Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.
For many of us, the idea of a leader still conjures up an image of a powerful man. When a high-profile woman displays exactly the same qualities—decisiveness, risk taking, ambition—she is often pilloried because she doesn’t conform to female stereotypes. Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg has written about being labelled ‘bossy’, which is clearly not a compliment, and led a campaign to ban the word, which is so often used to denigrate girls and women.
And bias affects us all. Both men and women tend to draw a male figure when asked to picture a leader, according to a 2018 report on US research. When we ‘process information through the lens of stereotype’, our interpretation may be ‘consistent with stereotyped expectations, rather than objective reality,’ explains Nilanjana Dasgupta, a Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts. ‘When people are consistently exposed to leaders who fit one profile, they will be more likely to notice leaders who fit that same profile in the future.’ Overcoming this problem means seeing more women as leader- like and, of course, in leadership positions.
Even today, women’s leadership remains largely invisible. This vacuum can be traced back to the ancient world, as UK classics academic and historian Mary Beard points out in her book Women & Power: A Manifesto. Challenging this stranglehold in the collective thinking about power and leaders—which she notes has meant we are doing without critical expertise from half the population—requires more than telling women to lower their voices and fit into the existing model, which is already ‘coded as male’. She suggests it requires a new way of defining power, by ‘thinking collaboratively about the power of followers and not just leaders’, and treating power as an attribute rather than as a possession.
“What I have in mind is the ability to be effective, to make a difference in the world and the right to be taken seriously together as much as individually. It is power in that sense that many women feel they don’t have—and that they want.”
The reason we want more women in power, Professor Beard adds, is because:
“… we simply cannot afford to do without women’s expertise, whether it is in technology, the economy or social care.”
Women have often had no choice but to lead in a different way to men—with many positive outcomes. This alternative style hasn’t been a function of biological predisposition to kindliness or collegiality, but due to a long exclusion from traditional power structures, says Alyse Nelson, the CEO of Vital Voices Global Partnership:
“Restricted access to resources has made ingenuity a matter of survival for many; frustration with impenetrable oligarchies and inherited bureaucracies has instilled the value of transparency and creative, practical thinking in others. Women have been forced to operate from outside closed networks, which means they’ve had to adapt by creating their own worlds; they’ve learned to unite peripheral, disenfranchised communities into collectively organised and governed microcosms.”
She adds that the World Bank’s 2012 World Development Report found:
“… women with decision-making power accelerate positive development outcomes, and studies from the World Economic Forum confirm a strong correlation between an increase in gender equality and an increase in gross domestic product per capita.”
Out in the community, women have always been leaders. Quentin Bryce, Australia’s first female Governor-General, saw women constantly stepping in to lead community movements and lobby for childcare and health outcomes. She remembers the role model her mother provided when she was growing up in rural Queensland, and was surrounded by many women leaders in the community.
The upside to this shared style of leading is becoming clearer. The models aren’t new—management literature has long extolled the virtues of distributed, diffuse and collaborative leadership, which operates across ranks, and through uniting people towards common goals. It’s the opposite of rigid ‘command and control’ leading. Women are often seen as ‘better’ at this style because it fits with female stereotypes, yet working collaboratively usually also happens to deliver better sustained results—if given the chance.
Of course, much still remains to be done to tackle the formidable structural impediments for women in political and business leadership, former Prime Minister of New Zealand Helen Clark told a conference in early 2018. Despite progress in many places, glass ceilings remain, and women in leadership positions globally are still a rare commodity. There are many proven ways of breaking through those glass ceilings. Addressing basic structural issues is a precondition, says Helen Clark—women can’t even get near the glass ceilings if they are denied equality and protection under the law, and cannot determine their own destiny. This is where leaders, men and women, currently holding the power to change the norms and structures, play such a crucial role.
To sustainably change leadership norms requires a mainstream shift in gender beliefs and attitudes. This cannot rest on women’s shoulders alone—no matter how adept women are at garnering and leveraging support for each other. As Hillary Clinton told an audience of nearly 7000 in Sydney when she appeared with former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard:
“The research shows the more successful a man becomes, the more people like him. But for women it’s the exact opposite. Women are seen favourably when we advocate for others, but unfavourably when we advocate for ourselves.”
This is an extract from the wonderful book, Woman Kind, by Kirstin Ferguson and Catherine Fox. Published by Murdoch Books, $29.99