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If She Looks Like a Leader and Talks Like a…

It’s widely accepted that being an effective leader involves building a vision, harnessing passion, empowering people at all levels, and developing networking skills, along with so many other attributes. These qualities aren’t inherently gendered. So why, then, are positions of authority? Why don’t we see more female leaders, and why does that need to change?

Despite a renewed global focus on increasing the number of women in leadership roles, men still dominate senior management positions. This brings to mind that old adage – well, if it looks like a duck and talks like a duck, it must be, right? As in, the relative absence of female leaders has contributed to the bias that women are unsuited or incapable of being successful leaders – solely because they’re not men. Plus, companies that fail to utilize their female employees by placing them in positions of authority (or that simply don’t have women on staff) encourage the notion that management positions are unfriendly ones for women to pursue. This just grazes the surface of why there aren’t more women in top positions.

More interestingly, though, why should there be? Studies show that the very feminine qualities that are denounced in women are celebrated in male leaders. Male leaders that are empathetic, kind, and thoughtful (all typically feminine traits) are praised. It’s a paradox, though; these are the same qualities that women often have to reject in order to be taken seriously in a masculine world. Think Thatcher – women need aggression to get things done.

Besides, calling those traits distinctly feminine is a value judgment. It’s typecasting. In reality, men and women are equally capable, and the talents that are prevalent in the male population are just as present in the female (and vice versa). Still, the female experience does contribute to a distinct type of leadership in many cases. Astin and Leland find that female leaders are more likely to pursue collective action, shared power, and a collaborative ethic. Companies that utilize women at top levels are less hierarchical and confrontational. Because it is more difficult to obtain positions of power as a female, the ones who achieve those spots often display a particular type of inner drive: but they also prioritize balance, life satisfaction, and the ability to grow and flourish within their position alongside the work itself. Successful women also diversify; they don’t rely on meritocracy or performance to ensure their position, but build power through networking and self-promotion as well. These are all unique contributions to any business environment. Women leaders have a particular lived history, and this can’t be undervalued. We need to celebrate and appreciate female leaders, and facilitate the increased representation of women in all types of senior management.

Visser, Mirella. The Female Paradox: Power, Performance and Promotion. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Astin, H. S. and Leland, C. Women of Influence, Women of Change. California: Jossey-Bass, 1991. Baxter, Judith. The Language of Female Leadership. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. Web. 4 Sep. 2015

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