Women in leadership: are there specific leadership traits for women?

Image of multiple oranges with a single blood orange among them, to demonstrate that every woman is unique.

“I can run faster than you.” “I’m stronger than you.” “I could beat you in an arm wrestle any day.” Faster, stronger – as a child, these were the standards I held myself too, as I lay down the gauntlet and challenged my male counterparts to deny that, just because I was a girl I couldn’t beat them in a competition.

Flash-forward to my first role in financial services, I am sat in front of my manager for an interview for a promotion. I wanted to assure him that I had what it takes to be great in the role – I am assertive, competitive, strong, driven . But, strangely enough, I found myself discussing whether I was planning on having kids anytime soon…

 Thank goodness – you couldn’t ask that question today, but I wonder how much has changed. I am not trying to prove my abilities in an arm wrestle or a running race, but still, I find I am trying to emulate the males I surround myself with. When I looked around me at those in senior leadership positions, I found myself thinking – what do I need to be like them?

This experience is not just my own

Women across the globe in a variety of different workplaces are united by a common theme – when aspiring to leadership roles, the standards they are held to are those shown by the males around them. Even the language we use to describe our women in leadership positions is gendered. A study by HBR found that words typically used to describe men were analytical, competent, confident, and dependable. Whereas women were described as compassionate, enthusiastic and…. (cue eye roll) organised.

And whilst yes, on paper there may be nothing wrong with being a compassionate leader, when it comes to hiring, or being promoted, who is more likely to be chosen – the organised one, or the competent one?

A quick google search confirms this. “Women in leadership training”- I type into my computer. “Lead with impact! Manage with confidence! Build your competence!” No matter the turn of phrase – the overriding message tells me loud and clear – to be a “woman in leadership”– I need to be more like a man.

Research from McKinsey shows that this may be the case for most women – especially when it comes to leadership. The women they interviewed through their “Remarkable Women Program” said that their organisation defined leadership clearly- and it was the traditional, stereotypically masculine style.

In fact, there have been many times I have heard (and been a part of) big organisations who ask the question, “How do we get more women into leadership positions?” Invariably, they run a programme or training event where the focus is inevitably on how to be assertive, better communicators, better negotiators, and more influential. Sure – all these skills are useful, but it assumes that, simply due to the fact we are women, these are the skills we are all lacking!

And whilst yes, on paper there may be nothing wrong with being a compassionate leader, when it comes to hiring or being promoted, who is more likely to be chosen- the organised one, or the competent one?

We need more than representation

With this in mind, it isn’t enough to just have a diverse leadership team. By setting the expectation that women should sculpt themselves to fit the role of leader, we increase statistical diversity, but simultaneously prevent the diversity of talent, ideas and skills that come with it. As a result organisations miss out.

To me, there seems to be little point in training women to be like men, because that doesn’t make for diverse organisations. In fact, they end up with the same leaders they have always had – except now it is a woman performing the role in fact HBR says that “if we train women to emulate the behaviour of men… we may end up increasing the representation of women, without increasing the quality of their leaders.” Creating diversity doesn’t just mean having token women in leadership – it means embracing the unique merits they bring with them.

Leaning in – not leaning away

I remember another “women in leadership” programme I was involved in for a major UK investment bank. “Come on ladies” the facilitator says. “You know what we’re like. We’re empathetic, we’re organised, we’re compassionate. Let’s lean into our feminine traits.”  I looked around me at the room of women. Were we all empathetic? Was it fair to group us all together under this one persona made up of so-called womanly characteristics? It’s easy to group trees into a forest while failing to recognise the oaks, ash, fir trees and beechwood that form it’s individual parts.

 Asking us to embrace our femininity had a familiar ring to it….once again I felt my individual strengths and weaknesses, the nuances which made up my personality, were being white washed over in favour of this model of a female leader. I felt like an outsider being involved in that program – I was none of the things that I was being told I should be. I’m very convincing. I’m assertive, I’m good at asking for what I want and I am great at networking – all very important leadership skills – but I am not great on the whole  at empathetic thinking, patience, and if I’m completely honest, I’m not a great listener – those more ‘feminine traits’ I was expected to have just because I am female!

Sometimes leaning in to one thing could feel like leaning away from another. Leaning in to  feminine traits felt like leaning away from the parts that made up my personality, my real strengths .

My view is quite simple. To encourage women into leadership positions – take who they are right now. Their strengths may be stereotypically male, or female, but really, it’s irrelevant. Everyone is different, everyone has their own  set of skills  to bring to their role – look at what they are good at. Help them lean into these strengths and make them stronger, better, and recognise limitations. Then use both of these to build a scaffold of support.  Everyone has unique elements within them that are going to make them the best leader they can be.  We need to embrace this – when we work with senior managers in our Towards leadership programme, we help them develop this understanding of who they are, their individuality, and their own personal strengths.

So, whether I can run faster, be stronger, or even win that arm wrestle – it actually doesn’t matter. When I stopped trying to mould myself based off my male counterparts, I realised that the skills that were an inherent part of what made me a great leader. They might not be found when you google “women in leadership”– because they were unique to me – and for me, that’s what being a woman in leadership means.

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