I have had great mentors and role models to look up to. I had amazing managers who I reported to, early on in my career. People who did not make me feel confused with the usual behavioural paradox women face when it comes to evolving professionally. However, as I evolved, as my roles grew in seniority slowly and gradually, I realized how my women colleagues and I were treated differently as compared to our male peers.
Over years, we observed women our seniors, men who mentored us, women who coached us, and learned a few things. Here’s a brief summary of those experiences.
There are always going to be norms. Differential or not, time will tell. It will gradually and hopefully come to a point that we will witness the evolution of gender-neutral leadership. However, till we reach that point, women in leadership positions will have to fulfil additional expectations. Female leaders will need to fulfil both business as well as societal expectations. Female Leaders will need to do the balancing act.
Almost all the women managers I had, have always juggled between demanding yet caring. Their positions expect that they be able to demand the work. The societal expectation is, that they care for their teams. Those women who demanded more from their teams, or were firm in making their demands, are judged more harshly.
Women are expected to be participative yet authoritative. No matter how competent women might be, if they do not come across as authoritative, they are at the risk of being considered weak managers. At the same time, they might be considered arrogant, if they do not show some vulnerability when requesting for collaboration.
Similarly, when men promote their own goals too hard, they are called sharks. Women, rude names and unpleasantly aggressive. When men serve others and their goals in the team, they are considered great managers. Women are expected to do this by default for no acknowledgement or credit at all. So finding a balance between self-advocacy and serving others is another tough task, that women in leadership have to carry out.
The trickiest expectation is that women need to maintain distance and yet be approachable. More than once in past, I have been taken off a project because a manager decided (out of genuine concern) that I needed to maintain distance with a client who didn’t know his boundaries as well as is expected professionally. However, again more than once, I have been asked to smile more in meetings so that I don’t look stiff, uptight or other such adjectives.
Advice from mentors and role models has come handy in navigating the paradox of an aspiring woman leader. The key, is to adapt. Women adapt and act according to the situation. There are times when they sit at the head of the table, and others when they don’t, depending on what message they want to give to the team. Most female managers I have worked with, dress very formally during weekdays and informally on Fridays, so that they gave distant as well as approachable vibes.
One of the best advice most women in leadership roles follow almost intuitively is to build relationships first and then follow up with harder behaviour. They often build trust, engagement, relationships first and then call out firm and stern decisions that need to be. This empowers them to be able to walk up to another colleague and clarify that their personal dynamic and their professional decision are segregated.
Another way to look at this is that all good women leaders are soft on people but tough on tasks. One of the managers I really respect a lot, always ensures that she understands why a deadline was missed at all. She then follows it up with coaching and support. However, the next time, she ensures that the person she coached is held accountable without fail. As a result, she is never considered unfair.
When you make people win while winning yourself, it’s easier to be a woman in leadership. One of my mentors, used to advise all his reportees to examine, how team goals were aligned with their personal goals. He would take time out and work with them, till they mastered the art of creating win-win situations with all stakeholders. In his experience, women managers mastered the art sooner than their male peers. It also made life easier for the women managers who grasped the art sooner.
Most importantly, actively redefining female leadership is what causes the maximum impact. All managers and colleagues I have learnt from, actively redefine vulnerability as a display of inner strength, negotiation as a display of collaborative approach, their high EQ as an indicator of their ability to care and lead.
Similarly, they also ensure that their firm messages, or assertive behaviours came from a place of genuine professional care. They ensure that their feedback is taken in the right spirit and comes from a place of grooming the person, to whom it was given, rather than just a professional obligation.
In the longer run, hopefully the double bind on women in leadership might change. However, till then, some of this advice will continue to come to our aid. Till then, women who lead and aspire to lead, will continue to balance their act at work.