Women in Leadership

Women in Leadership

What Difference Does Gender Make?

In the past few decades, women have made incredible strides in the workplace. The playing field is now more level than it has ever been in the past.

Women are achieving more and breaking into the higher echelons of management more often. For example, a woman became the leader at one of the country’s biggest computer manufacturers in 1999. Carly Fiorina became president and CEO of Hewlett-Packard after her huge success in spinning off AT&T’s Lucent Technologies. Martha Stewart is another example of a woman who defied the odds to achieve incredible success. Stewart turned a catering business run from her basement into a huge empire including magazines, books, television shows, and specials and products bearing the Martha Stewart name. Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia went public in 1999 to great success, completely attributable to the strong woman leading the company.

Although the corporate gender landscape is changing, successful women leaders remain the exception rather than the rule.

Tip : If you want to be a woman leader, start taking the time to learn about other women leaders. Keep up with news about specific women leaders and studies about leadership and gender. You may learn something that will help you down your own path.

Getting There

Women are increasingly taking management roles once mainly reserved for men. Thanks to the pioneering efforts of women such as Martha Stewart and Carly Fiorina, it is now generally recognized that women can and should be called upon to shoulder greater responsibility.

However, there are still some things you can do to help ensure that you are considered for a leadership position:Be realistic.  

Don’t expect to be named VP simply because you are a woman. If you want to be considered an equal, make it your business to be an equal. This means immersing yourself in your work and improving your skills every chance you get.Know your resources.  

What is true for men is true for women, too. The road to success isn’t that different for women, so use every resource available to hone your leadership skills. For instance, every chapter of this book applies to all leaders and potential leaders, not just men.Find a mentor.  

  Amentor can be a valuable teacher, coach, and ally when you’re negotiating the path to power. Seek out a mentoring relationship. It doesn’t matter whether your mentor is a man or a woman.Speak up.  

A position of leadership isn’t offered to a shrinking violet of either sex. Be forward. Speak up and let your superiors and peers know that you are resolute and innovative. Also, verbally remind your superiors of your past successes.Come out and say it.  

If you are ready for more responsibility, but you feel your superiors are not aware or not sure about your ability, nip their fears in the bud by telling them you are not only ready to lead, but ready to succeed. The more confident you are in your own abilities, the more confident others will be in you.

Overcoming Gender Bias

Hundreds of years of male-dominated leadership resulted in women being considered a more subordinate or submissive sex. Although rare, it is still possible to encounter direct or indirect gender bias in the workplace.

Plain English : Gender bias is defined as prejudice or discrimination against a person based solely on the fact that the person is of a different gender.Here’s an example of gender bias: Jennifer and Matt started their jobs as assistant producers in the same week. Both were incredibly good at their jobs and worked well with other team members. Their boss, Ken, was equally pleased with the work both of them did.Over a period of two years, Jennifer and Matt were each responsible for several key successes for their unit. When a senior producer left to join another company, Jennifer and Matt each felt they were the right candidate to be promoted to the open position. Ken, their boss, didn’t really spend much time deciding who would fill the open position. He knew Matt to be a great employee who would continue his success in the new position. He also liked Matt as a person. He could really talk to him, and often they had spent time bantering about work, sports, and life in general. Without holding interviews, Ken met with Matt only once before announcing to the staff that Matt would take over the senior position.

Jennifer was floored. She felt that her work was equally good, if not better than, Matt’s. She also thought it was unfair that the position was filled without giving everyone a chance to at least submit a resume or make a case for being promoted. Jennifer was right. Ken’s hiring of Matt without so much as a thought for Jennifer or other female employees was an instance of indirect gender bias. Ken didn’t consciously want to keep Jennifer in a subordinate position. He just assumed that a guy, who he could relate to on a personal level, would be the best man for the job, so to speak.

Equal Pay

Let’s take this example one step further. Suppose that Jennifer and Matt both had the same job titles, but Matt made a bit more on each of his paychecks than Jennifer. This would be another example of gender discrimination. If Jennifer and Matt perform an equal amount of work, both should be paid the same. Although there is a federal law requiring equal pay, men continue to make more money than women do. It could be possible that gender stereotypes play a part in this discrepancy. Men are traditionally seen as the breadwinners of the family, and so employers think, perhaps subconsciously, that they deserve more money. However, federal law also specifies that it is illegal to make employment decisions based on stereotypes or assumptions about the traits or skills of people based on their sex, religion, or race.

Challenges Women Leaders Face

Once a woman has achieved a promotion or has been welcomed into the higher echelons of management, she’s won only half the battle. A woman may have an excellent track record as an individual contributor; she may have a fail-safe vision for the future of her unit or organization; she may even consider herself easy to talk to and equal to the challenge of managing a group of people. However, any woman in a position of leadership must be prepared for certain challenges directly related to gender, such as the following:

  • Learning curve. 
    Your group may not be used to working for a woman. Give them time to get used to the concept of not only adjusting to a new boss with a new management style, but also to the fact that you are a woman.
  • Challenges to authority. 
    Some employees may not immediately warm to being directed by a woman. For hundreds of years, our society placed men at the head of the family and painted women as subordinate and not capable of high-level decision-making. Also, since women leaders are still in the minority, you may be the first female manager your employees have ever encountered. Take care to follow through on policies and assignments with which you have charged your group. This will show your team that you hold them accountable for following through on their work and respecting your authority.

Caution : Don’t create problems for yourself! Don’t assume that just because you are a woman, people will have trouble working for you. Don’t let paranoia trick you into thinking a problem is gender-based. Most leaders experience challenges to their authority.

If All Else Fails

If you have exhausted every possibility and are confronted with a problem that is definitely gender-related, be sure to document the precise nature of the problem and keep a log of any attempts at mediation.

If a male employee is openly defying your group’s goals and making suggestive, snide remarks about your gender, you have a legitimate gender-discrimination problem.

First you might attempt to speak with the employee in question yourself. Make sure that you choose a formal setting for this meeting, such as your office or a conference room, and that your positions relative to each other are in keeping with the power structure. For instance, you should be sitting behind your desk with the employee either standing or sitting somewhere on the opposite side of the room.

Explain that you consider his behavior unprofessional and ask for an explanation. Perhaps there is a deeper issue that is causing him to act out in this way. If all goes well, you may not have to take any further action.

If the behavior persists, however, mention the behavior to your mentor and see if she has any suggestions on how to resolve the situation. Second, make sure to contact your superior and your organization’s human resources or legal department.

Human resources may have a standard procedure for dealing with workplace harassment. Human resources should also have Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) material on what constitutes discrimination or harassment.

If resources within the organization fail to help, you might consider seeking outside help from the EEOC itself, a lawyer, or a family member or friend.

The best possible solution will be a speedy one. Don’t hesitate to bring a close to the situation—whether it ends happily or with the employee being chastised or dismissed. If left unchecked, the employee could prove to be a major distraction for your group.