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Over the years, much attention has been paid to the topic of female leadership, and numerous hypotheses have been formulated to explain why there are still so few women at the top of organisations. Research shows, among other things, that women in senior management still (have to) assimilate themselves too often with how men lead. How can companies break through this, so that women leaders can remain themselves and still get opportunities to reach C-level?
It's almost a cliché to claim that female leadership is fundamentally different from male leadership, but research shows that this is not actually true. A study by Hudson and the University of Antwerp shows that women and men in leadership positions are much more alike than they are different.
Among non-executives, as expected, women score slightly higher on average on characteristics such as altruism and conscientiousness and somewhat lower on emotional stability and extraversion.
At the C‑level, however, these gender differences largely disappear. In senior management positions, both women and men generally exhibit an archetypal leadership profile with a strong emphasis on qualities such as assertiveness, strategic thinking and decisiveness.
So, unlike women in non‑leadership positions, today's female leaders actually show the same traits as male leaders.
This finding has significant consequences if one wants to promote the advancement of women in organisations. Companies now often choose to prepare women for a leadership role by paying more attention to qualities such as assertiveness or decisiveness.
Focusing only on this can, however, lead to problems. Scientific studies have shown that exhibiting behaviour that is different from what is “stereotypically” expected can provoke negative reactions.
For example, women who display stereotypically “masculine” behaviour – showing confidence, assertiveness and competitiveness – run a higher risk of being seen as bossy, arrogant, cold or disagreeable, while men who are sensitive, understanding or warm are more likely to be seen as weak or insecure. It is mainly this type of stereotypical thinking that needs to be broken down, rather than trying to make people fit the stereotypical expectations.
Therefore, let's bring out and encourage everyone's talents as much as possible instead of trying to change potential leaders to fit the stereotypical image as closely as possible!
Anyone who has already taken steps to support women in their growth is on the right track, but the real change lies in breaking through gender stereotypes and prejudices at organisational level.
Greater diversity of personality traits at senior management level can be ensured only by implementing a true shift in the organisational culture, which starts by creating an open culture in which diversity is valued and where deviating from the norm can be seen as something positive. As an organisation, you make efforts to break through the typical gender logic, which you can then translate into some concrete action points.
The key to creating a gender-neutral leadership culture lies at the top of the organisation. A male senior manager who visibly breaks stereotypes can very consciously initiate a turnaround. Change can stem from people responding appropriately to sexist remarks or showing appreciation and respect in meetings with female leaders or employees. When visiting Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, President of the European Council Charles Michel missed an opportunity to respond appropriately when Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was not offered a seat.
HR, or the organisation itself, can also do its part by thinking in a problem-solving manner. If you notice, for example, that you are recruiting too few women or that too few women are growing and developing, then it should be possible to identify the reasons. Does the wording of the vacancy advertisement put women off? Are there really no talented (female) internal employees who qualify for a promotion? Why is it that only men come through the selection process successfully? Are we sufficiently open to change and renewal, or are we mainly looking for people with the same qualities as our current leaders?
These kinds of exercises can then lead to concrete adjustments in HR processes. For example, dare to look critically at the promotion system structure. It is important that those promotion processes are as objective and transparent as possible, with a focus more on merit than on networking. In addition, a recent study in Nature showed that working with longer shortlists can also result in more female leaders. Furthermore, it can also help if you directly approach suitable candidates more often yourself. In this way, you can get around the hurdle created by the fact that women tend to wait until they are asked more often than men, even when they are interested. Women are more risk-averse and tend to underestimate themselves, while the opposite is true of men.
No matter how concrete the actions a company can take, switching to a more inclusive organisational culture is not easy. Many large companies have already gritted their teeth. Training for women is certainly a step in the right direction, but if you really want to chart a new course, you must make the context more inclusive, above all. As a company, you can start that movement with seemingly small adjustments that can quickly make a world of difference.
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