“Feminine” leadership the way of the future

The news may be too late for Julia Gillard, but according to the third annual Ketchum Leadership Communication Monitor released recently, it’s top level female leaders who are best getting their message across.

More than 6,500 responses from individuals around the world provided perceptions of leaders in business, community, politics, non-profit, and union or organised labour organisations.

In five out of seven metrics of effective leadership, female leaders out did their male counterparts.  The survey identifies ‘feminine’ leadership communication as the way of the future and suggests the end of the ‘macho’ style in senior ranks.

In the top four metrics – “leading by example”, “communicating in an open and transparent way”, “admitting mistakes” and “bringing out the best in others” – more than half of the respondents felt that women leaders performed better than men.

The results are consistent with a 2013 survey of 64,000 people in 13 countries which found 66% of adults agreed that “the world would be a better place if men thought more like women” – including 63% of men worldwide. 

Authors of the 2013 survey, The Athena Doctrine: How Women (and the Men Who Think Like Them) Will Rule the World, John Gerzema and Michael D’Antonio said at the time, “in the corporate workplace, women are conditioned to think that the way they think isn’t valued as highly (as men)”.  

What do senior female leaders think of the findings when the common perception has been that women need to act ‘more like men’ to succeed?

CareerOne CEO, Karen Lawson and General Manager Corporate for Alliance Mining, Bronwyn Barnes reject the idea that they had ever felt the need to behave in a masculine way when leading others.

Ms Lawson agrees with the metrics of effective leadership but questions the value of labelling leadership traits as ‘feminine’ or ‘macho’.  “Being passionate, driven, focused, resilient – are these male traits? Much has been written that behaviour by a woman is labelled X but if that behaviour was demonstrated by a man, it would be looked at by society in a different way”.

She agrees that communicating in a transparent open way builds trust and is fundamental in bringing out the best in others.  “Through the good and the bad times, be as open as you can in a timely human way. There will always be information which it’s not appropriate to share, but if you hire great people, trust in their intelligence you will be amazed and surprised by their capacity”, she says.

Ms Barnes says she does sometimes feel the need to speak more assertively and clearly when dealing with a large group of males.  “Other than that I don’t think I behave in a particularly masculine or feminine style – I prefer to tailor my style to suit the education, industry or cultural needs of the audience.  I don’t need to change myself to fit into anyone else’s idea of who or what I should be”, she says.  

Whilst the survey outcomes may indicate a growing appreciation of women at the top, Messrs Lawson and Barnes agreed that more is needed to be done to balance the numbers.

Only 49 per cent of Fortune 1000 companies have just one or no women on their top teams.  The same is true for 45 percent of boards.  In Australia, only 18.2% of ASX boards are women.

Ms Barnes suggests paid maternity leave, recognition of part time work done whilst raising children, better female networking, changing belief systems around “bossy” women, and teaching women to be more assertive to speak up and challenge some of the statements that are made by men around female leadership, are all needed to increase numbers.

When asked what challenges women face that men don’t, Ms Lawson says it’s simple,women leave the workforce to have children and that creates new challenges for re-entering the workforce, the businesses they run and complexity for employers. Women need a support network for child care. Being a parent changes priorities in life and women more often than not pick up more of the burden in this regard.”

She says she has met many amazing women who manage senior jobs, have young children, but they do so with almost precision-like organisation.  “This new generation of women is not trying to do it all as their mothers have done, but are choosing a lifestyle they want to live. There has never been a better time to be a woman in the workforce than now. Digital makes remote working possible and provides greater flexibility – so the only thing holding women back…is the thought they can’t, when my message is ‘yes can!’”.

Both reports found that its men that will have to adapt to a world that that is increasingly expecting a more feminine, social and collaborative approach to leadership.

Karen Lawson

CareerOne CEO, Karen Lawson