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Women leaders: PC puzzles, if women lead ‘from behind’, how can we be seen?

February 1, 2015

Fated to be overshadowed?

Fated to be overshadowed?,

According to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Neptune raped Caenis, the daughter of Elatus and Hippea. She was so traumatised that she asked to be changed into a man so that she could never be raped again. Contrite, Neptune granted her wish: she became Caeneus.

You could almost take this as an allegory for one of the problems of attaining ‘true’ female ‘leadership’. A slew of media articles, some by women in the public eye, portray us as emulating men to be successful at work, and urge us not to: read IMF chief Christine Lagarde’s interview for the BBC (; UK Home Secretary Theresa May’s speech at the launch of a new female mentoring scheme (; Rachel Bowden’s ‘Do women need to act like men to be successful managers?’ (; Maria Shriver’s NBC interview with Barbara Annis, a gender intelligence expert and the Chair Emeritus of the Women’s Leadership Board at Harvard Kennedy School, ‘You Do You: Why Women in Leadership Should Just Be Themselves’ (

According to Bowden, a study of leadership and management in the UK’s National Health Service found that ‘women in senior positions tend to behave as they think men behave…. The findings also apply to labs and research departments.’ Yet according to Annis, ‘successful female leadership is about women who have broken the glass ceiling by being themselves, rather than those who have made strides by adopting male behaviors.’

My own working life has been something of an object lesson in what women – at least this one woman – might mean by ‘leadership’ anyway. I started out from University with some compulsion to ‘climb the ladder’ in book publishing, and did that, racking up in turn roles as an editorial assistant, an editor, an editorial manager and then an editorial director. It was only after some 14 years that I realised that in part, I was trying to shadow my father’s stellar career as a ‘captain of industry’ – and that once at ‘the top’, I didn’t really enjoy it. I reviewed my skills set, and the aspects of work that I most thrived on. I discovered that they were rooted in coaching others and bringing on a team; I changed direction, re-training ‘from the bottom’ as a learning support assistant then a teacher in primary classrooms. Once more, though, partly through ambition, partly through luck and opportunity, I ‘rose’ to become an educational consultant and researcher and writer in the field. Yet eventually, with the benefit of this further experience, I suppose, I realised that I’d most like to ‘work backstage’, helping others through administrative work. And this time, now, I do feel satisfied and genuinely fulfilled. I believe that I help others, being given ample opportunity to contribute ideas and to build something at work as part of a team, while undertaking fulfilling spare-time activities such as mentoring: I have no desire to re-climb the greasy pole; and yet, according to the male success model, what I do, I hope in my terms successfully, is nothing like ‘leadership’.

This is where it gets complicated. According to Jean Lau Chin, Bernice Lott, Joy Rice and Janis Sanchez-Hucles (eds.), Women and Leadership: Transforming Visions and Diverse Voice (2007), many studies have actually shown little or no gender difference in the leadership roles and styles of managers, supervisors, officers, department heads and coaches. And yet most workplaces are hierarchical in structure, a structure which is generally acknowledged to be masculine and patriarchal – with many women confessing that they feel uncomfortable being identified as a ‘leader’ at the head of such a vertical structure. Thus Amanda Sinclair reports in her paper Not just ‘adding women in’: Women re-making leadership, 2013:

‘Highly visible and effective women in public life have been designated as something other than leader, such as “community activist” or “pioneer”…. Many women are sceptical about the term leadership – they don’t want to be labelled a leader because of what it connotes: the out-front loner, or the tough, stoic hero.’ (

Another problem lies in that, within our male, hierarchical workplace structures, there are pervasive misperceptions and stereotypes about how men and women operate. See for instance articles such as 4 Skills that Give Women a Sustainable Advantage Over Men by Glenn Llopis in Forbes. Women’s e-news reports hard scientific evidence that contradicts these generalisations: ‘Men are not inherently less empathetic than women, nor are women more people-oriented, democratic, caring managers.’ (

Yet workplace assumptions about male-female characteristics, strengths and weaknesses are deep-rooted, and again, are found irrefutably in studies. Thus males and females are perceived and treated differently:

‘When male leaders act forcefully, they are applauded, not critiqued for any lack of niceness and friendliness…. But forceful female leaders may be met with hostile reactions for failing to be more feminine…. When a woman and a man work together in a team, credit for the team’s success is far more often given to the male team member. A woman’s performance must be at the top 20th percentile, and in many cases in the top 10th percentile, to be viewed on par with the average man’s performance.’

