Being a Gender Sensitive Leader

One of the biggest challenges surrounding leadership is the fact that there is no single agreed-upon definition of what constitutes it. As the world expands and grows more complex, the definitions and qualities assigned to those who hold leadership positions constantly are in flux.

When asked what skills are most important for a leader to have, people often respond that more important than technical and organizational skills are interpersonal openness and the ability to build productive relationships. This makes sense because healthy organizations create connections between employees and customers by striving to achieve a common goal, and in these organizations, good leaders work with diverse groups of people to solve problems, build teams, communicate clearly, and build consensus.

In healthy organizations, diversity-conscious leadership--the process by which people influence others by recognizing, understanding and adjusting to diversity in all of its forms--means that a wide range of individuals are hired and promoted. It also means that those being promoted are expected to uphold and reinforce the values associated with diversity conscious leadership, and that they actively seek out a wide range of individuals who can contribute to meeting the company's goals. In these organizations, gender is seen as one facet of an individual's identity rather than being used to determine the entirety of it, and is taken into consideration as a means of ensuring that policies, procedures and opportunities are and remain balanced and fair.

In unhealthy organizations, descriptive and prescriptive gender bias often disrupt women's abilities to obtain and maintain leadership roles. The ways in which these organizations often fail to mentor and support women have a profound effect on their chances for success. However, a greater problem shows up in what has been termed the pipeline problem, the belief that there aren't enough women in positions of power because of a scarcity of available talent, and serves as a way for unhealthy organizations to justify their unwillingness to mentor and train women for leadership positions. It also serves as a way to mask the problem by claiming a lack of talent rather than recognizing the processes of normalized socialization that create barriers for women in the workplace. The bright side of this problem is that there are ways to address it and plenty of workable solutions for the problem when organizations are motivated to change a culture in which women are viewed as leaders in and of themselves rather than as exceptions to the masculine rule.

How can organizations go about making changes in their cultures?

Stop Assuming

Many sociological studies have shown that people prefer "cultural encapsulation," meaning working and associating with people who are like them. As a result, women automatically may be relegated to support staff jobs with limited advancement opportunities. This channeling of women into dead end positions means that women frequently get passed over for high-profile assignments, highly visible appointments to committees or boards, or jobs that require travel abroad out of a vague concern for work-life balance. One of the reasons is based on the assumption that having children or planning to have children means that women automatically will say no to career moves that require time away from their families. The assumption that men will say yes whereas women will say no, often leads managers to eliminate women from consideration for these types of positions before they've had a chance to weigh in on them.

The reality is that women often will make the same choices that men do if given the opportunity and the support needed to make the choice. However, women often shoulder the burden of family care in a way that makes it difficult to assume additional responsibilities at work without disrupting their families, and this leads to another gender-related issue connected to the work-life balance.

Providing Gender-Neutral Flex-Time Options

The intersection between work and family often is one of the biggest obstacles for women aiming to enter executive management positions. Not only do women do the majority of house and/or family care in families but they often also shoulder the blame for policies that make an attempt to level the playing field. One example of this is when employers offer "family friendly" programs, such as flexible scheduling, job sharing, sabbaticals, and on-site early education. Designed to provide parents with more flexible opportunities, these benefits also have come at a price for employees who are unmarried or childless as they are asked to absorb the increased workload and end up creating resentment and tension in the workplace.

Workplace experts have argued that solving this problem can be as simple as offering flexible scheduling for all employees and expanding family-friendly programs to cover parents and domestic partners. The rationale for creating a more flexible workplace for all employees means a more equitable distribution of work making sharing the burden less of an issue and opening up more options for women.

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Gender Sensitivity Training course?

Eliminating Evaluation Bias

Another problem that needs to be addressed is the implicit bias in evaluations. Employers often use evaluation tools that were developed decades ago and, as a result, used the male experience in the workplace as the basis for the creation of the evaluation process. These tools need to be updated to identify the company's specific goals for core competencies and leadership skills, and these evaluation metrics need to be disseminated in a way that thoroughly replaces the old standards. One of the best ways to begin the process is through instituting a system that provides fair, honest, and timely feedback, and addresses issues before they become a barrier to the employee's career path. This includes adopting a system of checks and balances to eliminate both explicit and implicit bias through education and information as well as through trust-building exercises that allow managers and employees to get to the heart of gender bias and address it openly. There also needs to be a proactive move toward encouraging senior managers to identify, develop, and mentor high-performing women.

