Women in Leading Roles – Can We Really Generalise?

Over the last few months, I have met several people who think that women, especially, change when they reach higher levels of hierarchy. They claim that women tend change in a more negative way, compared to men in the same positions.

It probably has to do with the fact that as soon as a woman takes on a leading role in an area where women are traditionally a minority, people (and this very much includes the press, and yes, this blog) tend look more at the fact that the person is a woman, rather than a person, to see if something related to gender can be concluded with regard to her management style or her behaviour in general.

The way people behave must for all intents and purposes be seen from an individual perspective. Personality is individual, not gender bound. Those in a leading position who are completely at ease with what they say and who they are, without any hint of being cold, distant, or formalistic, deserve to be recognised for that, without any bias whatsoever. It shouldn’t be a “surprise” when these qualities are attributed to a woman.

One of the persons I met recently reflected on the first female senior VP in his organization, who was named in the beginning of the year. He claimed she had become more stiff, less smiling, and on the whole less approachable, in connection with her new role, and went on to say that he thought this was a common problem with women in senior positions.

I experienced the complete opposite when I met a fairly high ranking diplomat the other week. When we shook hands I had no idea who she was, and I somehow did not expect her to hold the office she did, as she literally radiated fun, smiles and literally happyenergy, had long flowing hair and was wearing a likewise flowing, but, added to that colourful, dress. Here we go for biased ideas – I plead guilty. Totally. I should be ashamed really.

This takes us back to the never-ending debate about women, dress codes, and what people expect and assume about a woman in relation to this. One of the professors I had at university, Marianne Levin, held an entire lecture about this. She started out wearing ten layers of clothes when she walked into the room, and undressed as she went along with the lecture to give visual examples of what she said – and no, she did not end up in her birthday suit, even if this was in Sweden.

Back to the diplomat. In spite of rising in the ranks and being both competent and appreciated by the administration, she had remained true to herself. It seems she had not made any compromises when it came to her own personality in relation to her job, and yes, I’m a fan.

Others, and in these two cases men, are the main characters in the anecdotes, seem to morph into monsters as they rise in the hierarchy. One went from being a “softie” who listened to people and promoted social values around him, working in politics, to becoming obsessed with money, profitability, and long hours once he got a personal stake in the business he joined after he was released from office. Another constantly screamed at his team that worked on a challenging technical product, which was running late for delivery and where the pressure from the client as well as higher management increased.

So no, I do not think it is possible to generalise about how women and men behave in leading positions. I am a firm believer that your personality, as well as the environment you work in, are key to how you evolve. If you are prone to stress, or someone who is worried about what others think, or who does not have the self confidence to continue to be your own relaxed self even when you are promoted, then you can work on it; either with a coach or a mentor, or in some other way. But to do that you have to be conscious about the problem, and that, I believe, is just as big a challenge as that of working on your weak points.

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Are women more prone to question themselves and their abilities to lead than men? Some people think so. If that is the case, they should have a higher potential to become good managers than men by consciously working on their weaknesses. How is that for a generalisation?

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