Heidi Roizen was a successful Silicon Valley venture capitalist who became the subject of a case study at Columbia Business School. Professor Frank Flynn, presented half his class with the case study with Heidi’s name on it and gave half the class the same case study with her name changed to “Howard”. The students rated “Howard” and Heidi, equally competent, but they liked Howard, but not Heidi. Specifically, students felt Heidi was significantly less likeable and worthy of being hired than Howard and perceived her as more “selfish” than Howard.

Deborah Gruenfeld, of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, cited the same study, adding that “the more assertive a student found the female venture capitalist to be, the more they rejected her.” The essence is that research has demonstrated a negative correlation for women between power and success. For men, the relationship is positive, i.e., successful men are perceived as more powerful and are revered. A fundamental challenge to women’s leadership arises from the mismatch between the qualities traditionally associated with leaders and those traditionally associated with women.”

The assertive, authoritative, and dominant behaviors that people link with leadership tend not to be viewed as attractive in women.

In her 2011 commencement address at Barnard College, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg noted that despite the forty years that have elapsed since the beginning of the modern women’s’ rights movement. Women now represent:

  • Only 15% of American Fortune 500 “C-suite” jobs
  • 9 of the 190 are heads of state
  • 13% of the world’s parliaments, and 24% of the full professorships in American colleges and universities.

These numbers haven’t really improved in a decade and in Sandberg’s mind there exists an “ambition gap” between men and women. Men’s ambition and drive persists throughout much of their lifetime, while women’s waxes and wanes based largely on the choices they face of career and family. Men have made fewer sacrifices between personal fulfillment and business success. Women’s experience in this trade off is quite different. Another view, is that of Ilene Long, CEO of the non-profit women’s advocacy group Catalyst who noted in their 2004 report Women and Men in US Corporate Leadership that women are equally ambitious as men but are “up against barriers, namely exclusion from informal networks, stereotyping, and a lack of role models.”

My personal view is that there is no black or white approach and I actually feel awkward when I participate in “women’s-only” discussions, because I believe that in this way we are re-enforcing the division and we are not working towards and integrative approach. As women leaders we have many qualities to offer and it is of utmost importance to acknowledge and accept this difference. What kind of stories do we tell ourselves regarding our identities? What is our self-belief as women leaders? And most importantly what do we really want? And can we be true to ourselves to admit what we want to ourselves first and then to the world?

Despina Tsagari who has served many leadership positions – her last assignment was Country Manager for Beiersdorf – reports on the challenges for women in leadership positions:

“No doubt, many of the challenges that women leaders face are similar to those for men. I am referring to work/life balance, parenting, handling many and multiple responsibilities, and delivering results in a continuously changing environment. Challenges more specific to woman are definitely the lack of female role models and mentors, which can help them develop leadership skill and styles. And the most important challenge for women leaders from my point of view is what is called “the cost of ambition” i.e. the fact that women usually tend to view their work as only one piece of the pie that represents their total life experience. If they’re forced to focus 24/7 on work for a majority of their professional lives, most women will choose not to pay that price!” She believes that women leaders contribute in different, equally valuable ways to an organization: “Women usually act more than male leaders based on their innate strengths (e.g. creativity and collaboration) in their everyday approach to work. They tend to lead from a more interactive, cooperative style which often results in strengthening the team spirit approach, inspiring a higher degree of commitment to strive to achieve the business’ goals. They bring a different perspective based on a different set of life experiences. But the most important contribution for me, is that a female leader would rely more on her emotional intelligence (EI) i.e. self-awareness, managing our emotions, empathy, and social skill. Women tend to have an edge over men when it comes to these basic skills. That edge may matter more than ever in the workplace, as more companies are starting to recognize the advantages of high EI when it comes to almost all positions”.

And let’s hear a view from across the Atlantic, Boston Massachusetts – Kathryn Stanley, PhD (Cofounder of Navigated Breakthrough Analytics Group and Professor of Organizational and Leadership studies) reports the following:

“The main challenge for women in leadership positions is managing the fundamental attribution errors made about them due to gender biases in society. For example, when women leaders are as assertive as men; they are seen as less likeable. The fundamental attribution error is that when women lead with a confident direct style, they are self-serving. Conversly, when men lead in this same manner they are well intended strong leaders. Therefore women must work harder to be seen as well intended, likeable leaders. To do this they must spend more time building relationships, especially with other female peers and subordinates. Because they have to spend more time chatting to build relationships they are sometimes judged by male supervisors as wasting time at the water cooler or passive leaders afraid to command. This double-bind forces them to walk a tight rope.

Studies show that when boards of directors have women on them, the company is significantly less likely to go bankrupt. This is a testament to the fact that women leaders, to be appreciated, have learned to be inclusive and collaborative with their followers, peers and supervisors. They encourage dialog at critical moments due to the necessity of constantly showing they have the greater good of the organization at hand. Also, as with any underprivileged group, women leaders have learned to influence without authority. Doing this requires competency in negotiation, stakeholder analysis, dialog, entrepreneurialism and strategic thinking. All of these qualities serve their organizations very well.

The economy of the world and the evolution of our global community will benefit from not only including more women but also people of color and anyone who does not fit the Type A, tall white male stereotype of a leader. True inclusion will only occur when women and minorities are no longer seen as being the ones who have to change (the identified patients). The responsibility for accessing diverse talent lies with leaders who hold the power now. They need to open the door and be more expansive in deciding who sits at the table.”

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