Women make great leaders. When equipped with the opportunity and self-belief to influence change and deliver results, their natural feminine leadership traits contribute to better decisions and stronger outcomes for all stakeholders. The growing acknowledgement of the value of gender diversity and inclusion has seen a shift in focus by policy makers and industry leaders alike.
This is good news for women. Yet while ‘outside-in’ change initiatives aimed at supporting the economic participation and advancement of women have an important role to play on their own they are not enough.
Women themselves must also be emboldened to see themselves as leaders; as deserving of power as men and every bit as capable of wielding it with competence, courage and character. Research has identified a global ‘gender confidence gap’ that transcends borders and cultures. Closing that gap is vital to challenging the entrenched gender norms which have shaped female choices, stifled female ambitions and limited the influence of women at all levels.
There are many ways to embolden women to pursue and succeed in more senior leadership roles. All require building self-efficacy; a belief in one’s ability to affect change regardless of circumstances. Below are seven ways women can step up to the leadership plate, fulfill their unique potential and making an ever greater contribution to their organizations, communities and society.
LEAD FROM WITHIN
Because all true leadership extends from the inside out, women must start to see themselves as leaders – change makers in their own right and in their own way. Women sell themselves short when they second guess their value and hold back from putting themselves forward because they don’t see in themselves what they see in other leaders. It’s why women must not wait to be given permission or to be asked before they find the courage to step up, speak up, challenge old thinking and dare to be the change they wish to see in the world.
DIAL UP AMBITION
Entrenched gender norms explain why ambition is often perceived more negatively in women than in men. Yet dialing down ambition and only aiming for what is acceptable or easily doable holds women back and does a disservice to everyone. As I wrote in Make Your Mark, (Wiley, 2017) we rarely aspire toward ambitions unless we are equipped with the internal resources to achieve them. While unleashing your ambition (imagination and passion) from the fear that tethers it can be daunting, it can permanently alter the female trajectory – individually and collectively – setting women on a bolder path toward far greater possibilities and opportunities would ever be otherwise possible.
“Whatever your career, you have to be willing to take risks, to speak up and to push back when you don’t agree with what others are thinking.” This was the advice Kathy Calvin, President of the United Nations Foundation shared for my book Stop Playing Safe (Wiley, 2013). Women excel at nurturing relationships but can be loath to say anything that might jeopardize them. However, when all we do is trying to fit in, ‘people-please’ and ‘keep the peace’, we shut off valuable opportunities to add value, earn respect, nurture trust, and build our leadership brand. If women want to be valued fully, they must be willing to stand their ground when people behave in ways that sideline or diminish, whether intentionally or not. Many women tolerate behavior that many men never would. Sometimes it’s because they fear the repercussions but tolerating a lack of respectful behavior only leads to more of it. Daring to speak up has its risks but so too does remaining silent.
Numerous times women who’ve made it to the top have shared with me how they had to work twice as hard as their male peers and be twice as good to get there. But working hard alone is not enough. Women also need to be visible. If decision makers aren’t aware of a woman’s capability and ambitions, they can miss out on opportunities that go to more assertive colleagues who are more comfortable with self-promotion.
So to women reading this: If there’s a role or project you’d like to get, let decision makers know. Doing so doesn’t guarantee you’ll get it, but depending on people to read your mind or notice you quietly working away out of sight almost certainly guarantees you won’t.
EMBRACE FEMININE LEADERSHIP STRENGTHS
Diversity is invaluable yet too often women buy into the belief that they have to act more like ‘the men’ to get ahead. Not true. Sure, violating gender behavioral norms can have a backlash but new research also shows that women who don’t let their gender define them – particularly in male dominated workplaces – and simply get on with leveraging their strengths and skills to ‘get the job done’ are more effective and, in turn, more respected.
TAKE CAREER RISKS
Women are naturally more cautious than men. The upside of women’s heightened risk aversion is that they are more considered when assessing risks and so tend to make fewer rash decisions. The downside: women often play it too safe, holding back from taking the very risks that would open doors of opportunity, build new skills, develop strengths, sharpen judgement, increase self-confidence and grow visibility for even bigger roles. Putting your hand up and ‘leaning in’ risks failure, criticism, rejection, and even job loss. That can be pretty scary. But not being willing to take a risk in the short-term puts women at risk of missing out on valuable growth and advancement opportunities in the long run.
A common thread that binds highly accomplished women the world over: their willingness to lay their reputation and comfort on the line for something more important. Or more simply –to act with courage.
SUPPORT THE SISTERHOOD
When men promote other men into roles it’s not necessarily because they’re intentionally discriminating against women. More often it’s because, as humans, we gravitate toward those who are most like us; people with whom we feel greatest affinity. Turning the tide for women will require more women supporting more women. Building the ‘sisterhood’ may not ameliorate the impact of the ‘old boys club’, but it will certainly open more doors of opportunity for other women. So whatever your gender, be proactive in supporting women in your network to advance toward their goals – whether with a personal referral to someone whom could help them advance, a few words of encouragement or strategic advice.
Women are not better than men. They are different. Addressing the biggest problems faced around the world will require drawing on the full diversity of our collective strengths, experiences and perspectives. Creating environments in which women can bring the full measure of their innate strengths to the table is not only good for women, it’s good for everyone
Margie Warrell is an international speaker, leadership facilitator,bestselling author & women’s leadership advocate. Learn more at www.MargieWarrell.com