I wrote this article in 2012, but the information remains relevant today.
A number of years ago, I told the principal of the high school where I taught that I wanted to become a school administrator. He nodded slightly and said he thought that was a good idea. A few weeks later, in casual conversation, he asked me if I became an administrator and my husband got a job somewhere else if I would follow my husband or if he would have to stay with me. As he said it, he chuckled and I sensed that, to him, my husband’s work was a more important consideration.
I later became principal of that school, and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. The state-assigned school grade rose and remained steady during my tenure; students, teachers and parents seemed reasonably content; and new programs were implemented. After about three years, one of the teachers there told me in disbelief that someone in the community said that a woman should not be principal of that school, which at that time had won four state football championships, a very important measure of success in the community.
I wanted to believe that the biases against women in certain positions were gone, but these comments let me know they were present then, and I believe they remain today. I suspect that every woman who has taken risks and assumed a role of leadership has a similar story to tell.
I mention these two incidents because I have recently begun working with two friends on a project to promote, support and educate women leaders. As I begin this project, I realize that if women are to rise above these conscious and often unconscious biases, they must be clear on what they can uniquely offer. They have to know and draw upon their strengths.
Each woman, of course, has her own skills and abilities. However, according to Godfrey (1993), in addition to their individual traits, women tend to bring the following skills to the table:
- Ease in relationships and a drive for connection
- A head, heart and hands policy (realizing that the whole individual comes to work)
- Appreciation of complexity and process
- Desire for balance and self-awareness
- A sense of artistry, imagination and playfulness
- An integrated vision of business and ethics
This is not to say that men do not hold these traits. It is simply to say that the women in leadership roles that she interviewed over a number of years repeatedly demonstrated these themes.
A more recent research study by Caliper and Aurora (cited in Lowen, 2012) indicated the following traits for women:
- Women leaders are more persuasive than their male counterparts.
- When feeling the sting of rejection, they learn from adversity and carry on with an "I'll show you" attitude.
- They demonstrate an inclusive, team-building leadership style of problem solving and decision making.
- Women leaders are more likely to ignore rules and take risks.
When women (and men) understanding the skills that women leaders are more likely to possess, they can strengthen, support and draw upon them. It is incumbent upon those of us who prepare, mentor and coach women leaders to understand and reinforce these skills as well.
How are we preparing women to lead? What can we do better?
On a personal note: What is your story? How have you overcome biases you have seen or experienced?
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- Godfrey, J. , 1993. Our wildest dreams: Women entrepreneurs making money, having fun, doing good. Harper Collins: New York
- Lowen, L., 2012. Qualities of women leaders: The unique leadership characteristics of women. Retrieved from About.com: Women’s Issues http://womensissues.about.com/od/intheworkplace/a/WomenLeaders.htm