January 12

Is female leadership really a thing?

Women are still both “the second” and “the other” when it comes to management. What is archetypically linked to the feminine continues to have a lower status in our society than the archetypal masculine. But facing the challenges of our world and the statistics on our mental well-being it is clear that we need a new balance that should include all human characteristics and exclude contra-productive gender prejudices.

By Emilia van Hauen, cultural sociologist, board member, author and TEDx/keynote speaker.
This is a chapter in the book the introduction chapter of the book This is how more women get into management.” by Jørgen Høeg.

Are you a female leader?
If so, how do you know you are a leader?
Is it because you have formal responsibility and an authorized authority?
Is it because others follow you voluntarily?
Maybe something third?

And now: How do you know that you are a woman?
Is it because of your body?

Or is it because you feel like a woman and reflect the cultural expectations for appearance, values, behaviour and more?

The interesting thing is that when the two words, female and leader, are put together, they become the exception. Even in 2020 female leaders are something one should write a book about because the norm is that management is still attached to men.

The biological sex and the social gender

“You are not born a woman. You become one.”

So wrote the French author, feminist and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir (1908- 1986) more than 50 years ago. And some will immediately object that this is not right as even the sea cucumber knows that there is a biological difference between the sexes. But this is not the issue. What she refers to is the fact that we have two ways of describing the sexes: The biological (sex) and the social (gender) and the latter is first and foremost a cultural activity that over time shapes our identity and self-understanding. This is the reason why the book that you are holding in your hands even exists. Because have you ever heard of a book with the title: “Benefits of Male Leaders”? Or: “Male leadership is the future”? I have googled it and I have not managed to find something that is just reminiscent of it. The first hit I got was: “Men or women: Who is best at leading the future?”

This is the result of the search: Women or females is mentioned in all the headlines. Conversely, if you google female leaders, then all the results are about women. All google searches are individual, that I know, but I also got quite a few men to google it, and the result was the same.

The otherness of women and the limitation of men

What is the point? It is that those female leaders are still “the other” while male leaders are “the first”. And since this is the norm, there is of course no need for articles, which describes and explains the obvious. The problem with this attitude, however, is that it normalizes the way male leaders conduct leadership and thus indirectly problematizing all other forms of leadership. Read: Female leadership. An example: I was at a conference recently where I heard a female leader say to a man: “Yes, I’m not like other female leaders. I focus on both bottom line and results”. This is a pretty wild statement, right? And of course, both derogatory and un-woke in relation to her peers, but certainly not meant that way.

The problem is also that it makes male leadership something stereotypical, like male leaders as much as female leaders need to be tapped into place. Which generally just limits both sexes. So, it’s just as many men as women who are exposed to inequality in relation to human development.

The interesting thing is that if a male top manager begins to articulate and organize himself according to principles and values ​​that are otherwise normally attached to the female, he is often considered to be progressive, brave, far-sighted and strong. Such as. Barack Obama, who constantly stood for goals of cooperation, openness, curiosity and relationships. A female leader doing the same may risk being looked down upon and getting comments about her not really understanding what leadership is “Out in the real world”.

The above is backed by a wealth of statistics. Especially, when we reach the top management level and the boards.

For more than 25 years, I have dealt with gender as a social marker and identity. When I myself was the head of an international department at the age of 27 I was completely sure we had equality, because I myself had never experienced anything else. The older I have become, and the more privileges I have gained (read: have gotten closer to power), the more I have discovered that we do not have equality. Because we socially and culturally do not experience the value of the expression and action of the two sexes at the same level. Today I know that I have certainly been a subject of inequality since I was young. I just did not see it. I did not see it because I identified more with the masculine than the feminine when it came to my career. I was, in fact, completely unaware that what I gave value were archetypally masculine virtues, values, and behaviours whilst values attached to the archetypal feminine clearly had a lower status in my world.

