On a Sunday evening just a few weeks ago, I watched as 15 women filed onto a terrace at a luxury resort, each clasping a gift in hand for an as yet unknown recipient.
These were capable, successful, well-heeled women who had journeyed from across the country to participate in a weeklong retreat focusing on the art of feminine leadership. Their first assignment was to choose a gift representative of themselves, which would be randomly selected by another participant.
A number of the women held senior positions in large companies, having successfully run the leadership gauntlet that women face. They had won the corporate equivalent of "American Ninja Warrior." But, the journey for some had left its scars, the kind of scars that prompted them to erect walls around their true persona in order to survive in largely male dominated cultures.
As one participant later stated, “I arrived here in full armor.” The task of the program was to help her shed it.
One by one, each woman selected a wrapped present from a table where they all had been placed. As each gift was opened, the woman who brought it described why that gift was chosen and what meaning it held for her. A bit at a time, the first layer of armor started to peel away as participants began to see the real woman underneath the leadership façade. For many, that person was a welcome sight, someone that they hadn’t seen reflected back in the mirror for years.
As the week went on, the women shared stories of the pain they experienced while navigating environments where masculine behaviors were valued over feminine sensibilities. They’d lived a large part of their careers adopting behaviors that weren’t naturally their own in order to ascend in corporations and manage male power structures that could influence the trajectory of their own careers.
Upon reflection, the women began to realize that their natural leadership traits were among their greatest tools for making a difference. They could still lead with strength and courage, but at the same time create nurturing work environments in which their teams could thrive.
Research shows that women leaders tend to be more relationship oriented, more collaborative and better listeners, all traits that are essential to building high performing teams, interfacing with customers and solving complex problems. In a survey of more than 64,000 people, the results of which are highlighted John Gerzema’s book, "The Athena Doctrine," women also excel in empathy. Yet, the representation of women at senior levels in most organizations is starkly less than that of men.
And, while men are less likely to perceive this inequality, the impact on the business when women aren’t well represented is significant. A 2015 study, for example, showed that companies with strong female leadership generated a 10.1% return on equity compared to an ROE of 7.4% in companies lacking such leadership.
Lynn Tetrault, former chief HR officer for AstraZeneca, reflected on her own leadership experience: “In my career, I was always the first and only woman on every management team to which I was appointed. I lived through the challenge of trying to exert influence from a feminine perspective when masculine traits of leadership were usually more highly valued. It took tremendous perseverance and self-reliance not to lose my own sense of balance and confidence when I knew that my intuition or approach was the right one in a given situation — and sometimes I failed in those efforts.”
After leaving AstraZeneca, Tetrault founded Anahata Leadership, a company dedicated to the development of women leaders. Anahata offers intensive educational and reflective experiences designed to connect women with their unique leadership capabilities.
“I have chosen to focus on women’s leadership because our society needs a better balance of masculine and feminine values at a senior leadership level — in business, in government, in academic institutions and in our communities. As we steadily make progress in getting more women into senior leadership, it will not be helpful if those senior women lead from a set of values that are not intrinsic to who they are as women. Women who lead from their true feminine nature will help to reshape the culture of their organizations in a way that will lead to better outcomes for employees, customers and society as a whole. The impact that just one female leader can have on hundreds or thousands of people when her leadership reflects her innate feminine nature is remarkable,” says Tetrault.
The data on the state of women in the workforce show that there is much to accomplish. Recently, McKinsey and LeanIn.Org released a report that shows the representation of women begins to decline early in the career trajectory, right after the first promotion. This pattern continues as women advance to the C-suite, accompanied by an alarming lack of representation of women of color at the highest levels (just 3% compared to 18% for white women). Leveraging the full power of feminine leadership in any organization can’t be achieved without improving the pipeline and rate of promotion of women to management levels.
Likewise, the culture created in the work environment is a critical element in bringing the power of feminine leadership to bear on an organization’s greatest challenges. Women need strong mentorship and sponsorship, from other women as well as men, and they need to experience a work culture where the opportunities for advancement are equal to their male counterparts. The Women in the Workplace report shows that women perceive their advancement potential differently based on their ethnicity, and far less than half believe that promotion decisions are arrived at fairly.
What does this mean for your organization? More attention should be given to the recruitment and development of women, and that focus must begin in early career. Paradigm for Parity, a coalition of companies, business leaders and academics that are committed to gender parity in the workplace by 2030, offer a five-point action plan for addressing the development of women that is worth examining for your own company:
- Minimize or eliminate unconscious bias: This begins with unconscious bias training at every level in the organization, beginning with the top. It extends to recruiting practices as well, where instituting blind resumes, gender-neutral job descriptions and utilizing diverse interview panels are just a few of the ways to increase parity for female job candidates.
- Significantly increase the number of women in senior roles: This requires a commitment to making gender parity your ultimate goal, with a short-term objective that no single majority group (gender, ethnicity, etc.) can represent more than 70% of the participants. Think of how this can shift representation at meetings, on panels, committees or project teams in your organization. It sends a strong cultural message of how diversity is valued.
- Measure and communicate targets at every level: This challenges your organization to commit to measurable goals and hold senior management accountable for results. Like other business metrics, organizations tend to achieve what they measure. Gender parity is no different.
- Measure results and performance, not presence: Basing career progress on actual results, provides greater adaptability around where and how the work gets done, thus creating a culture of workplace flexibility that benefits all employees.
- Support women with sponsors and mentors: The development of women requires access to networks of influence, and men play a major role in building systems of support for women. Likewise, women should personally mentor and sponsor more junior women in the organization to ensure that they are being given opportunities to grow, develop and be recognized for their contributions and potential.
The data are clear, organizations benefit from women in leadership roles in measureable and important ways. It’s time to empower the women in your organization to shed their armor and lead from their feminine center.
Alaina Love is chief operating officer and president of Purpose Linked Consulting and co-author of “The Purpose Linked Organization: How Passionate Leaders Inspire Winning Teams and Great Results” (McGraw-Hill). She is a recovering HR executive, a global speaker and leadership expert, and passionate about everything having to do with, well … passion. Her passion archetypes are Builder, Transformer and Healer. You can learn more about how to grow leaders, build passionate teams and leverage passion to create great customer outcomes here.
When she’s not working with her Fortune 500 client base, Love is busy writing her next book, “Passionality, The Art and Science of Finding Your Passion and Living Your Bliss,” which explores the alignment of personality, purpose and passion, and the science of how it contributes to our well being. Follow Love on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or her blog.