Supporting feminine leadership can help create a just and kinder future

Supporting feminine leadership can help create a just and kinder future

Women are still struggling to reach leadership positions. Though there are more women earning college degrees and a comparable number entering the workplace, women are still not reaching mid-level and top-level leadership positions at the same rate as men.

In Canada, women hold only 19 per cent of corporate board positions. Less than one per cent of senior leadership and pipeline positions are held by Black and Indigenous women, women with disabilities and LGBTQ2S+ women.

A model of leadership that encompasses the feminine traits within each of us can help move us towards a more just and sustaining world.

As a social innovation designer, I study complex challenges with the aim of finding common approaches needed to solve them. My goal is to frame the principles that can help us design a more humane future — where all voices are heard and valued. To understand how to get there, I listened to stakeholders and emerging leaders engaged in the work of championing more inclusive and equitable leadership.

The enduring glass ceiling

Terms like “broken rung” and “sticky floor” describe the difficulty women encounter moving up from entry-level roles. Metaphors like the “glass ceiling”, “glass escalator” and “glass cliff” illustrate the struggles women face in attaining managerial and executive roles.

Scholars argue that the metaphor of a labyrinth better describes the complex maze of barriers that make it difficult for women to rise to the top.

During the pandemic, women have carried the brunt of the caretaking responsibilities at home and at work. They are doing more to support their teams’ well-being and engage in diversity and inclusion initiatives.

Yet, these efforts are rarely captured in performance evaluations that determine raises and promotions. By narrowly defining leadership, using metrics that skew towards a masculine style of management, barriers remain for women and gender-diverse people to break through the glass ceiling.

Deep-seeded bias and ideas around “respectable femininity” still impact how women are perceived and evaluated.

Analysis shows that though the gender leadership gap is slowly narrowing, traits like being competitive and aggressive associated with men are still highly valued. While traits like being kind and understanding connected with women are still seen as detrimental in leadership roles.

The problem with leaning in

For women to reach better leadership positions, they need to be valued and recognized for their contributions, which may look different than those of their male colleagues.

Instead of being told to “lean in”research and women’s experiences underscore the need for their contributions to be recognized and for workplaces, and society, to value collective care.

Critics of ‘leaning in’ state that it puts the onus on women to change their behaviours and ignores the systemic barriers at play.

Research on women who reach senior positions in male-dominated organizations and exhibit more masculine management styles has often focused on personality traits. Yet studies show how women are shaped by sexist workplaces, causing them to disengage from their gender identity, and from other women, to prevent experiencing discrimination.

Workplaces are shaped by the broader culture. A society where women are devalued not only produces men who devalue women but also permeates how women value women.

Feminine leadership is not just for women

Research on effective leadership underscores the need for approaches that align with feminine characteristics of empathy, support and community-building. These traits do not belong solely to women; they are inherent in all of us.

Employees feel seen and heard where they can learn and make mistakes without fear of blame. Other values include the prioritization of care, respect and co-operation above competition and an emphasis on honesty and accountability.

Feminine leadership encompasses the aspects of ourselves that have been pushed aside and devalued within conventionally male-dominant spaces. Recentring them can define a model of leadership embraced and practiced by all genders.

Leaders of the future

So how do we get there?

Helping girls find their own unique voices and ways of leading, without conforming to narrowly defined leadership traits often modelled by men, can shape the next generation of leaders. Organizations like Girls Inc. of York Region and Plan International Canada are providing girls and young women with opportunities to explore what being a leader means for them.

It is also critical for boys to appreciate their own inherent feminine qualities of empathy and care, helping them grow into men who value feminine qualities and who embrace following women and gender diverse leaders.

For organizations, it is not just about recruiting more women and gender diverse employees. It also means creating a workplace culture that truly embraces diversity and provides opportunities for growth.

Women are at a huge disadvantage when it comes to accessing networking and mentorship opportunities. Being an ally means going beyond speaking up if you see something unfair. It is advocating for more advancement opportunities and getting directly involved in mentorship for women, especially for women of colour, women with disabilities and LGBTQ2S+ women.

Organizations must recognize the emotional work and leadership already being modelled by women. Evaluations and performance reviews should capture the full spectrum of what employees, especially women, bring to work and be tied to increased pay and leadership opportunities.

Without a shift to fully valuing the contributions of women, workplaces will continue to be labyrinths full of barriers, and the leadership gap will never close. Without understanding and embracing the importance of feminine qualities of care, empathy and collaboration in how we live, work and lead, the status quo will continue.

The current paradigm — a patriarchal leadership model that continues to value self-interest and competition over collective benefit and co-operation — just isn’t working for most people.

As we face the challenges of political division, social injustice, economic uncertainty and climate change, now is the time to recentre the feminine within and champion a different, kinder way to lead.

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Cultural Impacts

Assess Communications Strategy

Organizational culture is a critical component of succeeding in the workplace. When companies make cost-cutting changes that reduce staff, there is a direct impact on the culture. For example, changing the organization’s makeup will impact diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging efforts. How so? The actions taken by leadership to engage a cross-section of representatives (not just functionally but from a diverse standpoint) will determine if trust remains intact. The communications leading up to the change, during, and after the change is also critical. Proactive measures include transparent sharing of the impact on the organization’s diversity targets. For example, does the layoffs mean the organization has less representation in leadership? What about the staff? Is there a skew toward homogeneity? If so, the organization must communicate plans and timing to address gaps. In addition, discussions around accountability should occur. A resource should be assigned to keep an eye on previous commitments to ensure trust remains and morale remains strong.

Check on Culture Partners

If employee/business resource groups are in place, community bonds and leadership changes will affect inclusive goals. As such, the workplace must provide extra support (more access and visibility from Leadership Sponsors, explanations packaged in different vehicles to ensure understanding, and leeway for transparent communication from group leaders) and be patient with dips in achieving inclusion. In addition, leaders should take action to ensure psychological safety is present for employees to voice concerns over decisions and impact on the connectivity formed in the confines of the resource group community.

What Should Inclusive Leaders Be Doing During Layoffs?

Inclusive leaders play a crucial role in navigating organizational changes. Moreover, because of said commitment to fostering inclusion, there is a great responsibility to minimize inclusion hiccups. If the organization’s leader authentically supports diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging goals, bumps will have resources to reduce pain points. Additional personnel responsible for driving culture changes must prioritize gathering diverse insights to determine an appropriate path forward. Activities include touchpoints with leaders to ensure clarity around decision-making and communicating with displaced and remaining employees to get a pulse check on cultural impact and morale.

Existing employee engagement surveys are a source of information to be reviewed to determine questions that need answers before additional surveys occur. In addition, inclusive Leaders can support exit interviews by pushing for curiosity and courage to create receptivity for mixed feedback.

Healing must occur as well. Inclusive Leaders will do well to take time for rejuvenation and reflection on the path forward.

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