How I Learned to Lead 

A woman’s perspective on modern leadership.

Years ago, I was working as a Customer Experience Specialist at National Australia Bank. I’d never planned to work at a bank, but I was excited for an opportunity to design awesome user experiences and maybe, possibly make online banking a little easier.

I boldly marched into meetings equipped with data and user behavior analysis supporting my strategies to improve the customer satisfaction score across all of the personal banking products. Despite my confidence and preparation I couldn’t seem to convince product owners to take my ideas seriously. After nearly six months on the job I wanted to quit. I couldn’t understand why I’d been hired to do a job that no one seemed to either understand or appreciate. Was it me or was it fear of change?

I decided to approach my problem as an Anthropologist; which meant asking a lot of questions. After a lot of soul searching I started looking for answers. I read about the biology of gender and also ‘gender politics’. And started inviting people I admired professionally out for coffee.

Men and women are; in fact, designed differently. When it comes to listening, men and women use different parts of their brains. It’s also a social norm for both men and women to experience difficulty when a woman leads a meeting. Experiments have been conducted where men and women separately lead a meeting and each talk equal amounts; however, the woman is perceived as speaking too much while the man is not. And my conclusion from recent articles; such as the one published by Forbes isn’t that we dislike female bosses, but we’re wired differently. If men communicate with half their brain and women communicate with both sides it makes sense that men don’t always understand female logic. And it’s not to say that using one or both sides of the brain is better or worse. It’s just different and this fact should be understood as a tool for solving the issue of gender bias (not any competitive edge).

Women and men are different. And we experience these differences in the work place equally to our personal lives. But I’m not as interested with understanding the differences as much as finding a solution to my problem; which was (and continues to be) being taken seriously.

Of course, gender bias isn’t just about biology. Stereotypes are reinforced by social norms that restrict our ability to see each other as individuals. Too often I’m seen as female before I’m seen as Jessica. My identity seems to be secondary to my gender. And this is a problem for me if I don’t know how to help people get over the hurdle of sexism.

Past generations dealt with this hurdle by having women dress more like men or become more androgynous. Trying to strip ourselves of our gender didn’t really fool anyone and actually denies us our sexual selves. No one should be expected to be asexual or be denied the ability to act as their full selves. The creation of rules and regulations concerning sexual harassment isn’t meant to strip men or women of their whole selves. Although it’s interesting that a male friend recently admitted that he would attempt to sleep with a female boss in order to feel more dominate. If a man feels threatened by a woman leader to the point that he’d have sex with her as a way to balance the tables of power we clearly need rules to regulate any manipulative behavior that aims to strip an individual of power. But it’s hardly a shocking confession because both men and women have long histories of using sex as a tool.

What other tools are in our tool chest? We know that men and women are hardwired to communicate differently. We know that both men and women have a hard time with women in leadership. I’ve thought long and hard about our strategy options. And what I’ve come up with is pretty simple.

Instead of focusing on everything needing to be fair and equal why not accept our differences and focus on our individuality? I’m never going to be able to communicate like a man. Just like dressing more masculine didn’t serve women in the past changing the way I talk is not the answer. Because that doesn’t actually get us as a society any closer to our goal. The goal isn’t for everybody to act like men. Because what does acting like a man actually mean? Whatever you think it means is a biased gender role that denies men their individuality. What is acting male? It’s an ignorant notion that there’s such a thing as acting male, female, black, white or asian. These stereotypes serve no one.

The truth is, I think men want to be part of the woman’s world. But we deny them the experience by playing into gender stereotypes. We keep too much on the surface. This goes for everyone. We assume too much. We play our gender roles and deny ourselves of our individuality. And in the process we give away our power. Societal norms exist because we participate in their existence. We reinforce the bars that cage us.

Anytime I’m coached to change my voice for a meeting, pitch or presentation I resist. It seems to be a popular nugget of wisdom to tell especially young women that they need to change the way they speak. Instead I spend time trying to understand the individuals in the room and focus on our shared commonalties. I’m not going to deny my whole self in the ruse that I’m “making it in a man’s world”. If I speak intelligently and convey information as a story that appeals to the people whom I’m addressing they will get over my high-pitched tone and occasional valley-girl tendencies. The challenge is to tap into the audiences’ empathy through compassion for their needs and not just focus on my own agenda.

Real communication isn’t presenting information; it’s having an exchange of ideas. Imagine a comedian never caring whether the audience laughs. Or actors ignoring when an audience claps. Our focus should be on establishing genuine connections not posturing or gender roles. In this case, ‘faking it til you make it’ doesn’t apply.

Learning to communicate more effectively allowed me to get ‘runs on the board’ which meant I was given tiny projects to work on as a way to build trust. As my colleagues came to know me as someone who listens to their fears of change they trusted me to respect their concerns. You don’t need to explain to people why they should trust you. All you need is the opportunity to prove it. Take on small projects and deliver exceptional results. Be known for setting up clear expectations; which requires understanding how other people think. Once mutual respect is established I was rewarded with larger projects and able to do the job I was hired to do.

Asking questions and soliciting feedback is a daily practice. If I’m experiencing push-back or failing to inspire people to join me on a project I need to ask them more questions. As a younger woman I was easily intimidated. I’d take everything that I experienced at face value and let myself fill in the blanks without giving the other person an opportunity to explain themselves.

Regardless of your gender you are first and foremost an individual. Never compromise who you are. Always stay true to yourself. Sometimes you’re going to have to teach people to hear you, and that’s ok. It is an opportunity to get to know another person on a deeper level. It’s a daily practice, and a consciousness raising exercise. You might feel alone in the beginning, but you’ll end up surrounded by people who see you for the individual you are and doors will open for you.

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