Don't 'man up!': Embracing female leadership in the workplace

It's time to stop leading like men and invest in innovative sponsorship

Don't 'man up!': Embracing female leadership in the workplace

Why do women feel the need to lead like men at work? Well, according to behavioural analyst Gianna Biscontini, it comes down to enacting a learned characteristic – one which is inadvertently harming female talent. Speaking to HRD, Biscontini revealed that when a homogeneous group exists at the leadership level, people assume that they obtained their leadership roles based on either simply belonging to that group or due to the behaviours they share.

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“Women can’t change their gender, but they can make observations and emulate those behaviours,” she added. “I call this process culture conditioning, and it can occur anywhere in the company.  The second reason is that people tell women, either directly or indirectly, that demonstrating more male characteristics is what they need to do to get ahead. That’s what gets rewarded and repeated. There’s a belief that women are the reason women aren’t getting promoted or in leadership roles, which lacks research and, frankly, logic. The assertiveness penalty is an example of how ineffective this belief is.”

Supporting women at work

Empowering your female employees isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s sheer business gold. Research from McKinsey found that companies with more diverse leadership teams are more profitable than those without. The study found that for every 10% increase in gender diversity, earnings before tax rose by 3.5%.

So where are we going wrong? And how can HR fix it?

“Workplace environments fail to support women who bring themselves to the office — emotions, power, opinions, empathy and everything else that make women so interesting,” added Biscontini. “Women should be actively looking for companies that demonstrably support women, have a diverse executive table, and have leadership pipelines and programs that honour caregiving responsibilities in order to create space for the women to be their best at work. You can also ask questions about these topics in an interview.

“For women specifically, this is hard to hear, but we’ve got to reduce the weight we put on being liked. Bring yourself to work, not someone else, and stand proudly in her shoes. If the company sees your worth, they’ll celebrate it and acknowledge the value in your authenticity. If they don’t, they’ve failed to meet this moment in history and modern business. From there, it’s her call.”

HR’s role in sponsoring female employees

The role of mentorship for women in the workplace is enormous. According to a recent report from Accenture found that sponsorship of women drives innovation and improves overall organizational performance. It’s disheartening then that so few companies implement a top-down sponsorship system – one that actually supports and propels women into the boardroom. 

For Biscontini, she suggests that HR take more of a proactive role in figuring out how to fix the underlying issues.

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“Is it that women aren’t inspired?” she questioned. “Or is it that they have significantly more barriers to overcome? Even when women are the breadwinners, they are responsible for 60-80% of household and caregiving responsibilities. If companies see the value in female representation at the top, they can help remove those barriers.

“I would also say this is a failure of performance metrics systems. Many times, it’s not transparent as to why someone is promoted, so no one is sure of the results they must produce to be promoted - even those who do the promoting. From my experience, HR professionals aren’t always given the power, resources, or freedom to create the change they know is needed, which is unfortunate because they’re the true heart of the organization.”


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