Supporting female leadership can help create a just and kinder future

Women still struggle to access leadership positions. Although more women are earning college degrees and a comparable number are entering the workforce, women are still not reaching mid-level and senior management positions at the same rate as men.

In Canada, women hold only 19% of board positions. Less than one percent of leadership and pipeline positions are held by Black and Indigenous women, women with disabilities, and LGBTQ2S+ women.

A leadership model that embraces the feminine traits in all of us can help us move towards a more just and sustainable world.

As a social innovation designer, I study complex challenges with the aim of finding common approaches needed to solve them. My goal is to define the principles that can help us design a more humane future – where all voices are heard and valued. To understand how to get there, I listened to stakeholders and emerging leaders engaged in the work of promoting more inclusive and equitable leadership.

The sustainable glass ceiling

Terms like “broken rung” and “sticky floor” describe the difficulty women face moving up from entry-level positions. Metaphors like the ‘glass ceiling’, ‘glass escalator’ and ‘glass cliff’ illustrate the challenges women face in accessing leadership and leadership positions.

The researchers argue that the metaphor of a maze best describes the complex maze of barriers that keep women from reaching the top.

A woman in an office working on a laptop.
Critics of leaning in say it forces women to change their behaviors and ignores the systemic barriers at play.

During the pandemic, women have shouldered the brunt of care responsibilities at home and at work. They do more to support the well-being of their teams and engage in diversity and inclusion initiatives.

Yet these efforts are rarely factored into performance reviews that determine raises and promotions. By narrowly defining leadership, using metrics that lean towards a male management style, barriers remain for women and gender-diverse people to break through the glass ceiling.

Deep-rooted prejudices and ideas around “respectable womanhood” still impact how women are viewed and valued.

The analysis shows that although the gender gap in leadership is slowly narrowing, traits such as competitiveness and aggression associated with men are still highly valued. While traits like kindness and understanding related to women are still seen as detrimental in leadership roles.

The problem of leaning

For women to rise to better leadership positions, they must be valued and recognized for their contributions, which may be different from those of their male colleagues.

Instead of being told to “bend over,” research and women’s experiences underscore the need for their contributions to be recognized and for workplaces and society to value collective care.

Critics of the “inward bias” argue that it is up to women to change their behaviors and ignore the systemic barriers at play.

Research on women who rise to leadership positions in male-dominated organizations and display more masculine management styles has often focused on personality traits. Yet studies show how women are shaped by sexist workplaces, leading them to disengage from their gender identity, and from other women, to avoid being discriminated against.

Workplaces are shaped by the wider culture. A society where women are devalued not only produces men who devalue women, but also permeates the way women value women.

Female leadership is not just for women

Research on effective leadership points to the need for approaches that align with female characteristics of empathy, support, and community building. These traits are not unique to women; they are inherent in each of us.

Employees feel seen and heard where they can learn and make mistakes without fear of blame. Other values ​​include prioritizing care, respect and cooperation above competition and an emphasis on honesty and accountability.

Female leadership encompasses aspects of ourselves that have been pushed aside and devalued in conventionally male-dominated spaces. Refocusing them can define a model of leadership embraced and practiced by all genders.

A woman wearing glasses and a white shirt talking to other people around a table.
Mentoring and networking opportunities are key to bringing more women into leadership positions.

The leaders of the future

So how do you get there?

Helping girls find their own voices and ways to lead, without conforming to narrowly defined leadership traits often modeled by men, can shape the next generation of leaders. Organizations like Girls Inc. of York Region and Plan International Canada provide opportunities for girls and young women to explore what being a leader means to them.

It is also essential that boys appreciate their own inherent feminine qualities of empathy and caring, helping them grow into men who value feminine qualities and are willing to follow gender-diverse women and leaders.

For organizations, it’s not just about recruiting more women and employees of diverse gender identities. It also means creating a work culture that truly embraces diversity and provides opportunities for growth.

Women are at a huge disadvantage when it comes to accessing networking and mentoring opportunities. Being an ally means going beyond speaking up if you see something unfair. He advocates for more opportunities for advancement and is directly involved in mentorship for women, especially for women of color, women with disabilities, and LGBTQ2S+ women.

Organizations need to recognize the emotional labor and leadership already shaped by women. Appraisals and performance reviews should capture the full range of what employees, especially women, bring to the job and be linked to increased compensation and leadership opportunities.

Without a move towards fully valuing women’s contributions, workplaces will continue to be labyrinths filled with obstacles and the leadership gap will never close. Without understanding and embracing the importance of the feminine qualities of care, empathy and collaboration in how we live, work and lead, the status quo will continue.

The current paradigm—a patriarchal model of leadership that continues to value self-interest and competition over collective benefits and cooperation—just doesn’t work for most people.

As we face the challenges of political division, social injustice, economic uncertainty, and climate change, now is the time to refocus the feminine within us and champion a different, softer way to lead.

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