Women and leadership : your differences are your best assets

by | Mar 8, 2021 | Publication

No alt text provided for this image

Today  is International Women’s Day. The first “International Women’s Day” took place in 1910 at the initiative of socialist working women who fought against discrimination at work. It was not until 1977 that the UN instigated this day for the whole world. So it took 67 years for women to get the recognition of their struggle! 

What also emerges from this story is that women’s struggle began in the workplace and particularly in companies. Initially led by female workers, who at the time were among the most qualified women, the professional  environment plays a key role in female emancipation. 

So where do women stand in today’s professional landscape? And does today’s professional environment favour their emancipation? 

No, men and women, is not the same fight …

To be able to work properly on the issue of women’s leadership, we must start by stating simple truths: men and women, we are not the same!

Neuroscientists have shown that men’s and women’s brains have the same architecture. What differs are the hormones that regulate neurotransmitters. To date, no one has been able to demonstrate the correlation between the role of hormones and behaviour. 

What has been proven is that the construction of our brain is shaped by the social, emotional and cultural environment. Women moved out of their homes to start working in companies after the Second World War. Seventy years later, women’s involvement in the life of their homes is greater than that of men, even when women hold high positions of responsibility and/or are more qualified than their husbands. 

Between the female hormones that influence neurotransmitters and the social construction of the brain, let’s admit that men and women have specific behaviours. In my opinion, we cannot reflect on female leadership if we maintain the myth that men and women react identically in their professional environment.  

Abolishing men-women differences is not enough 

No alt text provided for this image

Men have created the management structures that have governed companies from the paternalism of the 19th century to the pyramidal and vertical management of the 20th century. This vertical management has its roots in the functioning of the army, where the use of a strong deep voice, disempowering those considered less performant and power struggles were valued. Today, it appears that in the working environment, male managers behave more assertively, are more likely to impose their opinion, delegate less and are more involved in political games. 

Faced with vertical management, women have pointed out the inequality of opportunity and the wage discrimination they suffer. This struggle is legitimate and is progressing, too slowly but it is moving forward. 

In the developed countries, education between men and women is currently broadly the same and there are even significantly more women in higher education. The issue of the wage gap is therefore the point that hurts. “Equal skills, equal pay”: All studies prove that this is not the case and that there is clear discrimination at this level. Maternity remains a barrier to career advancement. Not to mention the problem of harassment at work, whether moral or sexual. 

However legitimate and necessary these struggles may be, the issue of women’s leadership must look beyond gender parity. Abolishing injustices is one thing, but fighting for values is another. So what are the values that women defend in terms of leadership and how can these values be carried loud and clear in today’s professional landscape?

A favorable trend to the development of Women’s leadership

Women’s leadership does not fit the vertical hierarchical structures that have prevailed in companies since the 20th century. And this is a good thing! Because vertical hierarchical structures tend to disappear. 

Start-ups exploded this model from the 1990s onwards. They went from micro-structure to organisations developed on several sites, even several countries. What characterises start-ups today is the fact that the creative process is encouraged and that processes and procedures do not govern the decision-making circuits. 

At the same time, business management models have evolved. Large companies are seeking to set up management systems that reconcile flexibility and homogenisation of practices. Labelled as scrum, agile, no-boss, etc … the new management models are more flexible and more “flat”. 

Work is also organised differently. The first observation is that part-time work continues to develop. What used to be a hindrance to career advancement is now becoming an advantage. Maternity leave, breaks, part-time work to reconcile work and childcare: women have learned to manage the discontinuity in their careers. Today, however, job security is decreasing and where men struggle with an unexpected career break, women are more likely to adapt and bounce back. Secondly, linear careers are becoming increasingly rare. Here again, men must deprogram themselves and learn to reinvent themselves through successive experiences. 

The current Covid19 crisis has shown to men that handling both home and work is a struggle. Unfortunately, surveys have shown a setback in gender equality with a lot of women dropping fully or partially their job during the confinement to take care of the kids while men were keeping professionally active. This shows again how important the workplace is in women emancipation. 

The ability to bounce back and enrich one’s career path with a variety of experiences is beginning to be increasingly valued, even if there is still some way to go in this direction. What used to be called atypical careers go from being a “handicap” to being an asset… There are even firms specialising in recruiting for these atypical careers. This is another area where women can develop more easily than men. 

Women’s leadership is better equipped for tomorrow

No alt text provided for this image

In an article published in June 2019 in the Harvard Business R, Professors J. Zenger and J. Folkman found that women significantly outperformed men in the following leadership competencies: initiative (56%), resilience (55%), ability to develop (55%), the research of results (54%), intellectual integrity (54%), ability to develop, inspire and motivate others (54%). 

It is very clear that these skills are the most sought-after skills in 21st century management 3.0. These skills can be grouped under three types of intelligence in the etymological sense of the term, intelligere: putting things together.

1/Collective Intelligence

  • Collaborative and inclusive approaches are developing over silos between departments. 

  • Whereas a department may have been embodied by a boss, new functional and matrix management forms are developing nowadays.

  • Women are more comfortable than men in collaborative work where delegation of initiatives and decentralisation of decisions are key.

2/ Emotional Intelligence

  • Experimental approach is favoured nowaday, with regular revision processes if the direction taken is wrong. 

  • Women are more likely to admit their mistake with humility and take a step back to reassess and correct the situation. In that regard, the added value of emotional intelligence will increasingly take value especially since a lot of automatized processes will be taken over by AI processes.

3/ Multipotential Intelligence

  • Where employees were asked to apply instructions in the past, they are asked to find solutions.

  • Women find it easier to integrate that problems must be dealt with in a holistic manner, taking into consideration the environment, people’s personalities and their aspirations.

A space to invest for women’s leadership

In these new models, structures, practices and work organisations, women have a space where they can develop their skills, assets and experiences. They have the advantage over men, they do not have to unlearn what decades of vertical management have taught them.

No alt text provided for this image

In order to invest this space, women must open up the field of their struggle. Reducing this struggle to securing positions of responsibility or equal pay with men is not the only way to fight for their cause. On the other hand, continuing to develop women’s leadership in a professional world that is favourable to them is another path that must be invested in in a much more conscious and militant way in order to become “role models” for our daughters who follow us and all the generations of women who will succeed us.

Luz d’Ans is an Executive Coach certified by the ICF. A graduate of Sciences-Po Paris, she worked for 15 years in large international groups as a Risk Manager in France, Singapore and Switzerland. She is trained in neuroscience applied to leadership (neuroleadership) and systemic corporate coaching. She accompanies individuals and companies through the challenges of their transformations: complex projects, talent upskilling and business recovery after a life accident. She also teaches leadership at Sciences po Paris, School of Management and Innovation. 

Bibliography :

·      Catherine Vidal, « Hommes, femmes, avons-nous le même cerveau ? », 2007, Paris, Le Pommier.

·      Jack Zenger, Joseph Foklman, « Research. Women score higher than men in most leadership skills”, June 25 2019, Business Harvard review.

·      Luc Bretones, « Pourquoi le travail passera, dans le futur, par de nouvelles formes de gouvernance », 7 Août 2019, Business Harvard review France.

·      Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, “As long as we associate leadership with masculinity women will be overlooked”, March 8 2019, Business Harvard review.