Three key recommendations for female leaders aspiring to senior leadership roles
1. Self-acceptance – active ownership of leadership potential
Female CEOs explain the importance of coming to recognise and accept their own leadership potential, in addition to learning to cope with their own and others’ expectations about their priorities on work and family. In the words of one female CEO:
“The biggest issue of women when they go beyond middle management is to have that switch go off in their minds that they are leaders…to think of themselves as leaders.”
This is because women (and men) are socialised from a young age to view leadership as an inherently male/ masculine activity. Effective leaders are typically considered to be strong, assertive, decisive, agentic; characteristics stereotypically associated with men. Of course, women can be strong, assertive, decisive, and agentic, but when they demonstrate these characteristics, they’re judged more negatively by both men and women compared to male professionals demonstrating the same behaviours – a phenomenon known as the double-bind. So, to be seen as an effective leader, women have to demonstrate stereotypically agentic traits, yet when they do, they face social and economic penalties for behaving counter-stereotypically.
From childhood, women are given more limited access to relevant leadership experiences, which extends into their careers as adults due to ongoing limitations in access to resources or opportunities in organisations. Consequently, advice from the female CEOs in the research was that women can’t wait for their performance and or potential to be recognised, instead they need to actively make it happen. In the words of one: “be a career planner…go for it seriously.”
2. Self-development – embrace gynandrous leadership
Both in preparation for CEO roles and on the job, female CEOs emphasised the importance of developing “big-picture” capabilities associated with the strategic skills needed to be an effective leader, in addition to achieving a “[lens] shift from a bottom up to a top down and an outside-in”. Female CEOs advocated achieving this through seeking diverse experiences to develop themselves as leaders, in addition to developing networks and being mentored by effective leaders:
“Work with a good manager who is a leader...example of a good case…is the quickest way of learning.”
The research also identified that successful female CEOs resolve the double-bind created by stereotypical assumptions of leadership behaviour by developing a uniquely feminine style of transformational leadership, emphasising role modeling and communication. In their own words:
“I have eventually figured out a way that works for me where someone else is not forcing me to change who I am in order to fit in but get my voice across.”
“…Am I striking the right balance between pushing an agenda strongly and balancing that well with taking people along, and that’s always a fine balance…very often there are trade-offs.”
The research authors recommend that female leaders move beyond gender stereotypes by enacting gynandrous leadership (gyne = female, andro = male), a style which embraces both feminine and masculine leadership behaviours but with the female aspects taking precedence, in contrast to stereotypical concepts of androgynous leadership.
3. Self-management – conscious adjustment of personal demeanour
Finally, female CEOs described the importance of finding ways to be authentic and focused on their purpose and building an optimistic and resilient outlook. They emphasised the importance of having the confidence to push their limits and learning from mistakes and failures.
All of this rests upon, the authors argue, adopting an agile leadership style which avoids simply relying on adopting stereotypically male leadership behaviours and instead involves supporting female leaders to find their own unique style which blends stereotypically masculine leadership behaviours with their own qualities and preferences. For instance, avoid alternating between stereotypically female empathy and stereotypically male assertiveness but instead, they achieve empathetic assertiveness.