‘Women need to act more like men at work.’
It’s a line oft-repeated and therefore implicitly believed by many — and at face value, it’s plain to see why. Men still dominant leadership positions across the world — in business, government and everything in between. In Australia, there are now more men named ‘Andrew’ leading ASX 200 companies than there are women.
Therefore, we grow to believe men do something superior, something innately ‘masculine’ that enables them to be better leaders. Our internal, social monologue has become one that centres on the inadequacy of women, and the need to fix them.
‘Why isn’t she speaking up? Being more ballsy? More detached? More mean? More male?’
But there’s a huge, gaping, embarrassingly obvious hole in this theory: it presupposes the current benchmark of leadership is ideal when clearly it’s not.
We know unequivocally greater diversity leads to greater yields for business. Recent studies from major consulting firms such as McKinsey and Cloverpop clearly show the links between good decision making and diverse teams. The same applies to inclusive and empathetic leadership which breeds better productivity, loyalty and motivation in teams.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, a recent PEW Research Centre study showed woman leaders typically held greater interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence than their male counterparts. A whopping 43% of respondents believed woman leaders in business were better at creating a safe and respectful workplace while just 5% of participants said the same about men.
In terms of politics, 61% of respondents felt woman leaders were more compassionate and empathetic, and nearly one-third felt women were more ethical.
Bern Dillon, co-founder at consulting firm Chalk & Cheese told Women’s Agenda despite empathy being regularly perceived as a ‘soft skill’ or lying within the domain of ‘women’s work’, it is, in fact, a “critical capability for all leaders”.
“Empathy builds trust and understanding, which lie at the heart of human connection”, Dillon says.
“In a complex and competitive environment, a leader’s ability to genuinely connect with the people they lead, the customers they serve and the communities in which they operate is a key driver of organisational success. It’s not surprising that the World Economic Forum deemed it an essential leadership skill for the future.”
So why are companies and government resistant to change?
If we don’t aspire to be cut-throat, callous, detached and arrogant as human beings, why are we aspiring to be these sorts of leaders?
Criticising women for being overly empathetic — for saying sorry too frequently, for being collaborative with their teams, for wanting to be utterly qualified for the roles they apply for — is ridiculous. These examples aren’t evidence women lack confidence, they’re evidence women aren’t entitled and incompetent.
It’s time to question our perception of what constitutes ‘good leadership’. Because the benchmark at the moment is gravely inadequate.