I attended the Women Summit 2013, organised by the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry recently. Among the interesting speakers the organisers gathered for this event was internationally acclaimed author, speaker and consultant Sally Helgesen.
A leadership guru focusing on women leadership, Helgesen is the author of various books. Among them, is her international best-seller The Female Advantage: Women’s Ways of Leadership. What Helgesen has to say, is refreshingly different from the usual conversation about women in leadership. “Women should be equal to men in the workplace and can lead an organisation in the same style,” she affirms.
In her research, Helgesen compiled information by a variety of methods, including the study of various books on how women can be successful, and by following men and women in various leadership positions from different fields and environments and observing how they worked.
She felt that rather than solely relying on interviews, following women around in their daily tasks and observing their behaviour would yield more pragmatic, objective and accurate results. Her study yielded a few conclusions about the advantages women have in leading people, and raises some challenges that they may face.
Being female is great
Rather than having to “behave like men,” Helgesen shares that women need to embrace their differences. They need to realise that some of the characteristics predominantly found in women place them at an advantageous position when it comes to leading and managing people.
Helgesen has identified five such advantages that are predominantly exhibited by women:
- Women put high value on the importance of relationships and do their best to build good relationships across organisations.
- Women prefer direct communication as opposed to emails.
- Women are comfortable rather than tolerant to diversity.
- Women do not compartmentalise their lives and are comfortable using their experiences in their personal sphere to draw strengths.
- Women are comfortable leading from the centre and building webs of influence rather than sticking to a hierarchical model of leadership.
Helgesen argues that every one of these characteristics have become crucial to organisations today. Current writings on leadership seem to agree. A Forbes article entitled Top 10 Qualities that Make a Great Leader list commitment, honesty, good communication, intuition and creativity as key attributes of an effective leader.
The University of Oregon’s Holden Leadership Centre says leaders should be proactive rather than reactive, flexible/adaptable, a good communicator, respectful, confident, enthusiastic, open minded, resourceful, rewarding, well-educated, open to change, interested in feedback, evaluative, organised, consistent, a delegator, and willing to take initiative.
In this respect, the female disposition to valuing relationships and good communication, being open to diversity and sharing from all experiences, even from personal lives, and their comfort in leading from the centre, gives them a head-start in their leadership journey.
Additionally, at a time when work and home have become harder to separate, women are well-suited to use and manage this inseparability successfully, given their flexibility to intermingle the two areas and let them co-exist in their daily lives.
However, it is unfair to deduce from this that women are inherently better leaders, given their advantages in the above areas. Even though these advantages were identified in Helgesen’s research, it is far-fetched to assume that all women inherently possess these attributes. Furthermore, it is false to assume that their male counterparts lack such characteristics.
What the study demonstrates, however, is that in fact, areas that are traditionally thought to impede career progression – for example, mixing work and personal life, caring too much about relationships rather than concentrating on results, and non-hierarchical leadership models – are areas that can immensely help the development of a successful leader.
Leadership and career challenges ahead
In her research, Helgesen also found that women face common leadership and career challenges that seem to be specific to their gender.
Females face external barriers that differ by culture, be it country or organisation-specific. These may include gender discrimination policies or male-favouring norms. On some occasions women may not really have to deal with such issues.
Here are three challenges she found to be consistent among working women:
Women seem to be best at producing high quality work, but worst at drawing attention to the work that they do.
Helgesen notes that when some women are asked why they do not want to draw attention to the quality of their work, they say that they expect good work to be noticed without bragging about it, or, that they worry that by drawing attention, they would appear as pushy.
Women tend to be less skilful than men when it comes to using the relationships they develop for progression and help. Women need to be more proactive at building networks and identifying men that could help them by being champions for them.
Helgesen argues that powerful people want to mentor you based on how visible you are, and how connected you are. Equally, people would prefer a leader that is better connected, because such an individual could help them expand their own contacts and therefore possibilities.
With the advent of technology, it is harder to separate your work time and life from your personal time. Women seem to have a particular issue with this, finding it difficult to draw the line and manage their time and privacy. Women need to find a way to interact with technology that serves their needs, but avoid addictive usage.
Even though they are known for their multitasking abilities, women should always remember that “every time we choose to do two things at once, we choose not to do one thing in full,” Helgesen argues. Results of a study conducted by Traning Zone in the UK looking at the 360-degree feedback results of almost 14,000 UK leaders found that men are more strategic, whereas women make better project managers.
Similarly to Helgesen’s study, women scored high in terms of planning, managing, respect and empathy compared to men, but men scored much higher in terms of strategic vision, commercial focus and personal impact. The study found that men are better than women at making a strong first impression, at expressing their views with confidence, at being visible, and at making their presence felt.
It is a recurring outcome that women have certain characteristics that are, overall in their favour. However, the list of challenges above seems to impede their progress in leadership development.
What women need to do, is overcome the obstacles within; find a way to push themselves to be more visible, build strong networks of support and use them effectively, make their presence felt, and use technology to their advantage.
There is little that can be done overnight to fight gender policies in the workplace; however, addressing these areas can be easily done, and much progress can be made, seeing more women in the leadership routes of all organisations.
At the end of the day, “What really distinguishes leadership is the ability to be fully present,” concludes Helgesen. It is therefore up to every woman out there to do as much as possible to work on her advantages, put in the time and effort, and fight hard to overcome all challenges, which more often than not, appear to come from the women themselves.