IWD 2023: My strategies for the balance of being a woman leader
It’s estimated women account for almost half the global workforce. Yet, only about 27% of women are in management and leadership positions. Even fewer hold top-tier, C-suite-level jobs.
Although opportunities for women have grown in the workplace, there’s still a significant gap between male and female employees in management. Females face discrimination and get stuck in entry-level roles, and many still struggle to obtain and maintain senior-leadership positions.
Women are often more cautious in their self-evaluation than men, and coaching/mentoring can play a part in encouraging talented women and helping them believe that they are ready to take on a more senior role.
A wealth of research shows that female leaders, much more than their male counterparts, face the need to be warm and nice (what society traditionally expects from women), as well as competent or tough (what society traditionally expects from men and leaders). The problem is that these qualities are traditionally seen as opposites. To alleviate this double bind, societal expectations — for what it means to be a woman and what it takes to lead — must change. But until we get there, female executives still must perform careful balancing acts on a day-to-day basis.
Working in senior roles in a traditionally male-dominated industry for the last 20 years, I have been told I’m too soft and too aggressive in equal measures. I’m too emotional, or I’m too hard. I’ve missed out on countless golf weekends and the associated informal networking. I’ve participated in meetings where people have directed their conversations and questions almost entirely at a male colleague rather than me, despite me holding the more senior role.
Harvard Business Review research identified four paradoxical balancing acts women leaders face and the tactics they use to handle them. They include learning to project authoritativeness to avoid being perceived as unconvincing and simultaneously advocating for themselves whilst also serving others.
Here are some of the strategies I’ve learned to use through my own experience and through talking to other women.
Maintaining distance yet being approachable
Women sometimes struggle to be seen as leaders, separate from colleagues and team members, while also developing close relationships. To generate respect, many women leaders try to keep a distance from others, maintaining an impersonal “leadership presence” whilst trying not to create the impression of being stand-offish. Many will explicitly and emphatically work to also convey the intimately human side of themselves so they are instead seen as accessible, friendly, informal, and easy to connect with.
- Go in order. One strategy is to be nice (or caring) first, then tough (or demanding and directive) when required. First, you build strong collaborative relationships, establish trust, and engage people, building a day-to-day relationship where people want to help you succeed. Then follow up with harder behaviour or language to challenge the status quo and achieve goals.
- Look for win-wins. Look for opportunities where niceness and toughness converge — a “win-win” strategy. Understand the values, the traits, and the goals of the person you’re trying to influence, know what it is that you’re trying to achieve, and tie that back to something that you know they want to achieve.
- Be tough on tasks and soft on people. We must demand high performance from others whilst also demonstrating that we care about them. With this strategy, women leaders focus on simultaneously being nice to people and tough on tasks. It’s important to separate getting the job done from our relationships with others. I may totally disagree on an issue I’m discussing with someone, but when we walk out of the room, we should still be friends.
- Reframe what it means to be nice and tough. Treat behaviour that might be considered a weakness as a strength. For example, displays of vulnerability can reflect inner confidence and being secure enough to comfortably reveal your own faults and weaknesses. For example, I am very confident in saying, ‘I don’t know the answer but I’m keen to find out’ or ‘I don’t know the answer, but I know I have the ability to find out.’ Frame those behaviours that others might find threatening as originating from genuine care. For example, give negative feedback or voice disagreements as constructive criticism (trying to help others).
Many companies are unaware of the inequities and challenges women face in their workplaces. The only real way to find out is to assess your workplace culture, then find ways to effect cultural changes and give female leaders the resources they need.
The qualities women bring to leadership roles
While both men and women as individuals may have particular qualities that equip them for leadership, women, in general, can add more diversity, inclusivity and emotional intelligence to the team.
It’s now widely accepted that employee diversity, especially at the decision-making level, leads to greater innovation and creativity and delivers access to a wider range of skills and perspectives. Boosting women’s leadership roles is an obvious way to access diversity as well as expand the available talent pool. Diverse leadership teams are less likely to succumb to groupthink and are better equipped to recognise threats to the organisation’s business model.
Promoting women leaders helps to develop an inclusive culture in the workplace. This boosts morale and improves employee retention, especially among women who see that there are advancement opportunities available to them. A gender-inclusive workplace may also be a better reflection of a company’s customer base and female purchasing power while at the same time enhancing its reputation.
Emotional intelligence, sometimes referred to as EQ or Emotional Quotient can function differently in women. According to Dr Shawn Andrews (university business school professor and author of The Power of Perception: Leadership, Emotional Intelligence and the Gender Divide), women, in general, score higher than men in the spheres of empathy, interpersonal relationships, collaboration, communication, supportiveness and social responsibility, while men exhibit higher levels of assertiveness, stress tolerance and self-confidence.
Many of the facets of women’s EQ are the very qualities that are becoming increasingly sought after in today’s business leaders.
How women’s leadership contributes to business success
The argument for increasing women’s leadership roles is also founded on powerful economic evidence. Research conducted by the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre in conjunction with the WGEA reveals that:
- When female representation on boards increases by 10% points or more, the company’s market value increases by an average of 4.9%
- Given the same increase in women on boards, the likelihood of a business outperforming its competitors increases by 6%
- A female CEO appointment leads to a 12.9% increase in the likelihood of outperforming competitors
- A female key management personnel increase of 10% or more leads to a likely 5.8% increase in outperformance
This phenomenon is not confined to Australia. Studies in the US and UK report similar findings.
Progressive companies like Waterco Limited are a testament to the power of workplace equality and how women in leadership positions impact the bottom line. Since its inception in 1981, the ASX-listed heritage company has navigated its position within a traditionally male-dominated industry by empowering female employees, employing female engineers, appointing Professor Judy Raper as a non-executive Director to the Board (who in 2015 was named in the ‘Top 100 Influential Engineers’ by Engineers Australia for the third year running) — and promoting women like me to executive-level roles.
Through my role as Chief Commercial Officer, I will certainly play an active part in ensuring Waterco continues to involve and elevate women in building a thriving company culture.