‘Lady-Like Leadership’ Needs to Change

By Jennifer Whelan
Illustration by Sophie Blackhall-Cain

I’ve been a little bombarded lately with the “special feminine qualities” approach to promoting the value of women in leadership roles. It makes me a little uppity (I’m clearly lacking in the feminine traits of empathy and patience, so I probably won’t benefit much from this “ladylike leadership” movement).

My patience finally expired when I read a recent article reassuring company boards of the wonderful civilising influence women would have if they occupied more corporate directorships.

Notwithstanding the fact that women are not necessarily more polite and civilised than men, and considering that the kinds of women who make it to board positions are forged in the competitive crucible of a dog eat dog corporate world, this idea that men and women bring equally special, but different, qualities to work is problematic for other reasons. Once we focus on gender differences, we don’t just trigger the positive aspects of gender stereotypes, we trigger the negative ones too. Worse still, whether complementary or critical, stereotypes impose narrow expectations on both men and women that constrain their choices and perpetuate misconceptions about their capabilities.

No matter how much we talk about the importance of relationship-building and emotional intelligence in leadership, getting to the senior ranks is still largely a matter of beating off the competition, and the reward of staying there is still considered to involve a fair amount of command and control. These are not traits we automatically associate with women, and more often than not, when women display them, it backfires.

Promoting the benefits of caring, consultative, empathetic leadership qualities (qualities that apparently only women possess), also inadvertently triggers the other side of the Janus-face of stereotypes about women — that they are more emotionally unstable, softer, and more sensitive. Those latter traits don’t exactly top the list of desirable leadership qualities. Worse still, focusing on women’s unique feminine qualities also triggers the “pushy penalty”. When women violate these stereotypes by being assertive, or “leaning in”, they are judged as being too pushy or aggressive. Of course it’s very hard to be considered leadership material without being assertive, so this dynamic creates a double bind where polite nurturing women are considered too soft for the cut and thrust of seniority, but assertive women are judged as too aggressive — damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Mostly the gender-essentialist rhetoric of “special feminine traits” disturbs me because it is misguided to believe that the business world really wants to be inundated with sensitive, caring, empathetic leaders. If it did, then the talent market would already have ensured that the senior ranks of organisations would be well-stocked with them. It is even more foolish to believe that even if business did want more empathic leadership traits, that only women possess these capabilities. How many men don’t “naturally” fit the competitive, ambitious alpha-male stereotype? How many women “naturally” do? Should sensitive men toughen up, and women who are driven and competitive just pipe down a little?

The problem with this “different but equal” view of men and women is that it constrains both our expectations of others, and others range of action. If we expect women to be “ladylike”, even if we value those characteristics, we still invalidate women who don’t fit the mould. The same narrow construction of gender is just as detrimental to men.

While it is immensely seductive to use gender to explain people’s behaviour, in fact there are virtually no “uniquely” or “naturally” masculine or feminine traits other than those we have been socialised to expect and reward.

There is almost as much behavioural variation within genders as there is between them. The microscopic differences that do exist tend to lie at the extreme fringes of the distributions, not in the middle, where most women are actually remarkably similar to most men.

Contrary to popular wisdom, when you actually measure men’s and women’s confidence, ambition, professional motivation, and leadership style, you find virtually no differences at all. Based on research from some of the most widely used measures of organisational personality factors, women are no less motivated to achieve seniority than men, nor are they less ambitious. Most interesting are results relating to women’s so-called “confidence gap”.

Research shows that women are no less confident in themselves than men. They are, however, less confident in organisational decision-making, and the ability of others to recognise their capability.

This lack of confidence in the system is a different beast altogether, and given the statistics on the pay gap and women’s representation in power and seniority across society, I’d guess it’s an accurate perception.

When I work with leaders and teams in organisations, I regale them with evidence that women and men are far more alike than they are different, and what small differences do exist are not good predictors of professional performance. For the most part, they listen politely, but they don’t really buy it, and they will relate experiences where they have had female colleagues who cried at work, or male colleagues competing harder for promotion.

So why do we “see” gender differences that aren’t really there? We process the majority of information using our rapid (and highly error-prone) unconscious thinking system. This system is designed to simplify the world, filter out details and naunces, and help us make efficient (but often sweeping) generalisations — not just about people, but especially about people. A part of the simplification process is to organise our social world by putting people in categories. The major (and most seductive) categories are gender, age, and ethnicity, but there are many others. Once we have someone in a box, we build thumbnail sketches of what we expect them to be like — stereotypes. These expectations are socially learned and reinforced over time, and as a result they become automated, or unconscious. Once automated, they trigger brain processes that run well ahead of our more rational conscious thinking system. They enable us to have first impressions and make snap decisions. But the cost of this efficiency is a higher rate of errors — biases. We simply don’t notice the details or exceptions, we focus on what we expect to see and overlook what we don’t expect to see, and we don’t take people as individuals. Much as we like to believe that we are logical, and objective, these unconscious brain processes are actually doing most of our thinking for us, and when they get it wrong, we carry on, unaware.

The problem with using gender as an explanatory guide, is that our perceptions of people are reliant on these unconscious biases and stereotypes to inform what we expect men and women to be like.

Unconscious stereotypes and biases operate to magnify our perceptions of difference. Small differences come to look like vast chasms of contrast when we wear a stereotype lens on the world. Logically, both men and women are capable of being caring, empathetic, driven, competitive, emotional, and assertive. And both men and women adjust their behavioural style to suite their context, culture and the task at hand. But we tend to see what we expect to see — women being feminine, and men being masculine — and we overlook or criticise what we don’t expect to see — women being assertive, or men being nurturing.

These small perceptions accumulate across the range of evaluations we make in life, but especially at work; who gets access to development opportunities, how we evaluate performance and potential, who we hire and promote, and who we include in our networks. The objective of diversity and inclusion work is to bring greater awareness of our subjectivities and biases, and to dismantle decision-maker’s reliance on the rigid pigeonholes and unconscious expectations we erroneously lock men and women into, even when we think we’re being objective. The goal is to enable us to see (and capitalise on) the full range of human potential, rather than to selectively notice, reward and reinforce the behavioural styles and qualities that our unconscious, stereotyping brains find easier to digest.

Diverse, inclusive organisations should be able to recognise the right characteristics for the right contexts, independently of whether they come dressed as a man or a woman. The “different but equal” idea means that both genders are shoe-horned into limiting identities (and the resulting opportunities) that may not reflect their actual capability. Advising women to bring their “feminine traits” to work to get ahead is tantamount to telling them they should leave half their potential at the office door. And neither women nor men (nor businesses for that matter) can afford to do that.

Jennifer Whelan is a former Research Fellow at the Melbourne Business School and the University of Melbourne and recognised thought leader and consultant specialising in corporate diversity. She is also the founder and managing director of boutique leadership development consultancy Psynapse, through which she advises on organisational diversity, inclusive leadership, collective intelligence, and innovation.

Jennifer is delivering the solo talk, “Unconscious Bias: Sexism without the Sexists” at All About Women on March 6 at the Sydney Opera House. She will answer the question, if the majority of people believe it is wrong to discriminate on the basis of gender, then why isn’t change happening faster? 
For more information and tickets: