By Rana Askoul
Ever since Sheryl Sandberg delivered her famous Ted Talk on women in leadership in 2010, the topic have spread like fire. Her Lean In book is being handed out in companies to female employees, organizations are launching women diversity initiatives and conferences are being organized left, right and center to discuss women issues.
As I am the founder of an initiative that is primarily focused on advancing women in the corporate sector, I am asked one particular question over and over again: Why is it that we need to do provide a leadership training specifically for women? The argument behind the question is that leadership is not gender specific. It takes the same set of skills and qualities to be a leader, regardless of gender.
It is indeed a brilliant argument. Great leaders master certain skills and posses certain traits that cut across gender. The latest findings though from leadership institutions and gender experts challenge us to take a much deeper look at this.
If we are to assume that leadership is not gender specific, then why is it that we see so little of women leaders in top positions?
In today’s large organization, as women climb up the corporate ladder they vanish. At the lowest levels, more than half of the employees in organizations are female. As you move to each successively higher level in the organization, the number of women steadily shrinks. At the CEO level, worldwide, there are only 3% to 4% who are women.
Surely this can’t be fully attributed to women’s dual role in life, both as life givers/care takers and professionals. With so much help available to women in this day and age, from vested partners to paid help, women are increasingly capable of assuming professional responsibilities. In the Middle East region, paid help is wide spread, and extended family support still plays a big part of family life.
This also can’t be fully attributed to women’s preferences in the roles they want to play in life. Many still assume that the majority of women are primarily interested in being full time wives or mothers. Again, this is not true given the mounting surveys that point out to the importance women place on establishing a career and gaining financial independence. In the GCC region specifically, more women than men are earning degrees in higher education, something that indicates that women are aspiring for more.
So what is it really? What is stopping women from rising through the ranks in whatever profession / field they choose? It’s multiple factors. Some indeed have to do with lifestyle challenges and the pressures of balancing work and family life. These are crucial factors. Countries and companies need to make advances in how they create the right environment for both men and women to balance work, family commitments and personal ambitions and aspirations. Long gone are the days where life was only about work and returning home in time for dinner.
But more importantly, there are institutional and individual mindsets that make it specifically harder for women to lead at the top. There are prejudices that exist today on how men and women should act, including one’s own prejudices, and these are wide spread. It is essentially these prejudices that exist both at the conscious and unconscious level that can be a huge derailing factor for women in the workplace.
Think back to the last time you were assertive about a certain issue. You might have had that particular issue resolved, but think of the long-term consequences. How do peers, both men and women peers, perceive your assertiveness? And how would did this affect your likeability – which is highly linked to chances of promotions for women?
This is the deeper level of understanding that leadership consultants and gender experts are challenging us to ponder upon. Indeed, leaders share certain traits and skills. However, what we expect from a female leader and from a male leader are two different things. The extent to which we conform to these expectations are today dictating the measure of success for both men and women.
Understanding these expectations and learning ways to navigate through them is critical for both men and women to understand. These issues are rooted in our gender differences, mainly in how we were taught to act and behave from a very young age. Understanding these issues and learning to lead through them is the only chance we have at leveling the playground for both genders. This is why we need to talk about leadership from a gender lens.
Rana Askoul is the Founder of Changing Pink: www.changingpink.com