Women in Leadership (by Kathy Curran)

Sections of this topic

    In his last post, Steve Wolinski amplified the conversation I started this month on women and leadership. He ended his blog entry with an assertion based on recent research that shows while more and more women have reached the ranks of middle management, still woefully few of us are represented at the top. His conclusion was that it seems that women are not perceived as possessing enough of the more so-called masculine traits, such as “being keenly focused on the financial bottom line, capacity for critical and strategic thinking, and the ability to make risky and independent decisions.”

    I would argue that it is actually more complicated than that. In her 2010 book, Developing Women Leaders, Anna Marie Valerio presents a compelling case regarding the factors that impact women’s rise to the top. Many of the issues relate to gender stereotypes and how they affect how a woman is perceived as a leader. She offers a number of strategies that HR professionals, managers and female leaders can undertake to address and surmount these perceptions.

    Valerio groups personality attributes under two broad categories, agentic, as Steve mentioned, a term which is usually associated with masculine traits, and communal which is usually associated with feminine traits. Research shows that there is little gender difference in fact in terms of whether men or women possess greater or lesser amounts of agentic or communal traits: we are about equal. Managerial behaviors are often associated with agentic qualities. However, when women display too many of these agentic behaviors we are likely to be seen as too aggressive or strident, and when we display too many communal behaviors (listening, sensitivity, preference for harmony, giving, etc.) we are seen as too soft. Herein lays a double bind!! Women cannot simply display assertive behavior, independent thinking, because it may be to our detriment. So, I wonder what is really at play in the research that Steve quotes – do these women actually have less of those desired traits? Or are they carefully treading the double bind, because they lose if they are perceived as having too few of them or too many of them?

    Here’s the advice, first for women leaders themselves, and then for HR professionals and these leaders’ managers. A strategy women leaders can employ is to use a feminine typified communal strength – a penchant for collaboration – as a basis for our leadership style. For example, a collaborative leadership would call for listening to others and taking their opinions into account (communal), as well as then moving the conversation forward to action in a facilitative style (agentic), rather then displaying the more masculine typified decision making style of command and control. For those of us for whom this may not come naturally, this may require skill development, but it will likely be perceived as effective, and is, all in all, a desired trait for a leader to have anyway.

    Other advice for HR professionals and managers comes from research that shows that women often receive fewer stretch assignments than men, and also get less performance shaping feedback. Whether it’s based on the feminine culture’s somewhat conservative attitude toward risk taking, or a masculine reluctance to give out these assignments to people (women) who do it differently than them, women are often not picked for these leadership-skill developing assignments. Coupled with this, women often receive less feedback, either because men are afraid of how women might take it (will they cry?) or that they might be perceived as being discriminatory or perhaps harassing if they try. Therefore, managers and HR professionals concerned about women’s leadership need to look for ways to make sure women get these assignments. They also need to make sure that women get the feedback they need, either about the assignment itself or just in general about their performance at work. (Valerio, 2009) Bottom line, promoting women’s leadership is also about promoting diversity – in thought, style and execution. And other research shows that corporations who avail themselves of this gender diversity at the highest ranks of the corporation, including the boardroom, reap tangible rewards: they report these corporations perform better with respect to profits as a percentage of revenue, assets, and stockholder’s equity by a range of between 18% and 69%. (Cohen and Kornfeld, 2006). So, not only is women’s leadership a matter of gender equity, it’s just plain good business.

    Cohen, R and L. Kornfeld, “Women Leaders Boost Profits,” Barron’s, Sept. 4, 2006

    Valerio, Anna Marie, Developing Women Leaders, 2009, John Wiley and Sons, Malden, MA.

    To learn more about Kathy Curran, PhD, and her upcoming workshop, Using Power in Relationships with Women and Men at Work, go to her website at www.powerandleadership.com or contact her at 651-293-9448 begin_of_651-293-9448 or kcurran@powerandleadership.com