I always knew that women were not smaller versions of men, but distinct all on their own. Recently, I found a photograph of me with a few of the female counselors I cherished from the overnight youth camp where I spent many summers. These pictures showed the women leaders to be who they were: strong, compassionate, smart, caring, funny, bold, loyal and ambitious. Young leaders comfortable being themselves. I had looked up to them and imagined growing up to be just like them. The male counselors were talented too, and different.
That’s why I was surprised when my internet search for women-only leadership programs came up with fewer results than I expected. Women’s identities, perspectives and the requirements for women leaders to succeed are different from those of men.
The underrepresentation of women in the C-suite and the boardroom is common knowledge, and less known is the wide gap that exists for all managerial levels. Women are much less likely than men to get promoted. These are signs of unhealthy organizations, and there’s work we need to do.
Here are six considerations for women leaders.
Refine skills traditionally known as women’s ways of leading.
Embrace empathy, compassion, relationship building and collaboration to get things done. These were known as women’s ways of leading not that long ago when they were undervalued, but the business world has caught up now, and it’s common knowledge that without skills of emotional and social intelligence, your career progress will be limited. Don’t consider quieting them. Instead, work to refine them and support other women and men to do the same.
Sharpen your decisiveness, negotiation and authority.
While we live in a time when soft skills have been renamed “power skills” that reflect their high value, we also need leaders to make decisions quickly, negotiate, be authoritative and take up space. Think of Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand. She’s a leader among leaders who gained the world’s admiration when she communicated compassion then took decisive action following the mosque shootings in her country by pushing forward with gun reforms.
Observe role models to help claim your leadership identity.
Find an employer where there are senior women leaders. Observing how women navigate as leaders is purposeful and effective for the process of internalizing a new identity that being a leader at any next level requires. This is doubly true if you fear whether or not you can be yourself at the next level of leadership. You can learn a lot from observing a woman leader who is authentically herself, happy and successfully operating at the level you aspire to.
Acquire two networks, not just one.
To navigate well inside an organization, it helps to work with powerful people at levels higher than your own. Being well-connected is good for men and for women, but women need a second network too. They benefit from a cadre of close women peers who give access to information about the leadership culture of an organization, maybe what success looks like in a male-dominated industry and ways of interacting. Close ties to a group of women account for an average job ranking 2.5 times higher than women whose networks didn’t have those two features.
Negotiate for yourself.
Women ask for things and they do it well. They feel at ease asking on behalf of their division and are less likely to ask for themselves. A telecom leader on a panel told a story about talking with her successor about work. He mentioned in passing that the team meetings were changed to 9:00 a.m. Surprised at this, she asked how it happened because she had perpetually been inconvenienced by having to run a teleconference in her car while stopping at daycare. He said that he had simply announced a time change to the team. She was visibly astonished as she’d never thought to negotiate this for herself and admitted the irony of having earned a strong reputation as a negotiator and first-rate deal-maker on behalf of her company interests.
Attend to your career, not just your job.
With increased artificial intelligence, greater digitization and technological integration, it’s a smart strategy to focus your time on high-value work. Too many women expend lots of energy being sticklers about their work and so forfeit the opportunity to move on to the next thing. Letting go of perfection to release time in your schedule for professional development, strategic thinking and broader networking will get you further.
One of the benefits of living in the era of #TimesUp is that people’s expectations of what is acceptable have changed for the better. To close the leadership gender gap, we continue to want to see equitable policies, programs and services. But now, more women and men regularly call out inequities when women’s voices are missing on thought leadership panels, when solid female candidates are overlooked for a leadership role or when not a single woman director makes the list during film awards season.
Many companies today are betting that their diversity and inclusion initiatives will close the gaps in women’s advancement. This requires looking to attract, hire and assess for promotion. It also involves taking a hard look at the workplace culture to identify the unseen biases and obstacles across the employee life cycle and the commitment of senior leadership to this goal.
What’s often overlooked is the traditional gender-neutral view of what it takes to succeed, as though being a woman is an incidental identity, not a material one.
Women have had lots of practice navigating their likeability with their competence and have had a tough time being seen as both at the same time. It’s one of many double binds, and it belies just how difficult it is. Nevertheless, some men and women still wonder why there’s a need for women-only groups in leadership development. It’s because women, men and organizations will benefit from women becoming fully themselves as leaders.