In her first week as Managing Director of the IMF, Christine Lagarde spoke for the greater inclusion of women in leadership. She is one of the many powerful women who use the platform to make the ongoing issues about the lack of female leadership visible. In fact, the rise of Lagarde and other female leaders feeds into the commonly held belief in the revolution from above—that is, female leaders are more able to represent women’s interests and promote the aspirations of up-and-coming women.
It makes sense that a female leader would be able to understand the particular issues of women and steer them through the mid-career maze. However, despite high profile female leaders, the number of women in leadership remains stagnant. What is the disconnect?
As it turns out, the assumption that women favour female leaders may not be true. We conducted a survey of 92 mid-career women across three higher education organisations in order to find out what women really want in their leadership. We then furthered our research through eight lengthy interviews with leadership aspirants to find out what practices work for mid-career women who want to move up the corporate ladder.
What did we discover? Overall, mid-career women did not show any preference for female leaders. In some instances, they identified leadership practices of women that they believed were not helpful, and others that were useful but commonly identified with male leaders. Gender plays no role. Instead, it’s the style of leadership and the actions leaders take that help women move up in their organisation.
From our findings, here are five specific things leaders—both men and women—can do to deliver the best leadership and support to aspiring women:
- Demonstrate both hard and soft leadership skills. Women prefer leaders who encompass qualities that stereotypically lie on both sides of the gender line. They want leaders who are 'compassionate, collaborative, and empathetic,' but also provide 'assertive and strategic leadership.' They conceded that demonstrating this range of skills can be more of an individualistic trait of leadership, rather than a gendered one.
- Take decisive action, fast. Women seek leadership that is decisive and action-orientated. A consultative and tentative approach to decision-making is less effective. One mid-career woman observed, 'From my perspective men are a bit more direct—this is how things will be done regardless—whereas, I think women may think, this is the way we should do this, but there may be this and this and this that we should take into account.' Mid-career women are multi-tasking, under tight deadlines, and task-focused; the most effective leadership is that which takes action quickly, and in doing so, enables them to get on with the job.
- Inspire and look to the big picture. Inspiring leadership aspirants is important as women desire a vision and direction that captures the future. 'I’ve had a few male leaders, and I’ve noticed [they] are more relaxed and less anxious, and also more "big picture" in the way they see their role,' one respondent said. The visionary leader is perceived as more confident to take risks. For mid-career women, having a sense of the future direction and how they fit within the organisation’s vision focuses their energy and commitment.
- Balance emotional labor. Women reported that they felt more judged by female leaders. Some of the comments about personal judgment indicated that women can be catty, jealous and unsupportive. Female leaders can get personal and emotional. However, the respondents also noted that male leaders can be too strategic and unemotional. Having emotional intelligence and knowing how to apply it counters emotional labor and increases the sense of support.
- Focus on leading. Mid-career women are able to discern those leaders who are controlling and managerial as leaders seeking to consolidate and maintain their own position. This kind of maintenance creates frustration and tension. The leader is perceived as more concerned about their position rather than leading others. This kind of leadership weighs down the action and energies of other professionals. Taking risks and enabling innovation are examples of leadership that drives mid-career women to follow and take action.
Women are not waiting for the revolution from above. Getting more women into leadership positions can only happen if they experience effective leadership—from both their male and female bosses. They prefer leaders with directing and enabling leadership skills. It’s through these skills that women can do their job well and work toward their longer term leadership aspirations more effectively.
Athena Vongalis-Macrow will present on 'Developing talented women' at DeakinPrime on Tuesday, 15 July.
This article was previously published in Harvard Business Review.