The HR Juggler

Women and Senior Leadership Part 2: The Differences Between Us

Posted on: May 19, 2013

Brain

The CIPD’s HRD conference seems a long time ago already. However, there is much on the session I attended on Senior Female Leadership Talent that I have not yet written about and much of the content has continued to percolate around my brain long after the conference finished and initial blogs were shared. The topic matter isn’t easy, but that’s never a good reason in itself not to share the content and reflect further on it…far from it!

Catherine Sandler of Sandler Consulting was the second speaker of this session and she shared her research, experience and insight on the topic of senior female executives, which was fascinating and could easily have filled a session in its own right…if not several. I hope to do it…and her…justice, in the overview I have pulled together below.

Catherine posed the question of what motivates women and asserted that any discussion around enabling more women to perform at senior executive levels has to delve into this. Whilst motivation is of course individual, the most common themes for women are working on something that they care about, feeling valued and feeling that they can make a difference.  This is markedly different from the answers that men typically give to the same question.

Catherine described a flip-side to what women at their best can deliver, which is that relatively few women are comfortable with leadership and the concept of power. Women often want to be liked and therefore may feel that there is a trade-off that they have to make to become successful, which can set up an inner conflict and potential for guilt or insecurity.  Harmony tends to be important to women and there can be a real fear of how they are perceived by others, particularly if they believe they are seen as arrogant, bossy or selfish.

As a consequence to this, women can have a tendency to avoid conflict, which at a senior level manifests itself with how they interact with their peers, their ability to hold team members to account, and the way in which they interface with their boss. Catherine’s findings indicated that women find it hard to be assertive in these situations, which is reflected in the use of language.  Women are apparently four times more likely than men to start a boardroom contribution with an apology (e.g. “I’m sorry if this has already been covered”) or a modifier (e.g. “it may be that I have misunderstood what you are saying, but…”). I found the issue of language as it relates to women in the workplace a fascinating one and I have already found myself paying greater attention to it, both for myself and those around me.

From language, we moved onto the issue of delegation, why it is often so difficult to do effectively, yet is crucial for career progression and can be seen as real limitation if an individual is not perceived to be good at it. Men and women both expressed a fear failure in their reluctance to delegate; however after this, the reasons for not delegating became markedly different by gender. For women, the other reasons they resisted delegating tended to be a sense of perfectionism, an excessive sense of high personal standards and a wish to protect their team. For men, it was typically because they felt they could do the task much better and faster than anyone in their team below them and often also a wish to retain control.

Linked to this issue of delegation, Catherine also asserted that in her experience, women tend not to be as good at managing their own careers and that one of the key elements of doing this is for the female leader to hold their existing team to account, which in turn creates more time for an individual to focus on their own self and aspirations and how to fulfil them. Apparently this applies to surprisingly senior women and she painted a powerful picture of some of the limitations that women can inadvertently place on themselves and their progression.

Catherine shared some interesting insights in terms of work that she had done with women through coaching and impact programmes to provide support and help them to overcome some of their inherent disadvantages in the senior management teams they work in. As an exercise around leadership brand, she asked each woman to identify three qualities that set them apart as a leader. What was interesting was that words such as supportive, compassionate and kind are frequently used in the early stages of this exercise: all of which are undoubtedly true for the individuals as personality traits and personal values, but as leaders the individuals are much more than this.  Catherine described her role as help each woman to turn their leadership brand into something that inspires both them and others around them and remarked that almost always the senior women she works with are far better than they think they are.  In many ways it is a mental and psychological journey for each woman, to own a description that does them justice. This has a huge confidence building impact and Catherine was passionate about the fact that this should be done at the most junior levels of any organisation.

Another exercise that Catherine described was asking the women to bring along a situation that they find difficult and provide an opportunity to role play and practice in a safe environment. The issue of language is key and she helps women to develop assertive techniques in the words and phrases that they use and to ensure that their own objectives and the core message are well prepared and clearly defined. Follow-up sessions after a three-month period and support from peers are helpful in identifying, using and developing their assertive voice. Self-insight is very important in order to shift some of the inherent gender disadvantages to a more positive stance.

This brought Catherine’s part of the session to an end and there followed a lot of interesting questions and engaged debate. I think it’s important to note that there was no suggestion that the above applies to all women and clearly generalisations have to be treated with caution. What was fascinating to me though, was that the content of the session was not merely about flexible working, equal pay and childcare, but that it moved beyond into some really thought-provoking ideas about how talent and diversity can be nurtured within organisations paying attention to some of the less obvious issues around language, motivation, delegation and core values. That can only be a good thing.

Before I attended this session, I was definitely not in favour of women only groups and leadership and impact training targeted specifically to certain genders. I’m not sure I have been completely won over, but I am certainly more open-minded now that there can be some benefits. I do have a remaining niggle though that we shouldn’t get too caught up with gender per se, but that we should ensure that the relevant development is available to all who need it, and that the prevailing culture of an organisation will make a huge difference to the ability of women to progress within it.

I’d love to know what you think!

6 Responses to "Women and Senior Leadership Part 2: The Differences Between Us"

I take the view that all polarisation is probably an admission that we have not managed to get requisite diversity to work. That said, I can see some arguments for what you say here as we would do in ordinary life, by talking through a topic with a ‘similar’.

Great post Alison, and great to see that we have presenters taking us away from the standard approach to Gender Balance.

I have to be careful as I could talk about this topic all day!! But there is so much interesting research out there about how we can equip our managers to be more effective in their communication and to learn to be ‘gender bi-lingual’ (Disclaimer – I dislike that term but can’t think of another way of putting it).

Rather than focus on how can me make females more like males i.e. more assertive, more outwardly career focused, better able to ask for what they want; it would be great to be in an environment where the workplace can accomodate all differences. And our managers can have valuable conversations about career progression with both genders; and enable talent conversations where the gender is not a conscious variable in the decision making process.

Having recovered from jet lag and caught up. I am going to have to think about this.

My immediate thoughts stray to the complexity, distribution, instant connectedness and rate of change in all but the smallest of modern corporations and all that women bring to that dynamic.

My head hurts 🙂

Great in-depth post, this is something I haven’t given much thought to but definitely will now. I think the link you made to general diversity and how organisations nurture that is really key.

Thanks – great post!

I’m sorry but…

Does this not just prove that which we have always known, men and women are not better or worse, smarter or dumber than each other, only different. As a generalisation, they have different inherent skill sets which are manifest in different ways. As with any skill set, the way to develop or add to it is to provide training and development. So instead of trying to make women’s corporate behaviour more like men’s or vice versa, why don’t we decide what it is we actually do want from our management and train them all, according to need, to demonstrate and practice those behaviours.

When it comes to success in business, I don’t want a man or a woman, I want a leader.

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