The Debate About Female Leadership: Joining the Fray

I coach several senior female executives who all face subtle gender bias but long to be rewarded purely on merit. For the sake of our current and future women leaders, we need to move the debate along to encompass an understanding of the systemic obstacles in play.

(Boadicea’s Chariot, near Westminster Bridge in London, sculptor  Thomas Thorneycroft’s portrait of  the Celtic queen—also known as Boudicca—who led an uprising against the Romans in Britain.)

Last week, a colleague recounted how his company had a new head of corporate communications starting this month who would also have a seat on the board. He went on to tell me that this new leader – a woman – was already facing a lot of criticism about her “readiness” for the role given she hadn’t led a large team before. He thought this criticism was rather unfair and that she wasn’t been given much of a fighting chance. He attributed this level of criticism to her being a woman.

I admit that the debate about women in senior leadership has left me cold. As a woman, perhaps I feel I should somehow be more engaged as I clearly have a vested interest but I have avoided this conversation as seems so factional and polarized.

Until now. I’m fed up with what’s going on.

I was one of only five women in my computer science graduation class of eighty. I’m used to being one of the only women in the room as I’ve spent my entire career in a male-dominated industry of technology and financial services. As with most women, there have been handful of experiences that can be categorized as sexual harassment and yet I’ve never felt discriminated against in my career. No one held it against me that I was a woman – at least that I was aware of.

It is widely accepted that greater diversity in senior management – and not just along gender lines – is beneficial to any business. And no one can argue that statistics show a lack of diversity.

Of the 190 heads of state – nine are women. Of all the people in parliament in the world, 13 percent are women. In the corporate sector, women at the top, C-level jobs, board seats – tops out at 15 %. Only 2.4% of the U.S. Fortune 500 chief executives were female in 2010, according to Forbes.

So the question is not whether we have a problem – we do – but what might the solutions be. Much print has been dedicated to covering this topic.  Approaches include training and mentoring for women in mid-level positions. There are companies targeting young women at college and university to attract them to industries such as science and engineering that have the image of being “male” industries. Consulting companies have even developed programs to teach their consultants how to sell to senior women executives.

This all makes sense to me and yet something is still missing in the debate. There has always been a tension associated with being a woman in a man’s world. To what extent do I play by the rules of the incumbents? To what extent do I bring in my own unique skills?

Recently, I had a conversation with a senior insurance executive who mentioned the company’s Diversity and Inclusion program. “It’s not about diversity for us – it’s about how we include people.” That language seemed important.

It was a superb article in Harvard Business review that really brought it home for me. In Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers by Herminia Ibarra, Robin Ely, and Deborah Kolb the authors refer to a “subtle gender bias that persists…. And disrupts the learning cycle at the heart of becoming a leader.” It suggests that we do not do enough to help women find the motivation to lead.

This maps to my experience. My career progression has been a meander through companies where opportunities where offered and I took them. There was no process or support by which I developed as a leader or helped create a sense of purpose or a leader identity.

We have to learn to see ourselves as leaders. This is true for men and women but my own personal experience shows not as easy a step for women. It’s a process of trying it on – taking responsibility for a project or leading a meeting. Feedback and response to this action encourages (or not) future leadership steps.

The HBR article suggests that without affirmation, “leadership identity which begins as a peripheral aspect of self, eventually withers away along with opportunities to grow with new assignments. “

Ginka Toegel, professor of organizational behavior and leadership at IMD in Switzerland notes, we have created an economy where male leaders are associated with behaviors such as proactive, assertive and dominant. Female leaders show in contrast communal values of friendliness, support and caring. But it is the ‘male’ leadership style we most associate with leadership. She goes on to say that:

Many women come to the conclusion that, as a result of these stereotypes, the only way for them to be perceived to be legitimate leaders is to emulate male leaders. However, the real answer is not so straightforward. If women simply emulate men, they violate the gender stereotype, which creates a perception that they are being phony. This creates a real problem, and can lead to them being penalized for being inauthentic leaders.

The aim to have more diversity in senior management is a noble one. It is time we recognize that there are nuances in how this is achieved and the obstacles we will face.

So now I am choosing to get involved in this debate. I coach several senior female executives who all face subtle gender bias but long to be rewarded purely on merit. For the sake of our current and future women leaders, we need to move the debate along to encompass an understanding of the systemic obstacles in play.

We need more thoughtful and measured conversation along with a willingness to accept our part in how we maintain the status quo.


Catherine Stagg-Macey // Catherine Stagg-Macey has spent over 20 years in the technology and insurance sectors. She has experience in a wide range of roles from programmer, project manager, leader and strategy advisor. At Celent, which she rejoined in Sept. 2014, she established and led the firm’s European Insurance practice. She now serves as Executive Advisor at the firm. Passionate about people, she retrained as a coach and founded Belgrave Street, a business offering executive coaching, workshops and facilitation to the insurance and technology industry. Follow her on Twitter: @staggmacey.

Comments (2)

  1. Excellent, thought-provoking piece. It raises questions about nature and nurture. At some point in life, I came to think nature far more decisive in outcomes, but there are areas of exception. I’m reminded of a young woman who used to attend a kind of informal debating society and complained privately that she would get shouted down by the males in the crowd. She was encouraged to muck in and not be dissuaded from getting her point across. That encouragement helped her transformation from being somewhat of a wall flower to being one of the most formidable commentators in the group. Her intellectual quality was such that if her opinion were heard, it would elevate the level of the discussion. That would have been lost in the absence of her finding her way, and perhaps that little bit of encouragement did the trick. Her other qualities ensured that her assertiveness was respected, not resented.

  2. Superb and thought provoking blog – I read today that a study of 15 year olds revealed that 41% of girls as opposed to just 24% of boys believe they are not good at maths. There are subtle thought processes at work which are not going to be addressed by simple solutions; we have to understand, celebrate and value how women function, acknowledge that value in leadership roles (at all levels, not just the boardroom or in government) and address the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) thought processes that still pervade society about how women perceive themselves and how they are perceived.

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