Don’t Hire Female Leaders to Balance the Numbers

According to Women in the Workplace 2016a study undertaken by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey, more than 75 percent of CEO’s include gender equality in their top ten business priorities. It’s not too hard to work out why. For starters women are the world’s most powerful consumers, and their impact on the economy is growing every year. The global incomes of women are predicted to reach a staggering $18 trillion by 2018, according to global professional services firm EY. It makes good business sense to have leadership teams that reflect the consumers they sell their products and services to. But do the women who make it through the so-called ‘glass ceiling’ resemble their female customer base? Not always.

Many female senior leaders exhibit more masculine approaches to leadership than feminine ones. Take an executive team of a medium-sized corporate we are currently working in partnership with. Six out of eight executives are women. These female executives are driven, powerful, intelligent and work incredibly hard. To rise to the top in a male-dominated field is quite a feat for these high achievers, especially considering female senior managers are still very much in the minority. A mere 16.3% of CEO’s are female and less than a third of women (37.4%) hold key management positions. (Australia’s gender equality scorecard – November 2016). This high achieving executive team was indeed unusual in its makeup.

They invited us to work with them to improve workplace morale. Their engagement scores delivered a terrible blow for what was otherwise a good year of business. And whilst the Board is praising them for their stellar performance, they’re clever enough to know that sustained growth and continued financial prosperity is unattainable with a disengaged workforce. Companies with highly engaged workforces outperform their peers by 147% in earnings per share. It was only a matter of time before the quality of services were impacted. This could only mean earnings per share were on the decline. The executive team had lost touch with the emotional pulse of the organisation and the free coffee machines at Christmas did little to repair the damage.

They had lost touch with their feminine approach to leadership.  

The definition of masculine and feminine can be described by how we tend to think and act. Women and men are more alike than we first perceive. However, if we think about feminine and masculine traits on a continuum then men naturally have more masculine traits and females naturally have more feminine traits. Each of us has a mix of both masculine and feminine traits and when we balance them in ourselves, our homes, our workplaces and our society, we achieve great things. Overplaying masculine or feminine traits creates dysfunction. We see this play out in families where mothers who care too much may raise children who do not take responsibility for their own needs. We see fathers who over-emphasise academic or sporting achievements, at the expense of their children’s self-esteem.

In the workplace, men with stereotypically strong masculine traits often rise to the top of the hierarchy. To a greater extent, their masculine traits are associated with great leadership whereas feminine traits are typically not. An over-valuing of stereotypical masculine traits can and does lead to devastating commercial and social impacts. Take Volkswagen7-Eeven and ExxonMobil as examples. These companies put power, status and profit well above environmental, consumer and employee well-being, resulting in severe commercial losses they may never recover from. Where were the feminine traits of empathy and sustainability? What about the feminine quality of ‘expression’? I suspect there were dozens of men and women within these companies who desperately wanted to express how they felt about the unethical practices at their workplace. Was the feminine repressed within these organisations or was it underrepresented in the first place?

The over-valuing of stereotypical masculine traits leads to many ambitious female leaders, like the executives mentioned earlier, to repress their feminine side. One of these over-achieving executives received a brutal 360-degree assessment. She broke down and confessed that she didn’t like the person she’d become at work. She had a history of being mentored by aggressive managers and was taught; “That’s how you get results!”

It’s not just female leaders who repress their feminine side. Much of our work with senior male leaders involves helping them to reconnect with their emotions so they are more effective leaders. This has led to a higher demand for emotional intelligence training over recent years. Leaders who have repressed their feminine side can be difficult to work for and with, have little empathy and often don’t allow their team members to express differing views. They tend to over value results which can and does manifest into a culture that learns to ‘hide bade news’, to the eventual detriment of the organisation’s bottom line.  

One such leader discovered that his team had kept critical information from him. The infrastructure project he led couldn’t deliver critical project milestones. His staff had learned not to deliver bad news. In the past this had resulted in poor performance ratings. By the time the senior leadership team discovered the extent and cause of the delay they had incurred a multi-million-dollar penalty together with a fractured client relationship. A healthy balance of feminine and masculine approaches to leadership is not just good for business, it is essential.

Well-meaning diversity experts and managers, who don’t completely understand feminine and masculine approaches to leadership, often create a pipeline of female leaders and offer them an exclusive woman’s only leadership program. This creates greater division and excludes male leaders from having access to the unique perspectives that female leaders bring to the table. Whereas inclusive leadership programs encourage women and men to seek guidance from each other. For example, women can seek guidance from men on how to promote themselves and their ideas and to better negotiate. Men can seek guidance from women on how to foresee the emotional impact, either positive or negative, of decisions on their team members and how to deliver more customer-centric solutions.

Importantly, inclusive leadership programs encourage both women and men to value their own feminine traits. Leadership traits like empathy were once considered a sign of ‘weakness’. Empathy is now considered essential to developing a customer-focused and engaged workforce that performs at their best. Employees expect leaders to care about their development and well-being as much as they care about the company balance sheet. Yes, it is all about balance!

The definition of balance, according to is “a state in which different things occur in equal or proper amounts or have an equal or proper amount of importance”. Leadership approaches with a healthy balance of feminine, (care-orientation) and masculine (achievement-orientation) need to be given the proper amount of importance if we are to thrive in this age of disruption, where customer centricity, innovation and employee engagement are paramount to the success of every business.

Bottom line, stop trying to increase the number of female leaders. Begin to appreciate the social and commercial benefits that the feminine approach to leadership brings to your organisation. As you’re appreciation grows, your approach to leadership education will become more mature. Importantly, as your appreciation grows, the type of leader you hire and promote will change. And, just like magic, more talented leaders and potential leaders, of both genders, will naturally replace those not ready, unwilling and unable to transform into the 21st century leaders your business needs to thrive in this era of disruptive competition.

On a final note, the mostly female executive team I referred to at the beginning of this post are reconnecting with their feminine approach to leadership, whilst striving to build a culture where achievement and care are in balance. Courageously, they began with themselves first, and their efforts are paying dividends. Monthly employee pulse checks show that engagement is on the incline! This ultimately means healthy profits will follow.

Kristyn Haywood is the Founding Director of People for Success. Kristyn is passionate about helping organisations unlock the natural talents of their entire organisaton by re-shaping their cultures and developing 21st-century Leadership capability. Check-out People for Success'  Authentic Leadership ProgramTeam alignment workshops and cultural transformation journeys

Kristyn also offers speaking engagements on this and other leadership topics. Find her speaker's kit by following this link.