Why do female leaders have to walk the line between matriarch and patriarch?

Posted by Anna Fleetwood on Feb 12, 2019 4:29:16 PM
Anna Fleetwood
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I took part in some research today on ‘Women in Advertising’. The researcher from Leeds Beckett University was working on a study funded by the British Academy. She asked me some thought-provoking questions about my career trajectory and whether being a woman had held me back or caused me to encounter any sexist experiences in the workplace. It got me thinking and led to me writing this blog.

Today, there are only 26 women in CEO roles at Fortune 500 companies and globally women’s income is 20% less than men’s. Harsh facts. Many generations of women have been fighting for equal rights, from the right to vote to the right to equality in the workplace. Yet we still have a long way to go and it just seems to be taking an inordinately long time!

So what is stopping us ladyfolk from getting to the top? Is it that, like the American activist Marian Wright Edelman’s said, “you can’t be what you can’t see?” As a woman in a senior post, I know how hard I had to work to get to where I am, but I was lucky enough to have senior female directors to show it was possible and a role model in my Mum. She, along with the help of her 80s shoulder pads, pushed her way through a man’s industry – the only woman in more than one company who wasn’t a secretary or receptionist. And she excelled, but it wasn’t without sacrifice. My brother and I had nannies as my Mum worked long hours up in London and we didn’t see as much of her as we all would have liked in those early years.

For many women today, they see a C-Suite full of men and often middle management too. So why, 35 years on from my Mum’s experience, haven’t things progressed more? Having become a parent myself just over 13 months ago, I am juggling the pressures of trying to be the best Mum I can be and being the dedicated Agency Director my colleagues and clients need. I am lucky to have an employer and team who support me in that, but one of the reasons so many women do not make it to the top is that, by taking a career break to have a family, they are being held back. Hence, so many women (myself included) put having a family on hold until they’ve forged a successful career. Had I had a baby as an Account Manager for example, there is no way I would have progressed so quickly to Account Director on my return to work. I wouldn’t have been able to put in the super long hours or the general out-of-hours social engagements that helped me get there. Is that just our industry? I would argue not.

So, under such trying circumstances, how on earth does a woman compete with men to become a great leader in 2019? By acting more like those men, perhaps? After all, the results from a number of research projects show that men and women in executive positions demonstrate a similar pattern of classically masculine personality traits. But what exactly does it mean to be ‘manly’ in 2019? Are we saying that we women need to be more aggressive and authoritarian in order to compete? Because, even beyond the fact that such a definition of ‘manliness’ is pretty outmoded in the gender-fluid era of the 2010s, it just doesn’t feel quite right based on my own experience. And I would say that the success I’ve enjoyed personally has, to the contrary of such research, been as a result of managing in what might (by the same terminology) be described as a much more ‘maternal’ style. Or, as I’d prefer to put it, much more carrot than stick.

Fortunately, there’s also research out there demonstrating that a number of the key skills that make a truly great leader are those that could be considered more female – the ability to empathise and listen, to care about those around you. And I believe that, by quashing these behaviours in order to get to the top (anyone remember Maggie Thatcher?), some women are diluting their own contribution to diversity within the workforce, which as we all know, contributes generally not only a happier one but a more successful one. So how do we get all those alpha males in the C-suite to recognise this and see value in these skills rather than looking for women that behave in a way that is more familiar to them?

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As a sex, we need to galvanise the men around us into action, as women aren’t going create a level playing field on our own. We need to educate the men, particularly in more senior roles, to look for the more back-seat behaviours of the women in their teams and encourage them to speak up and be heard, to put the training and development plans in place to give them the confidence they may lack. And to recognise that sometimes the different skills we bring are of equal merit.

And what can women do to support other women? We need to shout about each other’s achievements as well as our own. It’s time to support one another – from helping that Mum career returner get back up to speed quickly to boosting each other’s confidence in what we do and what we know. Many companies have created Women’s Networks to help us do just that. But again, these need men to get involved too. It’s men that can really make equality a reality. They play a vital part in creating opportunities for everyone.

So, in conclusion, let’s create a more equal world for my daughter’s generation. Women be brave! Men be supportive – you will reap rewards.

And, if you’re reading this thinking your company needs some help with their Diversity and Inclusion or attraction strategy, be it for future female leaders or any other demographic, we’d love to help, so please get in touch.

Topics: Employer Branding