Women Leaders Have Shone During The Pandemic: Men, Take Note 8 Sep 2021
The pandemic has demonstrated the prowess of women when the chips are down. Studies suggest female political leaders have coped with the pandemic differently, and often better than men.
An analysis of 122 speeches showed men used war analogies and fear-based tactics more often. In contrast, Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand, Angela Merkel in Germany, and other female leaders in Finland, Iceland, Denmark, Norway, and Taiwan focused on families, children, and vulnerable groups with messages of compassion and social cohesion. A US analysis even indicated States with female governors had fewer Covid-related deaths than those with male governors.
Women also distinguished themselves in business. Research shows they are perceived to have done a better job than their male counterparts. They rated higher in competencies valued in a crisis, including taking initiative, acting with resilience, practicing self-development, and displaying integrity. As in politics, symbolic milestones have been passed. For the first time, all S&P 500 firms have at least one female board member.
What happens next?
It would be ironic to make an argument for gender equality on one hand, while employing gender stereotypes on another. Yet Pew research shows women leaders are perceived as being more compassionate, empathetic, and able to work out compromises. In my experience as a organizational change advisor, these are just the kind of human-centered behaviors required to rethink a post-pandemic workplace.
However, to redesign a culture will take more than greater equality. It requires a more caring style from both sexes. This isn’t just a social responsibility. It’s good for business. Research proves when managers move from a “take charge” to a “take care” approach, they improve psychological safety and trust, which encourages risk-taking and innovation. In the disrupted 2020s, successful leaders of any gender will benefit if they become less directive and more relational.
Efforts to create greater diversity in the boardroom will foster different styles of leadership. This is one of the reasons why enlightened companies are framing Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) as far more than an “HR issue.”
Instead, they are building it into their corporate purpose, vision, and values. During the pandemic, high-profile global organizations such as McDonald’s, Microsoft and Boeing have made pledges to improve hiring practices and introduce D&I training. The hiring of D&I professionals has also spiked. Harvard Business Review reports more than 60 U.S. companies have appointed their first-ever chief diversity officer (CDO).
However, to transform a global business, men must also evolve their style. To help, HR departments should rewrite their list of desired leadership competencies. This means re-thinking traditional models that reward take-charge skills such as “command presence,” “drives for results,” and “takes control”. Pruning these back will make more room for relational abilities such as “earns respect,” “inspires high performance” and “works collaboratively to get the job done”.
Organizations can then use these revised competencies to send a strong message: “How you get promoted around here has changed”. Research shows an aggressive, transactional approach creates lower engagement, higher turnover, and encourages ambitious subordinates to emulate toxic behavior. Businesses should only elevate leaders who can develop and retain people, create inclusive teams and bolster engagement. This will quickly make it apparent that any leader – male or female – who leaves a trail of burned relationships will not succeed in the new culture.
For most of industrial history, the default has been a man in charge. In the 1970s, researchers labeled this tendency: “think manager, think men”. Over many decades, this assumption squeezed ambitious women between a rock and hard place. If they aligned with societal norms of “femininity”, and behaved in a more cooperative, nurturing way, they got overlooked for promotion. If they attempted to emulate a more aggressive, stereotypical “male” style, they’d be labeled as harsh, strident and other uncomplimentary labels we all know, but I won’t use here.
Times were changing anyway. The pandemic has simply pushed the accelerator pedal. Perceptions of effective leadership have shifted noticeably in the past 18 months. Hopefully, the result will be revised behaviors from all successful leaders that will co-create a new era.
Right now though, too many companies, through outdated success criteria, are still inadvertently encouraging women to behave more like men if they want to lead or succeed. In the 2020s, this should be reversed.