domination, gender equality, racial equality, sexuality equality – because all of those causes, while fundamentally driven by the inequality they represent, loose the focus on the core issue, which must stand on its own in every facet that it is experienced. Equality, regardless of the context of which it has been suppressed.

The day we stop referring to “female leaders” and instead refer to “inspirational” or “transformational” leaders – regardless of their gender – is when we will experience true equality. We must consciously reject the occasions where leaders are categorised and recognised by anything other than the leadership qualities they possess.

I argue that female leaders should no longer exist.

photo credit: European Parliament via photopin cc

Charlie Caruso

Charlie Caruso is the founder and CEO of PuggleFM, an online radio and podcasting station created especially for parents and children. Since its inception, PuggleFM has found audiences in the US, Europe, across Australia and Asia looking for an alternative to commercial radio. Charlie, 25, is the 2013 winner of the Australian Excellence Awards Women in Business category; a finalist in New Business and Young Entrepreneur categories in the Small Business Champion Awards 2013.

Charlie has a background studying international business and Mandarin at Murdoch University. Always interested in business, she started her first enterprise when she was 16. Charlie is also available for speaking appearances bookings through Voxy Lady Speakers;

3 replies on “The problem with female leaders

  • Sophie Frodsham

    Regardless of a person’s innocent intentions, an unwillingness to recognise or accept gender inequality has unhelpful consequences. Gender equality is not about women being the same as men. Gender equality is about women having the same value or status as men – equal opportunity and equal rights. But the comments on leadership qualities are bang on.

  • Charlie Caruso

    I just thought I’d clarify a few things after recieving some commentry in some forums about my comments;

    I just want to clarify I am not against “gender equality” in the sense I am against genders experiencing equality, my point was I am against “genderising” equality.

    I feel equality, in its true form means that what we are valued on, our worth – is considered with equal value, that no matter our age, race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnic background – we are treated with equal worth and value. Equality, in its purest form, encompasses gender equality because – equality is equality.

    My point is that we as women, or men and women who are Aboriginal (who we know are unrepresented in ALL facets of Australian life), or with various ethnic backgrounds, or many other groups who are discriminated against in some form or fashion (there are a lot) – we all fight for equality – because fighting for “gender equality” ignores the fundamental issue that there are many other forms of inequality that exist – why don’t we stop “genderising” equality is more the point I was making.

    Secondly, I fully understand that the struggle for gender equality isn’t about making men and women equal – I realise it’s equal worth/value we are fighting for – BUT women and men ARE different, especially so in the sense of senior management or leadership positions.

    For example, I am a parent of two kids – so is my husband. We both love our girls and are very committed parents. Let’s say we were going for the same board position or management position. I, because of the decisions my husband and I made, only work 3 days a week, spending 2 days at home with my daughter. In that sense, my husband could offer that position more of his time, because I’m a mother, and because WE made those decisions. However, I believe I could offer equal VALUE to that role as my husband, but DIFFERENT VALUE, despite the fact he could offer more time, despite the fact I have a stronger likelihood of having to skip the occasional board meeting if my child is unwell (because, well – when kids are sick, they want their mum – and I WANT to be there when they are sick). Because of our gender roles, because of the role i choose to take as a mother, I offer different hours, and require more flexibility. But I argue that I still offer equal value, because I believe I bring a unique set of skills. It’s just different value. Equal, but different.
    My point about apples and pears is that we need to work towards a space where women’s roles, their roles as mothers, of their unique roles/qualities regardless are acknowledged and VALUED. I mean this in the sense that women should demand the remuneration they are worth! Forget equal pay – I feel we should demand what we know we are worth (which in many cases is more!) Women, our unique skills and values are in many ways different to that of men – but they are an essential part of the mix for organisations who want to succeed, now and into the future. We need to get the differences valued, because I’m not sure it comes across to industry that we are fighting hard enough for our differences to be acknowledged and encouraged. I see so many women accepting less pay, because ‘well I take a lot more leave because of the kids’ – and that’s BS! Because part of your VALUE, that same VALUE that you bring to your organisation, has come from your role as a mother – so she shouldn’t feel guilty of that – heck she should be empowered to question whether or not that time is paid to her as professional development! (Slight exaggeration, but I’m sure you get my point). I feel the missing link might be in women not owning our differences, thus not demanding the compensation we are worth. It’s not about having equal pay as men, it’s about being paid our true value – owning that and encouraging that! Hopefully this clarifies things a little.

  • urmila

    It is as simple as this- No two human beings are equal meither 2 men nor 2 women or for that matter a woman and a man can never be equal in all respects
    Anyway all leadership qualoties being gender neutral, any body either a man or womanhaving these qualities can be great leaders

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