I typically do not pay much attention to gender based articles and stats. Having started my career as a software developer I was normalized to a highly male dominated work environment. In no way, shape, or form have I ever perceived my career as having been more challenging because I am a woman. Nor have I made an effort to suppress my female traits to be more like my male colleagues. Sure I have encountered sexism, but no more frequently than I have encountered reverse sexism and all the other types of prejudices that are out there. Long before my career even started I knew not to take this type of behaviour personally and that it is a source of insecurity, my mother instilled this in us at a very young age.
Men and women are different. We should embrace this and not try to coach women to be more like men in order to be successful leaders. I have recently read two articles that have advocated women leaders need to act more like men from HBR and the Financial Post, two of my favourite information sources. This drove me to want to share my thoughts. While I do agree with some of the constructive advice that is provided in both articles, I profoundly disagree with the over arching message that women need to act more like men to be successful as leaders.
A couple of weeks ago Jeffrey Pfeffer posted Women and the Uneasy Embrace of Power on HBR which initiated a very provocative discussion. While I enjoyed the discussion it ignited, I was initially disappointed after reading his post, I wondered if Jeffrey was somehow related to Archie Bunker! How in today’s business environment can someone still believe that people do not see right through acts of “engaging in self promotion” that Jeffrey is advocating. I wondered if Jeffrey had read any of his peers blogs, had he not heard of the “age of transparency”? Leadership is not about whether you are a man or a woman, and it is certainly not about attaining power over other people. Power is at an individual level, you can lead by empowering yourself and others, but the type of power Jeffrey describes is egocentric and political. In another post on HBR earlier the same day, The Crucial Skills for Tomorrow’s Leaders, skills such as trust, authenticity, purpose, empathy, devotion, curiosity, and mindfulness were identified… power was not even mentioned.
Then this week the Financial Post published 10 Body Language Mistakes That Women Leaders Make by Carol Kinsey Goman and Troy Mediathe. To their credit there are 4 points listed that provide good constructive advice for women (and men), but I disagree with the rest of their points and would instead encourage women leaders to remain true to who they are and instead shift their focus to simply earning respect through their authentic actions and words. Here are the points I challenge and why:
“1) They use too many head tilts. Head tilting is a signal that someone is listening and involved — and a particularly feminine gesture. Head tilts can be very positive cues, but they are also subconsciously processed as submission signals. Women who want to project power and authority should keep their heads straight up in a more neutral position.”
Yikes, did they really just say that? I highlighted the only part of this point that adds value “head titling is a signal that someone is listening and involved”, this is a good thing! I would not call this being submissive, I would call this being vulnerable, which I believe is a leadership strength.
“2) They physically condense. One way that status is non-verbally demonstrated in a business meeting is by physically taking up room. Lower-status, less-confident men (and most women) tend to pull in their bodies and minimize their size, while high status males expand and take up space. So at your next meeting, spread out your belongings and claim your turf!”
When I see someone expanding to take up space and “claim their turf” I think it is screaming insecurity and ego. However, I do think it is important to have a good posture, open shoulders cue your own self empowerment.
“5) They nod too much. When a man nods, it means he agrees. When a woman nods, it means she agrees – or is listening to, empathizing with, or encouraging the speaker to continue. This excessive head nodding can make females look like a bobble-head doll. Constant head nodding can express encouragement and engagement, but not authority and power.”
I agree that if it goes to the point where you look like a bobble-head doll you have gone too far, but listening, empathizing and encouraging are all great cues of leader.
“6) They speak “up.” Women’s voices often rise at the ends of sentences as if they’re asking a question or asking for approval. When stating your opinion, be sure to use the authoritative arc, in which your voice starts on one note, rises in pitch through the sentence and drops back down at the end.”
News flash, I call that a Canadian accent. When I moved down to the US for 10 years I became very aware of how we Canadians raise our voices at the end of sentences, as though every sentence is a question and if you’re French-Canadian you might even add a “non?” at the end. I will agree that I think this can come across as overly politically correct but I do not agree that this is more common in women then men. At most I would recommend it be something you be mindful of especially if you have a strong Canadian or French-Canadian accent.
“7) They wait their turn. In negotiations, men talk more than women and interrupt more frequently. One perspective on the value of speaking up comes from former US Secretary of State Madeleine Alright, who – when asked what advice she had for up-and-coming professional women – replied, “Learn to interrupt.””
Perhaps in politics this is true, but I do not think business should emulate politics, in fact my thoughts on conduct in political leadership is another topic all together. It is important to speak up and be heard and I do think there is an art of interruption when required but I disagree that interruption should be advocated broadly.
“8) They are overly expressive. While a certain amount of movement and animation adds passion and meaning to a message, women who express the entire spectrum of emotions often overwhelm their audience (especially if the audience is comprised primarily of males). So in situations where you want to maximize your authority – minimize your movements. When you appear calm and contained, you look more powerful.”
I agree with this to the extent that it needs to be in balance, it is important as a leader to be calm and contained when the circumstances require this but it is also important for leaders to exude their passion, we all craving authentic leaders with purpose, we want to see their passion but we also want to see their disappointment and their strength to remain calm in crisis.
Bottom line, changing women leaders is not the answer, nor is blaming sexism, our focus needs to be on developing leaders we can trust that have the courage to lead with purpose rather than power. Leadership is not a battle of the sexes, we do not need more women leaders for the sake of equality, we simply need better leaders that inspire meaningful change.
As a final thought that was reflected in numerous comments in response to Jeffrey’s post, not all women aspire to become leaders in business, women that chose to focus on raising a family are not “dropping their quest for power”. The lack of appreciation and respect for the role of a mother bewilders me, but that is another topic all together, I simply wanted to point out that we need to celebrate women who make this choice and accept that this is one of the reasons there are less women in leadership roles in business.
What leadership skills inspire you?