With International Women’s Day around the corner, I paused for a moment of honest self-reflection and concluded that I’ve spent most of my career trying to emulate men.
I’ve attended workshops on building my gravitas and read books teaching me to “lean in” and “own the room”. I’ve desperately tried to get comfortable with self-promotion, to take ownership for my achievements and push for promotion when I feel I deserve it. I have also learnt that in a room full of senior, self-assured men, if I don’t force myself to speak up, my voice will likely go unheard.
None of these behaviours come naturally to me – or as a robust body of research would suggest to women at large – but they still feel like a prerequisite to success both in advertising and beyond. It’s long been heralded as the most obvious solution to closing the gender gap – simply teach women to adopt the traits we see in successful male leaders: grit, assertiveness, decisiveness, and resilience. I believe this not only damages women’s self-image but perpetuates an unhealthy and unproductive working culture.
The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally transformed our working lives, perhaps forever. The last 12 months have left many of us feeling anxious, overwhelmed, and craving stability. Thankfully, the pandemic has also shone a much-needed light on the topics of both flexible working – once seen as a “working mums’ issue” – and mental health. The Centre for Mental Health has predicted that almost a fifth of the UK population will need mental health support as a direct consequence of the pandemic.
In this unrelenting and unpredictable new climate, qualities like empathy, honesty, and kindness have taken on new importance in the workplace. A recent Harvard study showed that during the COVID-19 crisis employees placed greater value on interpersonal skills from their leadership teams. Traits such as the ability to inspire and motivate, to communicate effectively and build relationships. You’ve guessed it, the analysis also showed female leaders were ranked more highly on all these traits (both before and during the COVID-19 crisis).
In the world of politics, we’ve seen female leaders thrive. Research from the World Economic Forum evidenced that countries with female leaders – like Germany, Norway, New Zealand –have had lower cases of Covid-19 and fewer deaths, than “matched” neighbouring countries with male leaders. The difference was attributed to gender differences in risk aversion and leadership styles. Female leaders tended to adopt more interpersonally orientated approaches and were less risk averse with regards to human life (but more risk taking when it comes to the economy). The appointment of Kamala Harris as US Vice President has also set a new precedent for strong female leadership. She is remarkable not only for being the first Black and Asian-American women in office, but for her leadership style. Yes, Kamala shows great courage, grit, and determination, but in equal measure she is known – and importantly well liked – for her compassion, vulnerability, and humility.
Gender equality has come a long way in the last century, but there is still a mountain to climb. Firstly, women are still not taking their fair share of leadership roles. According to the 2019 IPA Census data (which includes nearly 25,000 creative and media agencies) women account for 51% of UK agency employees, but only 34% of the C-Suite. For context this figure stood at a paltry 19% in 2002, meaning we’ve not even doubled the number in leadership roles over the course of 16 years. This progress feels all too slow to me. Meanwhile the gender pay gap for IPA agencies stands at 24.4% in favour of men, meaning that for every pound a man earns, a woman earns 75.6 pence.
For those women who do make it into leadership roles there is another barrier: decades of social science research consistently demonstrate that success and likeability are negatively correlated for women (and positively correlated for men). For years women have been forced to choose – be successful or be liked. If we continue to undervalue traditionally “female” leadership qualities, we will not only limit women’s progression, but the culture of our organisations.
As the pandemic rages on, and with an economic crisis looming, the need for empathetic leadership in all aspects of society has never been stronger. So, this International Women’s Day, maybe it’s time we ask a different question. What can men in leadership positions learn from women? My own resolution for 2021 is to embrace the qualities that I like in myself, but don’t bring to the table enough at work – vulnerability, compassion, and kindness.
In other words, I plan to act more like a woman.