The business world has come a long way in celebrating and enabling gender equality. But while there might be more women entering the boardroom, we’re still a long way from achieving truly equal representation in the workplace — especially at a senior level.
The problem is that while we’re more comfortable with having women take the lead, there’s still an underlying expectation for these women to fulfil a stereotype that is inherently masculine.
Recent research on the topic found that both men and women equate strong leadership with attributes typically ascribed to men, with communality (characterised as a “feminine” quality) deemed less desirable than agency (a “masculine” characteristic) — suggesting that the continued scarcity of women at the very top of organisations could be self-fulfilling.
Look at the example of Elizabeth Holmes, the disgraced founder of infamous healthtech startup Theranos. Before her fall from grace, she credited her decision to model herself on Apple’s Steve Jobs in behaviour and appearance as the reason that she managed to attract so much investment.
Bearing this in mind, why do we still believe the narrative that in order to be respected and successful, leaders must stand alone in their ivory tower?
Speaking as a chief executive, I can only assume that it’s because leaders want to hide the uncertainty they feel when making decisions. Uncertainty makes you vulnerable, which is perceived as a weakness in the business world.
But with the growing awareness around mental health, physical wellbeing, and calls for greater maternity and paternity leave, a more empathetic, nurturing and (dare I say it) “feminine” approach to leading is becoming increasingly vital.
The reason for this might seem obvious — after all, logic would suggest that employees whose personal needs are met outside of work will also be happier in work — but there’s also a scientific reason why being more approachable makes business sense.
Neuroscience has shown that humans are wired to make connections in all parts of life — personal and professional. A lack of personal relevance, meanwhile, fails to build grounding and connection between people.
It follows then that relatable leaders are more likely to make positive impressions on their staff and will ultimately have an easier time getting the best out of their employees.
How can you make this happen in your office? First, we need to take the ego out of leadership. That means involving employees in important conversations. Asking for another point of view may help broaden your own understanding in a way that you wouldn’t have thought possible. That’s why it’s also crucial to have a diverse mix of staff around you.
In the same vein, by showing people that it’s okay to fail, you allow them to relate to you. Just look at the response that Theresa May’s tearful departure from office evoked from the media. Whether you agreed with her politics or not, that was a moment we could all relate to — and it was probably also the first time many of us took the time to acknowledge how difficult her job actually was.
There are positive signs of change ahead. INC magazine broke history in September by becoming the first business magazine to feature a pregnant chief executive on its front cover. The image of a powerful leader showcasing her basic femininity in a business context was a strong one.
Let’s hope that this is just the start of a new narrative around leadership — one that favours both strength and sensitivity. Because in a world as desperately hungry for human connection as ours, it is the leaders who have both qualities that are best equipped for enabling businesses to thrive.
Main image credit: Getty