Generic leadership advice is hard to avoid. Google “leadership”, walk the General Management aisle at a physical bookstore, or search on Amazon, and you’ll be inundated. What a lot of these listicles, articles and books don’t do is spell out whether and how female leadership may be different.
Its a sensitive topic. After all, many female leaders and figure-heads hate being lumped into the “woman” bucket and would prefer to be simply called “leaders”. I completely understand why it might seem that qualifying their leadership as “female” somehow diminishes their accomplishments. And many female leaders seem to genuinely believe their gender has nothing to do with their success.
I look at the issue in a different way. I actually hold the view — call it a ‘bias’ if you wish — that female leaders should be proud of the adjective “female.” After all, I believe they have accomplished more than their male counterparts. My view is that its likely that being a woman has been a minor impediment to their success (at best), or created serious obstacles to overcome (at worst). So when I say “female leader”, you can translate that into: “more-versatile-and-remarkable-leader”. This article by Anne Litwin about how to be a female leader captures an example of what I believe women are up against. Essentially, Litwin talks about the fact that many women prefer male bosses, and advises female leaders to adjust their leadership style depending on whether they are dealing with a female or male direct report. Specifically, she advocates:
- Being “relational” with female staff members. This is presumably because women expect other women to be more supportive and personal. She calls this “women’s friendship rules”.
- Sharing limited personal information. This is presumably to avoid seeming too aloof/cold.
- Listening to complaints and problems, within reasonable limits.
Without passing judgment on the advice itself, the fact that it — and other advice like it (e.g. Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In also talks about using different language as a woman when asking for a promotion) — exists at all illustrates the extra noise that women leaders have to either tune out or deal with.
Generic leadership books don’t tend to advocate that men deal with women differently. At most, they generally talk about motivating different personality types or teams through different types of situations. On top of those nuances, women either perceive or are told they need to explicitly account for gender as well. It may well be true, but just having to think about it — much less deal with it — takes away mental energy from doing other things that are important for growing into, or cementing leadership. This may be a “small” obstacle in the grand scheme of things, but that’s why I think wearing the label “female leader” should be a badge of honor.