Developing Leadership in Women
The word “leadership” speaks to authority, initiative, direction and guidance, and it’s no longer only used just to describe CEO’s and presidents
- Male stereotyping and preconceptions of women’s abilities.
- Exclusion from informal networks (such as those that take place on the golf course or at a bar after work).
- A lack of opportunities for women with management potential.
- An inhospitable corporate culture.
- Unequal compensation systems for men and women.
- Discrimination and sexual harassment.
It is essential to understand the differences between men and women and how those differences affect the workplace. Women possess the singular distinction of having been conditioned since birth to play nice, get along with others, and never act as if they are better or more important than others. In their book In the Company of Women, authors Pat Heim and Susan Murphy explain that this conditioning is apparent in the stereotypical games that children play according to gender. For example, boys spend much of their playtime in competitive games with the object being to prove dominance over the other males, such as the classic King of the Hill game that becomes a blueprint for male success in the workplace. On the other hand, girls collaborate on making up games, playing at “house” or dolls, often preferring one-on-one play with a best friend. In essence, girls play games in which the goal is to build or strengthen a relationship, not necessarily to win. The power is more evenly shared among girls than among boys, who unabashedly play to win and prove their dominance over the group.
Fast-forward. Many girls grow up to become businesswomen with professional careers. So what happens when a leadership opportunity presents itself to a woman who has been socialized from a very young age to keep power evenly balanced and to make sure that everyone gets a turn?
As you can imagine, a woman seeking to take on a leadership role finds herself between the proverbial rock and a hard place. If she adopts the male model of leadership, which is direct, competitive and hierarchical, she may be labeled with harsh descriptions and be ostracized by other women in the office. Yet if she tries to downplay her power and deferentially couch ideas and directives in an effort to sound less authoritarian and more humble, this leader is likely instead to come across as unsure of herself to her male colleagues and to lose their respect.
When women understand these gender dynamics that are at play, however, they can meet such professional challenges head on.
Women excel at listening to others, building consensus, sharing information and empowering others. These characteristics are strengths when it comes to leadership. The American Business Women’s Association (ABWA) affords its members opportunities to explore the collaborative leadership style and demonstrates how a collaborative leader can be much more successful in the workplace than a controlling leader.
Collaborative leadership involves three primary components:
- Sharing the vision: being able to see the larger picture and communicate it effectively to team members, resulting in their buy-in and commitment.
- Sharing the power: coaching team members and stepping back so that they can take an active role in the project; empowering others.
- Sharing the glory: recognizing and rewarding team members as you celebrate the accomplishments of the team.
Of course, leadership style in any given project varies, depending upon the specifics in place. ABWA gives an example in one of its workshops that if a new team hasn’t worked together before, an effective leader wouldn’t just hand them a project and say, “go for it!” She would exercise more control and provide more direction in that situation. However, once the team has worked together and has demonstrated success, she would step back and give them more leeway. A leader needs to trust her instincts and use her judgment about how much control to relinquish and give to her team.
Leadership training is a wonderful way for women to obtain the tools and hone the skills needed to succeed and thrive in a leadership role. A gender-specific program is a very positive thing for women, for they often tend to step back when in mixed company. Both research and experience have shown that women become less assertive, less self-assured and less willing to speak up or take risks when men are present, which is obviously counterproductive to getting the most out of a learning opportunity.
The unique environment that was created at the American Business Women’s Association encourages women to ask questions and share experiences without the fear of repercussion. Leadership opportunities, from the ABWA Mini-MBA Certificate Program to serving in a leadership position within the Association, provide vital insights into current practices and provide the “real world” experience needed to perfect leadership skills.
Yes, women are different from men. They lead differently than men and experience different leadership challenges than men. But in recognizing and understanding the innate differences, such differences needn’t be viewed as weaknesses or obstacles to being a great leader. Instead, these strengths will contribute to ability of a woman to lead, and to lead well.
Carolyn Bufton Elman is the executive director of the American Business Women’s Association. She is a recognized leader in American business and an authority on workplace issues that affect women. Ms. Elman is actively sought for her insight and serves on the Board of Directors of the Private Industry Council of the Kansas City Full Employment Council, the Board of Directors of the Crittenton Behavioral Health Center, the Board of Advisors for the Women on Their Way Program for Wyndham Hotels and Resort, and the Office Depot Women’s Advisory Board. ABWA has provided comprehensive leadership and business skills development programs for more than 545,000 workingwomen. For more information on the American Business Women’s Association, leadership training opportunities or the ABWA Mini-MBA Certificate Program, contact (800) 228-0007 or visit www.abwa.org.