The archetypally feminine and masculine

Archetypically masculine qualities are qualities such as action, focus, results, strength, activity, autonomy, productivity, organizing according to (visible) hierarchies, strategy, struggle, conquest, protection, sustenance, authority and linear creativity. Archetypically feminine qualities include presence, sociality, care, emotions, empathy, spaciousness, passivity, affection, pleasure, reproductive, fertility, beauty, community and organic creativity. If they are added together, they make up the sum of many human qualities that will dance together in a balanced reality. None of them is necessarily attached to either a woman or a man, they are just human traits. “Gendered” is in reality first and foremost what is called a continuum; that means that the masculine unfolds within a broad spectrum of the above markers and actions and likewise does the feminine. Only in the extremes – to which almost no people belong – there is what some would call “a real woman” and “a real man”. Which in itself is a hopeless expression. If we look at the gender with cultural historic eyes it is clear that it is precisely the archetypal, masculine markers that have been weighted highest in society, both today and for many thousands of years before. Which has to lead to a higher paycheck, more leadership positions and thus greater access to power. And this again has of course given access to the systems and structures (e.g. the political arena, business, the bureaucracy and of course the police and military) who have the greatest visible power and which are based on exactly those masculine characteristics and virtues. This has in turn meant that if women were to assert themselves in these areas, they necessarily had to adopt the culture and make it their own in order to survive and perhaps also be promoted within the system.

Our mental well-being is alarming

The problem becomes clear when we look upon the statistics of our mental wellbeing as they show us that something in our society is completely and desperately wrong.

More than half of the population suffers from stress, 40 per cent of the young women between 16-24 years and 23 per cent of the young men in the same age group suffer from high stress; that is what triggers a long-term sick leave in a workplace. 20-30 per cent of the population suffers from anxiety, 20 per cent get depression and both numbers are on the rise. Especially within the young generations, who also have had their numbers on depression tripled in just 10 years. 45 per cent suffer from insomnia and loneliness is increasing, even amongst young people. Not exactly numbers that show a society in balance.

When these numbers are added together with the material level and the degree of civilization which we have achieved, there is something that doesn´t quite add up as we should have the possibility to be a society which thrives in every way and in all levels and sectors.

The reasons why we are not there are manifold, however, one of them can be found in the rather one-sided focus that we had had for far too long on how we choose to organize ourselves and what values we put in front. It is compatible with the wheel of the 4 seasons only having summer and autumn, but never winter and spring – where we only recognize the growth and the harvest, but show no understanding of the importance of cultivating the winters rest and the sowing of the spring. It would be a very thin return if we treated our agriculture and kitchen garden that way. But that’s nonetheless the way we all to a large extent treat ourselves and each other.

The masculine thus not only takes precedence over the archetypally feminine, but dominates almost perfectly, and this is one of the reasons why some women do not bother, want to, feel like, can see an idea in striving for a top management position.

If you in this second with this last sentence get tired and annoyed and want to skip further reading I would ask you to consider this on the way to the next chapter: Why is it the women who have to adapt to an ancient system when they make up half of the world in which the system exists – and not the system that should be adapted to women too?

And why it is still the archetypal masculine values ​​and virtues that must have the highest status and are considered to be normal, admirable and power-creating when women have also always been on the labour market? Yes, we have. But we just have not always been paid for it.

Why women do not really bother

Most people think that women drop their careers because of family. But here are some numbers that might change your understanding of this challenge:

  • 30 pct. are dropping the career because of the family
  • 68 pct. do it because they do not feel valued by their workplace
  • 65 pct. feel excluded from teams and decisions

These figures come from Barbara Annis, the author of the book “Work with me. The 8 blind spots between men and women in business.” If I add her book together with the many years of research I have done on this subject, my conclusion is that far too many women check out because they are exhausted by a lack of respect for their reality. Or put in other words: They feel that they have to spend too much energy fighting the wrong battles into the system instead of fighting to create the world they want to be a part of.