One way in which the problem can be addressed is through a recognition that in most cultures, masculinity and leadership are closely linked. Acknowledging that an ideal leader is able to be decisive, assertive, and independent is linked inextricably with the assumption that these are masculine characteristics. In contrast, women are expected to be acquiescing, unselfish care takers who are concerned with the group rather than the self. The incongruity between conventionally "feminine" qualities and the qualities viewed as necessary for leadership puts female leaders in a double bind when they are viewed as competent but less likable than their male counterparts. Behaviors that suggest self-confidence or assertiveness in men often appear arrogant or abrasive in women. When an organization's cultural expectations are based on this implicit bias, women can find themselves in a no-win situation.

Encouraging Mentoring Relationships

Gendered expectations also come into play when it comes to mentoring women in the workplace. As a result of being excluded from realms of power, women often are uncertain of how to present themselves and/or advocate for their own advancement. Female employees may be reluctant to announce their successes and advocate for their own advancement for fear of being perceived as overly aggressive or lacking team skills, or they may go on the offense in order to ensure that they get a spot at the table and end up alienating those who are in positions of power solely because their behavior isn't gender appropriate. Additionally, breaking into the well-established, heavily guarded "old boys network" can present challenges that leave women vulnerable on many levels.

What organizations need to focus on is establishing and institutionalizing mentor relationships that help women navigate the workplace in a way that doesn't assign gendered expectations to the company's aims and goals. Providing women who have potential for promotion with opportunities to interact with senior level executives, specifically other women, can ameliorate the challenges and help guide them in a way that strengthens their leadership abilities.

Promoting Purposeful Networking

In addition to connecting women with mentors, organizations need to address the traditionally gendered ways of developing professional networks. Social and professional networking are an important part of gaining a professional advantage, but because the process of networking has been built around male-centric activities, such as men's clubs, drinking, and golf, it leaves women on the outside looking in or worse, playing the role of "spoil sport" and creating resentment. The implicit bias that shapes professional networking activities also means these activities often take place at times when women are engaged in family-related activities or involve doing things that women have little interest in doing.

Organizations can begin to address these issues by scheduling purposeful networking activities that allow all employees the opportunity to engage and establish connections with an eye toward supporting the company's aims and goals. Purposeful networking also offers the opportunity for men to shift away from implicit gender bias as they interact with female colleagues with whom they are able to share information and develop professional connections.

Adopting a Zero-Tolerance Policy on Harassment of Any Kind

Many companies have developed policies and procedures for dealing with harassment, but just as often they fail to enforce the penalties for violating the rules. Taking a strong stance and driving out harassment and discrimination from within the organization not only will improve productivity and boost morale, but it also will demonstrate that all employees are valued members of the team and that the organization is serious about enforcing its policies.

These bottom up policies are a good starting place but some workplace advocates argue that in order to increase the number of women entering the executive pipeline, there needs to be a focus on exploring, understanding, and eliminating what researchers call the "second-generation gender bias." They are subtle, gender-based barriers that arise from cultural assumptions and organizational structures, practices and patterns of interaction that inadvertently benefit men while disadvantaging women.

Many organizational structures and work practices were designed to fit men's lives and situations at a time when women made up only a very small portion of the workforce. One example of this assumes that those who take career enhancing international posts have a "trailing spouse" who has no career and easily can move, a family situation much more common for men than for women. In a 2012 article in The Atlantic entitled "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," Anne Marie Slaughter, former director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department under President Obama, recounted her experience and the decision she made to leave the job after two years because it wasn't conducive to raising her teenage sons plus her two-year leave from Princeton also was up. In the article, she detailed the way in which many of the issues related to a government career are decidedly male-centric and how this contributes to the appallingly high attrition rate of women in public service.

Dr. Slaughter's article addresses the ways in which assumptions about what women should be doing also are at play in whether a woman moves forward in leadership positions. Those women who already have children often are placed in a no-win situation and viewed as either not committed to the job or as a bad mother for being committed to the job, suffering professional consequences as a result. And because organizations tend to ignore or undervalue behind-the-scenes work like building a team and avoiding a crisis that women more likely will do, while rewarding heroic work that most often is done by men, women also suffer the consequences of being a "good team player" or viewed unfavorably if they attempt to work independently.

It's important to note that these practices were not specifically designed to be discriminatory, but their cumulative effect puts women at a distinct disadvantage in the workplace and set up a cycle of exclusion in which men appear to be best suited to leadership roles because they perform the way in which men are expected to perform and are rewarded for it, while women tend to be ignored if they adhere to acceptable female behavior and punished if they step outside the boundaries and exhibit what is perceived as male behaviors. What ends up happening is that men are propelled to seek out and attain leadership positions, reinforcing the notion that they simply are better leaders.

The reality is that effective leaders aren't born with skills. Instead, they develop a sense of purpose by pursuing goals that align with their personal values and advance the collective good. By addressing the implicit gender bias in organizations and actively working to create more space for different types of leadership styles, organizations can open fields and solve the pipeline problem in ways that give women the opportunity to compete on a more level playing field.