Women are judged not just on their competence and skills but also on their characteristics, which are measured in terms of traditional male leadership style
Growing up, equality for me meant equal education, equal opportunities and equal treatment at home. And I have taken all of the above for granted to a large extent. As women progress at work, our roles get demanding and challenges come in and I am often reminded about the differences between men and women. This need not be negative. As taught in Taoism and implied by Yin Yang principle, male and female complement each other, they are inseparable and equal.
However, it is not always so when it comes to our daily chores. The place we live in and the environment we interact determines each of our unique experiences. We encounter distressing experiences based on prejudices and long practiced norms in many instances.
We talk about cracking the “glass ceiling” but you are constantly at a paradox, taking opinion from others, self-doubting and questioning every tough decision you make. “Doomed if you don’t, damned if you do,” goes the saying. This is not only a characteristic I have found in myself.
Women in general are considered modest about their competence. Thirty eight percent of capable women in the US do not climb corporate ladder due to the lack of confidence in their competence. Those who do, they encourage participative decision making in contrast to men.
Leadership role has long been measured using traditional male leadership style. Characteristics like being dominant, assertive and authoritative are innate to males and these were perceived to be the right leadership style because that is what we saw and experienced for centuries. We were raised to see transactional leadership style with a top down approach while working in big companies. This particular style somehow coincides with the characteristics of a stereotypical male leader in contrast to transformational leadership style.
Interpersonal skills, people development, intellectual simulation, inspiring trust are some of the qualities that are in high demand in the changing world dynamics. Rapid technological innovation has become an utmost priority in every business and this requires creativity, support, trust, inspiration and participative decision-making which are innate to female leadership style.
The demand for change in leadership style is not just a shift in mindset but also the need of our time. As we make shift to flatter organizational structure with transformational leadership styles, we need to start embracing our innate values and characteristics without succumbing to old norms with old jargons such as ‘think manager --think male.’
Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, is a fine example of a leader who owns her natural instincts and characteristic. She is the leader who values interpersonal skills over others. She often communicates personally with her colleagues and employees, and in her opinion, she has led Facebook to the position it is today with the help of these skills. Option B, her book, talks about her vulnerability when she lost her husband and how she discussed the loss with her employees. Vulnerability is often seen as a weakness and so most leaders avoid addressing it. However, the market today is demanding flatter structures and open environment at workplace and being human is only natural.
I am aware of the fact that leadership requires competence and expertise. But the bar for women is much higher than those for men. We are constantly judged not just on our competence and skill but also on our characteristics which are measured in terms of traditional leadership style or male leadership style to be more precise.
We are comfortable seeing a male leader because that fits with our societal norm. When Hillary Clinton filed her candidacy for the president of the United States in 2008, she was rounded off as lacking people’s skill. When she publicly expressed care and compassion, some questioned her toughness that the presidency requires.
Women need to keep reevaluating what is “appropriate” as they are constantly judged on things beyond their skills and competence. In our case, there always is a tradeoff between competence and likability. We have seen Angela Merkel being called the ‘Iron Frau.’ Richard Nixon called Indira Gandhi an “old witch.” Assertive women are generally quoted as “bossy”.
Leadership styles vary and that’s exactly how it should be—customized to each organization or industry keeping in mind the market and people dynamics. We have now come far from having characteristics and leadership style set in the Holy Grail to be followed and judged upon. In today’s demanding and changing market, qualities innate to women are highly regarded as good leadership skills. Owning them and sharpening them will definitely give us a competitive edge while continuously striving for our collective shift in mindset.
The author is Executive Director of Nepal Republic Media