Jean Lau Chin et al confirm:

‘Women in Western culture (particularly those who are White and middle class)… are expected to manifest certain qualities in their thinking and action. These are communal qualities…, and include friendliness, kindness, and unselfishness. These are distinguished from the … qualities assigned to “masculinity” and men, such as assertiveness and instrumental competence…. When working as leaders or managers, women (and men) are expected to behave… on the basis of their gender alone. Thus it is anticipated that a woman leader will be more “relationship centred, nurturing, and sensitive” than a man…. These beliefs, however, do not match the actual behavior of women and men….’

These beliefs may not be founded in reality, but what is certain is that there are some aspects of much female culture that contradict, and conflict with, the hierarchical structure of most organisations. As Pluribus ( puts it:

‘Men live in hierarchical structures…. Women prefer flatter structures which promote better communication, understanding and friendship…. A very important rule in the female culture is that the power in interpersonal relationships is shared and always kept “dead-even”…. The girls who tried to be the boss of other girls as children quickly learned that this behaviour damaged friendships. Consequently, when adult women enter a hierarchical arena they usually attempt to share power equally or to flatten the hierarchy. As a result, women often negotiate differences, seeking “win-win” solutions, focusing on what is fair for all instead of winning.’

(Text based on the work of Dr Pat Heim, especially such videos and publications as The Invisible Rules: Men, Women and Teams: see

Others agree, in fact seeing hierarchical structures as most effective only in emergency situations (C.D.R. Norton, Gender and Communication – Finding Common Ground in The Leadership News, Spring 1998: Sadly, most workplaces aren’t flexible enough to change between flatter and more hierarchical structures when needed. And with only one-eighth of women on top company boards in the UK, and women earning 55% less than their male counterparts, and gaining one-fifth of the bonuses, in the field of finance alone, as recently as 2012 (, there’s no chance that any such structural innovations will come soon. Yet even in hierarchical companies, research shows that if there are three or more women in ‘top’ jobs, they achieve a better bottom line Womens e-news).

So what can we under-recognised, even disenfranchised, working women do to improve things for ourselves in the workplace, to make ourselves more visible, maybe even regarded as leaders in new terms? Jean Lau Chin et al hint at some suggestions:

– ‘When a feminist manager contributes to the growth of group members, fosters their interactions and connections, this must not be done invisibly, as is expected to be the feminine way, but clearly and openly [my italics] (Actually, Chin et al are quoting Joyce K. Fletcher and Katrin Käufer, Shared Leadership: Paradox and Possibility in C.L.Pearce and J. A. Conger, Shared Leadership: Reframing the Hows and Whys of Leadership (2003)).

– ‘Empowerment’ is also seen as a key attribute of women as leaders if they are, in their leadership terms, to become visible and recognised. Chin et al explain what ’empowerment’ means: ‘[This] style… encourages competition not between individuals but between work units [my italics], promotes open discussion and democratic participation, shares resources, and helps subordinates grow and do their best by empowering, not exploiting, them.’

– Chin et al are looking particularly at feminist leadership, so they also urge: ‘Feminist leaders [must] also “make waves”…. A feminist leader must advocate for policies that support child care and family obligations, adequate access to health care, pensions, and other employee-friendly benefits.’ also suggest that women as leaders should help with:

– Mitigation of group think and excessive risk taking.

– Creating gender balanced teams.

Finally, a lot of writing and research suggests that there are two main leadership styles – transactional and transformational -, the latter being regarded as more conducive to female success. (Chin et al describe it as ‘motivating others to perform beyond their expectations by setting a personal example of high standards, providing support, and encouraging creativity’ – although Fletcher and Käufer caution that this style has still ‘been developed primarily by non-feminist men, still present the leader in “heroic” terms, and are focused on individuals rather than groups’.) I’d suggest that leadership styles need to be viewed as far more diverse and fluid than this – otherwise we risk once more stereotyping our colleagues, potentially, and most dangerously perhaps, by gendering their approaches. suggests that there are at least four leadership modes, and that even then, we women (as well as men) may travel between them. They are described as ‘relational leadership’, which takes a stance of intuition; ‘performance leadership’, which takes a stance of truth; ‘strategic leadership’, which takes a stance of perspective; and ‘visionary leadership’, which assumes a stance of vision and purpose. Perhaps it would help us if we focused more on our leadership styles, recognising them in ourselves, discussing them openly in the workplace, and adapting them as we need them, than in perceiving our performance as primarily ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ in style.

Maybe all those hierarchical structures (apart from in all-women workplaces, of course) still need changing; but perhaps the ideas above can be a start.

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