It’s Time to Stop Connecting Leadership and Gender

By Heather Campbell

Lean In

By Heather Campbell >>

Last summer’s Fifty Shades of Grey got businesswomen all hot under their collars. This summer’s Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg has got those same businesswomen hot under their collars – but for somewhat different reasons!

Sandberg’s book brought back to the fore – if it’d ever really gone away – the debate about how women can make their way in a male-dominated business world. And just as Fifty Shades led to more so-called ‘mummy porn’, and debates about (shock horror) female sexuality, so Sandberg’s book has re-opened debates about men and women, and masculine vs. feminine traits, in the workplace – here’s just one of these from the Forbes blog.

I like Vaughan’s challenge to Sandberg. But the comment that particularly struck home with me comes from Alexander Lester in response to Vaughan’s article. He asks, “How about we focus on what works rather than gender?” To this I say, “Hear, hear!”

Surely, in 2013, it’s time to leave behind the endless – and somewhat pointless – debate around whether masculine traits are better than feminine traits, or vice versa. And the associated conversation that so naturally follows this, do women or men make better leaders?

It is time to move away from ‘Either/Or’ and move towards ‘Both/And’. 

We need leaders who are directive and supportive; we need leaders who command and engage; we need leaders who take risks and step back to reconsider; we need leaders who have lots of self-belief and humility…

And it’s time to get away from suggesting that men are the ‘baddies’, and women the ‘goodies’. Because men are not directive, commanding risk-takers who are overloaded with self-belief. Nor are women supportive, engaging, humble leaders who take time to think things thorough and so make better decisions. Some men are the former, some are the latter. Some women are the former, some are the latter.

Working in the field of leadership communication, I spend a great deal of time working with both men and women, exploring how they can become better leaders by more effectively harnessing the power of communication. In exploring this, I find that men experience self-doubt and low confidence, as do women.

It’s just that society’s norms mean it’s not okay for men to admit to this. They’re often embarrassed to share it, even in the privacy of a one-to-one coaching conversation. And women are just as likely as men to find themselves having to develop new, more inclusive ways of resolving conflict instead of simply digging their (high) heels in.

I know that many readers of this blog will be saying, “But men are more likely to be directive risk-takers and women are more likely to be engaging, thoughtful individuals.”

But this is not necessarily true. So much of what we believe to be defined by sex (not of the Fifty Shades variety, simply whether we are a man or a woman) is not biologically defined, but rather is set by society’s expectations, so it’s difficult to say what is ‘typical’ of a man or a woman.

Rather, we can say what is ‘typical’ of what society expects of a man or a woman.

The problem is, this brings us back to the nature vs. nurture debate – and that’s one that will run and run…

So, back to Alexander Lester’s comment – let’s not get so hung up on men vs. women, masculine vs. feminine, or leaning in vs. leaning back. Instead, let’s focus on what works – that’s far more likely to lead to fruitful conversations.


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