As women, we’re told to lean in, to be direct, to do our best, to ask for what we want, to establish strong networks, to depend on solid mentors — and then what? We’ll rule the world, apparently.
But let’s face it: That’s not happening. We’re doing our best and yet, percentage-wise, very few of us are in the upper echelons of leadership. Less than 10 percent of Fortune 500 companies are run by women. Who’s fault is that? Everyone’s.
In our society, many people perceive leadership as inherently masculine. ManpowerGroup’s Chief Talent Scientist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic writes that we tend to associate leadership with “masculine features,” even though such features don’t actually correlate with good leadership.
In fact, our confidence in leaders is at a historic low. Since 1996, the number of Americans expressing some level of confidence in government, corporate, and Wall Street leadership has fallen from 90 percent to a little more than 60 percent. Curiously, in the same time span, spending on leadership development programs has skyrocketed. Perhaps it’s time to overhaul those programs, with an eye toward grounding development in the facts rather than our unchecked biases about what makes for a good leader.
The Traits Associated With Women Leaders Are the Traits Required by the Future of Business
Maybe we can start that overhaul by considering the traits more likely to be found in women than in men (surely due to social conditioning). Research conducted by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman of leadership development firm Zenger/Folkman found that women tend to score better than men in the following leadership capabilities:
- Taking initiative
- Driving for results
- Integrity and honesty
- Developing others
- Inspiring and motivating others
- Building relationships
- Being a champion of change
- Establishing stretch goals
- Collaboration and teamwork
- Connecting to the outside world
- Communicating powerfully and prolifically
- Solving problems and analyzing issues
- Leadership speed
This doesn’t mean all women leaders display all of these skills. Surely, some display none of them, especially since our society’s model of leadership benefits incompetent men, and women are told to emulate the leaders they see around themselves.
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The crux of the issue is not getting more women to the top just for the sake of it, but reorienting the way we view leadership so that we can build a solid C-suite no matter the gender of its members. This imperative becomes more important the more we run into the inevitable ethical issues that come with continued exploration of artificial intelligence and deep learning.
For example, organizations working on driverless cars have to consider how they should program their cars to react in dangerous situations. Should the car swerve to avoid jaywalkers, thereby hitting a concrete barrier and killing its passengers? These are the kinds of questions that leaders will need to address in the coming years, and it seems our current leadership models are ill-equipped for this kind of work.
When I talked to Clive Thomspon, the author of Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World, he spoke about how the white male founders of platforms like Instagram and Twitter lacked insight into how their forums might be used to target women and people of color precisely because they did not have experience in being targeted. If these organizations had had some diversity at the top, chances are they could have foreseen these challenges and coded for them.
Like many men running startups, Uber’s Travis Kalanick and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg likely gained traction because they were task-oriented and focused on their personal achievements instead of supporting collaborative environments based on integrity. News about Uber’s and Facebook’s unwillingness to be direct about how they use our personal data is an indication of this.
(Side note: Male-run startups are much more likely to receive funding than those which are female-founded. This is partially because venture capitalists ask male and female founders different sets of questions. Female founders are often pressed about preventing problems, whereas male founders are asked about their dreams for the future. What’s interesting, yet not entirely surprising, is that this tends to be the case regardless of the venture capitalist’s gender. We’re all conditioned to assume that female-founded startups are more likely to fail, even though the facts don’t support that.)
How might women do things differently? As the Zenger/Folkman survey shows, women leaders tend to act with greater integrity and honesty than their male counterparts. To be frank, we’re socially conditioned to express our care for others, so we do. Advances in science and technology are raising new and challenging ethical issues for products and services, and we’ll need a new types of leader to face those challenges. There is a strong argument to be made, backed by research, that senior managers have to think more broadly about business decisions. It’s high time that recruiters and organizations looking to hire executives seek out leaders who are more concerned with humility and integrity — traits that, at the present time, are more readily apparent in women.
It’s not just recruiters who need to change their viewpoints, it’s all of us. We must all reevaluate how we define leadership so that we no longer match roles to people who simply look the part. How do we go about doing this? By training current leaders in unconscious bias and by adopting new standards to evaluate leaders so that we focus more on performance and overall impact and less on our unexamined ideas about what leadership looks like.
Jeannette McClennan is founder and president of The McClennan Group.