“I want every little girl who’s told she’s bossy to be told instead that she has leadership skills.” — Sheryl Sandberg
Unfortunately, women still encounter unconscious gender bias in the workplace. This is especially true when they are evaluated for leadership opportunities, as a new research study conducted by New York University Professors Andrea Vial and Jaime Napier uncovered. Vial and Napier discovered that feminine traits such as intuition and empathy were valued less in leaders and more masculine traits such as competence and assertiveness were valued more.
So what is a woman to do? Old advice suggested that women adopt more masculine traits to advance in their careers. But with an increasing focus on the effects of gender bias, the solution is not for women to discard their natural strengths, but for organizations to offer training that will help employees recognize their own prejudices. And in the meantime, an increasing number of high-profile women leaders, like Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and Indra Nooyi, Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo, are inspiring the next generation of female leaders in the workplace, not only with their guidance, but also their embrace of what has been traditionally considered, “feminine traits.”
Below are some of the most impactful and inspiring trends we’re seeing in female workplace leadership.
“A leader is anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes, and who has the courage to develop that potential,” says Brené Brown in her book Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts. Brown’s work as a research professor at the University of Houston focuses on courage and empathy. Google Empathy Lab, Pixar films, and even the U.S, Air Force, have all looked to her work for inspiration. In her latest book, Brown argues that it’s our ability to make ourselves vulnerable, to be transparent and honest with those around us, that will inspire them to rise to meet our expectations. Sounds kind of like the opposite of toxic masculinity, doesn’t it?
Leaning In to Experiences
For many women in the workplace, they are under pressure to juggle numerous competing priorities and crises. This kind of multi-tasking strengthens their ability to see opportunities others might miss, anticipate and manage crises before circumstances force their hand. As such, their leadership development looks very different than it does for a man.
Researcher Susan R. Madsen spent a year interviewing women about their paths to leadership. “Men are more strategic and [tend to follow] a more linear path to becoming a leader. Women’s paths are much more emergent. They tend to not necessarily look ahead and think, ‘I want to be on top.’ Women would point to a number of experiences — motherhood, or working with a non-profit, or sitting on a board, as shaping their path to becoming leaders,” Madsen says. For women, it is the sum of their experiences that define how they lead, rather than a specific experience or opportunity.
Connecting through Empathy
Shelley Zalis, the founder of TheFemaleQuotient.com, a company committed to advancing gender equality in the workplace, advocates for her company’s “no regrets” policy. Employees are encouraged to participate in the important moments in life, such as a school concert, a soccer game, or a parents’ anniversary. It sounds great in theory, but she points out that in order for it to work, her employees and co-workers need to build personal relationships with one another. Women, with their social tendencies, may find this to be a more organic shift in perspective when thinking about co-workers. When relationships allow for honesty, communication, and collaboration, they can cover for each other when someone needs to be out. Or to be frank yet kind when someone may be utilizing the policy in a way that doesn’t feel equitable to their coworkers.
Building from Positivity
The age of social media has seen more and more women lean into their role as influencers. But where women can really enact true change is in transforming corporate culture, moving from a model of “fix this” to one of “do more of this”. And women, in particular, can benefit from a corporate culture of appreciation and respect since so many of them feel like they face judgment for their choice to work outside the home. Implementing practices of praise at work, and giving real-time kudos to those around us helps to fortify relationships and raise each other up on a daily basis.
In this regard, Kate Sheffield, the COO of Preciate, points to a personal influence from her early years, “Of all people, I learned from my mom, a physician at 22 and an incredibly gifted psychiatrist of more than 50 years, that the key to helping people fix problems is to start with what is right, not what is wrong. You can’t build a foundation on a flaw, only on what is solid.”
In her book, See Jane Lead, Lois P. Frankel discusses the demise of command-and-control leadership and points to women’s high emotional intelligence, intuition, and natural tendency to listen, among many other traits, as huge assets in relationship-building and leadership. Women’s abilities to subtly influence those around them, to set a direction for their team, to motivate their team, to balance strategic with the tactical, and to multitask are all natural leadership qualities and key tools in developing a trusting dynamic at work.