Battle of the sexes or let the best man or woman step forward?

Leadership Trust duo: CEO Rob Noble and deputy CEO Gaynor Lewis have co-authored this blog to put the gender debate under the microscope

I want every little girl who is told she is bossy, to be told instead that she has leadership skills
Sheryl Sandberg, CEO, Facebook

Each passing day sees gender stereotypes being thrown out of the window (accelerated by the election perhaps). This can only be good news in the world of business leadership because for too long the male-biased status quo has reigned supreme, as witnessed by the disappointing lack of take up on the Davies report. This high profile Government report recommended FTSE100 companies aim for a 25% female representation on their Boards by 2015. The figure currently stands at an underwhelming 23.5%, with the net result a disappointing score of between zero and hardly any diversity in the board room.

On a different but topical stage, enter the new wave of women politicians. They’re a far cry from the tokenism of ‘Blair’s babes’ much heralded by the Labour party; they are a gutsy bunch across all parties who are unapologetically taking on their male counterparts and setting out their own benchmark for success; irrespective of quotas or perceived glass ceilings, the headline news is they’re smashing through. Most people in the UK will now recognise thenationalist leaders of Wales and Scotland – especially the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon who has shown strong leadership skills taking over from the hard act to follow – Alex Salmond, and essentially squaring up to the established leaders (who happen to be male) Cameron, Miliband and Clegg. A smart orator Sturgeon has positioned herself from a niche player to a self-styled kingmaker wooing Labour’s leader and portraying a smart grip of strategy.

The upshot is that the SNP’s Sturgeon and Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Woods have been swimming against the tide but created a meritocracy-based leadership process. The Green Party’s Natalie Bennett has shown poor communication and presentation skills but isn’t a focus for this discourse! The danger, of course, is that strong female political leaders could be painted with the same brush as The Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher who in the 70s gained the epithet of “more of a man than the rest of her cabinet”. What do we take out of this breath of fresh air running through the 2015 election – irrespective of one’s own political views? We should celebrate the fact that leadership is being shown in creative and innovative ways in politics, and that the ‘old boys club’ is being rightly challenged, not on the basis of tokenism but quite clearly on raw ability and management acumen. That’s the way it should be in the boardroom, on the shop floor or at Westminster.

Female leadership has been a topic of conversation and debate for centuries; from Joan of Arc to the German Chancellor Angela Merkel the traits and abilities of female leaders have been under the microscope repeatedly, but why is this bone still sticking in the throat of so many?

The development of female leaders still has far to go and those who do reach the top of their field manage to retain their status despite historical negative connotations portraying the female gender and their ability to lead (read: weak, the fairer and gentler sex, shying away from difficult decisions or straight talking….the litany of untruths is endless); although it has to be said that Britain can field a number of strong female leaders, past and present. The concept of pigeon-holing genders into specific traits such as ‘women are better at multi-tasking’ and men are better at ‘technical detail’ pander to long held stereotypes and hunches rather than hard evidence and do not assist the argument for merit based leadership development.

As a nation Britain is considered to be one of the most forward thinking in the world, however with history showing only one female Prime Minister and seven female monarchs, women are poorly represented in the UK’s leadership stakes. This may be a woefully low number, but in a poll conducted by The Telegraph in 2012, the public voted Queen Elizabeth II as Britain’s Greatest ever monarch, followed by Queen Victoria in second and Elizabeth I in third. So what does this tell us about female leaders? Do they stick in the minds of many by fearlessly driving forward, stamping their names onto the pages of history? What traits did these women share and can they be replicated in today’s political and business environments? Did their novelty make them stand out rather than their ability or legacy?

With such an illustrious line-up of strong female leaders in our history, it would be good to establish why we haven’t made progress in our modern era. Do women need to work harder to prove their worth?

Prof. Sharon Turnbull, Head of Research at The Leadership Trust, explored this in her blog article for LTFocus, which you can read here.

“Female leaders are often thought to be more emotionally intelligent than many of their male counterparts, and many women might attribute their success to this strength. However, there will always be critics who argue that displaying emotion is weak, inappropriate, or evidence of a lack of ability to lead.”

Prof. Turnbull went on to consider how female leadership traits differ to male traits linguistically.

“Traits such as assertiveness, autonomy and authority are often argued as being less common in women leaders than in men. Women leaders, however, refute this claim, arguing that these same behaviours displayed by women are more often labeled as aggressive, cold, or bossy[…] Language clearly continues to act as a significant influence on societal norms, continually shaming what is, or is not, valued in our male and female leaders.”

The traits listed above are often seen among all leaders, gender aside, as the most distinguished – there are often preconceived ideas that all leaders are autonomous assertive authoritarians that lead their teams in a rigid formation. Often this is not the most constructive way to do so, and perhaps in diverting from our observed new way of ‘consensus politics’ postulated by Rob Noble in his election round-up: Whoever wins the election, the established characteristics of British politics are gone for good – referenced here .

As a nation, many of our most celebrated female leaders have been seen as heartless or emotionless. In 1975 (the year that The Leadership Trust was founded) Margaret Thatcher became the leader of the Conservative party and simultaneously became the first female to lead a major political party and set the country on a course of major economic change… and yet she earned the nickname “Iron Lady”, of course this referred to her steadfast politics and leadership style, a nickname that can either be seen as a reference to her strength or likening her to cold metal. She coined many a phrase including “You turn if you want to…the lady’s not for turning.” A far cry from today’s consensus politics where coalition cabinets are viewed as potential strengths as opposed to ‘lame-duck’ minority government viewed through the prism of the 70s and 80s.

Now is the time to see leadership through a single vision, not divided between male and female. Leadership should be measured on merit, ability and conviction rather than gender.

It is fascinating to note that The Leadership Trust was created against a backdrop of fiery political debate and shares its 40th anniversary with a number of relevant milestones. In 1975 International Women’s Day was established, Harold Wilson took EEC (European Economic Community – the forerunner of the EU) membership to a referendum and won despite his own party calling for a withdrawal and Margaret Thatcher was elected leader of the opposition.

By providing leadership development to over 50,000 delegates in 40 years, The Leadership Trust has been fortunate to play a part in the development of leaders of some of the UK’s foremost private and public sector organisations – male and female alike.

Let’s all do something about this and enrich our organisations, to reflect diversity. When all is said and done, the last census in 2011, recorded 31 million men and 32.2 million women in the UK. That should be more closely reflected in today’s society…and that means today’s boardrooms. Let’s go and smash some glass ceilings now!

For more information on how to implement leadership roles for women in your organisation talk to us and also check out this useful ‘how to guide’ from the CBI.

Original blog post can be found here.
Leadership Trust LT Focus Blog can be found here.

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