The wrong and the right question

The objection I have heard most often when talking about the lack of women representation in the management team is: Well, it is the women themselves who do not join the fight. Implied: What’s wrong with the women, since they do not bother to do what it takes to become leaders. Especially top executives. But that is the wrong question to ask. Because it’s not the women who are wrong. It’s the system. So, the questions any gifted CEO should ask himself, are:

  • What does it take in our company for the women to want to become leaders with us?
  • How do we develop the organization so that they also want to go all the way up to the top management level?

The reason why this is the only real approach to the challenge is very simple: Women make up half of the world’s population. And thus, is half of the workers and consumers. And with the very important twist that women occupy up to 80 per cent of all purchasing decisions, and therefore have a far greater purchasing power than their number justifies them to.

That is why it is a counterproductive strategy that e.g., retail trade, has men in more than 50 per cent of their purchasing manager positions. Some will then object and say that they are actually succeeding as the retail market is strong, but just imagine how much better the numbers could be if there was a more equal distribution of women?

At the same time, women are far better product and company ambassadors and their standards are higher. So, when meeting a woman’s needs, one has exceeded the men’s needs. Marti Barletta has, among other things, written about this in the interesting book: Prime Time Women: How to Win the Hearts, Minds and Business of Boomer Big Spenders. But most important of all is that if we are to have a society in balance, there must of course also be a balance between the sexes in all positions and on all posts and sectors of society.

One of the roads to obtaining this is to dissolve the gender so that the constraints that inevitably lie in it for all human beings no longer have power over either the individual human or us as a whole.

Since it is not something we can “just” do, legislation is a way to help its development on the way. Within the social sciences, not many certainties are given, but one actually is: The fastest way to change a culture is to apply a law. In other words, we must therefore legislate into a new social culture, and this can e.g., be using quotas for a period and an increased focus on sexism in the workplace. Both parts help to establish that women are not “the other” and therefore naturally must be treated with the same respect and have the same opportunities as “the first”.

And now back to the miserable state of our mental wellbeing in the world.

Countless studies show that the most important thing in order to be happy and healthy is good relations. This has been proven by many social studies, and especially by the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which has been running since 1938. This is important in order to understand a basic trait about us humans, namely that when we are both happy and healthy, we also have the surplus to be creative and find new solutions to new problems. That combined with the demands of the young generations for the abolition of the hierarchy, good close relationships with their colleagues and managers (note: not “bosses”), space to unfold their creativity and confidence in their sense of responsibility, then a picture begins to emerge of brand-new leadership types and new forms of leadership on the field. When we recognize that the archetypal characteristics such as care, relational, inclusive, orientation towards the community, empathy and organic creativity, are equally important to include in any strategy and organization, such as the archetypal masculine KPIs, we are beginning to prepare for a more balanced future. We need all the human resources to meet the challenges we face as a global community. But also, because the young generations demand it.

The demands of the young generations

“More men than before are starting to question their job when they have their first child. It often happens that male lawyers, auditors and consultants I interview start to cry during the interview and say that they wish they were a woman, or that they would become ill so that they could take leave. Many even call it a career prison.” This is what Sara Louise Muhr, author of “Gender Management”, and organizational researcher and professor at CBS says. Since 2010 she has conducted 150 in-depth interviews with employees in legal, accounting and consulting industries – and this is just the tip of the iceberg.

For years I myself have researched the young generations and especially gender and its ways of being practised is a factor that many young people are dealing with. They do not want to be seen as a gender. They want to be seen as human beings. Most companies and organizations today have challenges in both attracting and especially withholding the young and if you can recognize this problem, I would advise you to look at your gender policy – in fact, your whole diversity policy – for the talented young people demand that the workplace where they grant their energy, must be both woke and conscious, and preferably also trendsetting.

A year ago, I was at a conference where a number of young people from Generation Z (born 1995-2010) were invited to comment on their generation’s relationship with the future. Involuntarily, gender came into play, and at the end of the discussion, a young person spoke quite bluntly to the moderator who belonged to generation X (born 1960-1980):
“Gender is not a problem. It’s just your generation that has to die.”

Personally, I hope we can get there before my generation X dies.

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