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Women in Leadership

Women and men face different issues in leadership.  This section attempts to help understand these issues just a little better.

Introduction

To paraphrase something we have all heard young boys say "You lead like a girl".  As I have studied leadership styles and the differences between men and women it has become clear to me that there are many positive differences.

In the early years of my career, through several companies, I never gave much thought to women and leadership.  One of my first experiences with great leadership was at a small paint manufacturer.  It was founded by a great leader and had many excellent leaders, including a few women.  I knew the company was different but at the time I only began to understand why.  While working at that company I had the opportunity to return to college in a program for working adults.  Today that is not so unique but this was a program at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Virginia, one of the best women's colleges in the nation.  The Adult Degree Program was open to men since it was generally an off campus program.  The Mary Baldwin is a liberal arts college and everybody had to take many of the courses that were taught to women on campus.  Several of those provided me with a perspective from a woman's point of view and was an eye opening experience.  This was just the beginning of my understanding about leadership.

According to Dr. Brenda Bryant (Director, Virginia Women's Institute for Leadership at Mary Baldwin College) physiology provides some obvious differences in leadership style choices between men and women but socialization is a different matter.  Boys are treated differently at home and trained through sports and other activities to be clearly goal and task oriented in hierarchical  organizations.  Girls learn from games like house, dolls, and nurse to be more process oriented and focus on interpersonal relationships.  This results in leaders that are focused on groups and cooperation and promote democratic decision making and building relationships.

Challenges

Women can have serious challenges in a male dominated business world.  I can, in a very small way, relate to the issues women face.  In cultures that are highly organized, formal, task oriented, and hierarchal it becomes difficult to lead with softer skills.  Those that nurture trust, work to create cooperative relationship, and don't openly demand compliance to arbitrary rules are viewed as weak managers by some.  As a manager maybe they do have some weaknesses (see Essay on Management versus Leadership) but as leaders they, at least in my opinion, are doing the right things.  That is not to say they should never be tough and enforce rules but leading from the heart becomes much harder in this type of organization.  Those that interface directly with these leaders feel the very positive effects of this style and are generally very productive and loyal but the leader may pay a price, laterally, with others in this harder style culture in the way they are treated by other managers.

My experience tells me women who see men lead with these softer skills, even if not directly in the span of management control, easily recognize and support this style and the leader.  Men, unless they too understand this softer style, are either neutral or negative toward other men who lead with these softer skills.

I believe the greatest leaders tend to exhibit a style based on the natural style used by many women.  Focusing on groups, consensus and relationship building, as well as being process oriented get the best results with a team.  The challenge is to get more males to follow this model and transform corporate cultures so this will be an acceptable style.

Mark Strickland

 

 

 

 

 

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Material Copyright 2003 by Mark L. Strickland