The many colours of leadership

  • Most organizations hold leaders up to leadership behaviours that are stereotypically masculine in nature
  • Also, senior women leaders generally prefer to keep silent about impediments faced, thereby creating a tyranny of silence and resulting in a sense of isolation

Leadership literature has long been dominated by representations of the ideal leader as an individual who demonstrates strong traits, and is, ideally, male. Women leaders face multiple challenges, including getting stereotyped, bias in performance assessment and lack of guidance from other women leaders, which need to be addressed to create a space for equal narratives to emerge, according to a anew research by leadership development company OD Alternatives.

Key Findings

Some of the key findings of the report include:

Stereotype threat: Stereotype threat is a situational predicament in which people feel themselves to be at risk of conforming to stereotypes about their social group, especially if they are in a minority in a given group. The stress arising out of this can undermine the actual performance in the setting. As the women’s leadership pipeline shrinks at senior levels, the very fact that they may be the only woman in the room can cause anxiety. The process of trying to suppress the anxiety, then takes up needed cognitive resources, which ultimately weakens performance on the task-at-hand.

Single template of leadership: The scope of organizational and/or institutional problems is huge and complex, but the definition of the leadership needed to solve all these problems, seems to come from a single template. Leaders are expected to be bold, ambitious, aggressive and risk-taking with very little space for qualities like humility, capability to listen, collaborative etc. Our study reveals that most organizations hold leaders up to leadership behaviours which are largely agentic and stereotypically masculine in nature. This poses a challenge for women leaders because if they come across as agentic and tough, they come across as “not woman enough" and if they are more democratic and nurturing, they are “not leader enough".

Structural inequities at the workplace: Significant systemic challenges come in the way of advancing women in leadership roles. These include i) Entry level barriers such as absence of gender-neutral language in job descriptions (discouraging women to apply for roles that are seen as “male"), ii) bias in performance assessment, wherein nearly 75% of our respondents reported being rated below male colleagues despite proven better impact and iii). lack of infrastructure. With no strict implementation guidelines about day care centres, and often being primary care-givers, women make the difficult choice of staying home and not going back to work. At least 60% of our participants reported meeting with indifference or downright hostility when they sought benefits to ease their post-maternity transition back to the workplace.

Lack of sisterhood: A large proportion of the respondents shared the need to have more guidance from other women leaders, who may have faced similar obstacles. The anxiety of how speaking about “women’s issues" may reflect on them, senior women leaders choose to keep silent about impediments that they faced, thus creating a tyranny of silence resulting in a sense of isolation – “Why am I struggling to cope with these challenges when so many others before me seem to have managed it?"

The sample of interviewees included female and male leaders, from different age groups, and across sectors, ethnic backgrounds, countries and professions. The findings were corroborated with secondary research in the areas of neuroscience, psychoanalytical studies of gender and power in organizations and business management literature.

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