Thoughts on women in leadership – Part I

Women in Leadership. Women in STEM. Women on Boards. Women in politics. The push to encourage more women to consider these options is ever-present and intensifying, at least from where I sit. The questions don’t go away:

  • How do we attract more women to ____________________ (name your domain of choice)?
  • How do we mentor well-qualified women to _____________ (same as above)?
  • How do we identify qualified women to _________________ (once more with feeling)?

These questions aren’t new, and the lack of answers isn’t new either.

Recently I was asked to be a speaker at a conference on Women in Leadership, and in particular in the realm of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). For possibly the first time in my life I declined. I know, how could I?! Well, I’m past 70 and I’ve been adding my two cents worth for a long time. It strikes me that young people need to hear from women whose experiences are closer to their own age. Besides, I’m trying to be more successful at being retired, so I need to practice saying “no”. But – and you were waiting for that “but”, right – that doesn’t mean that I can’t share some thoughts on the subject in the blogosphere. So here I go.

There are always exceptions, but generally speaking:

  1. The world definitely needs more women in leadership roles. Having a diverse senior leadership team, with a truly effective, insightful, empowering leader of any gender, is bound to produce more successful results than a leadership team and leader all cut from the same cloth. No-one disagrees that answers are worth looking for.
  2. Contrary to what at least some women believe, (most) men are not out to make sure that no women are included or as few as they think they can get away with. By and large, they’re just not thinking about it one way or the other.
  3. Women need to be careful not to think of men as the enemy. It’s not we versus them. The occasional one, sure, but that can be true of the occasional woman as well. Just because you don’t get the response you were expecting, it doesn’t necessarily mean anything at all. Many men simply have different responses to things than women, or different ways of analyzing a situation. It’s not a deal breaker. We need to learn to embrace (figuratively) the “diversity” in male/female communication style.
  4. Women need to work on their self-confidence. Why is it that so many young men assume they can do things that they clearly can’t (like math), while so many young women assume they cannot do things they really can (like math)? Ladies, we are heavily involved in raising both these young men and these young women. What are we doing differently; what could we be doing differently? We can’t blame this on men. Certainly not on men alone.
  5. Mentors for women don’t need to be women. It’s important for young women to be able to see women in leadership roles, so that leadership is seen as an option for women as well as men. But a good mentor is a good mentor, man or women. Myself, I have been blessed with good mentors throughout my career, people who have encouraged me to take on responsibilities I never would have considered on my own, and they were all men.
  6. Women, for some reason, are far less likely than men to seek out a leadership role, at least outside a female-centric domain. It must have to do with the self-confidence thing. If we want more women to take on leadership roles, we have to identify women we think have what it takes and then encourage them, mentor them. (“We” means both men and women.)  Those women with the most potential often take a lot of encouraging; it’s worth the effort.
  7. Just as women are more likely than men to doubt their worth in taking on a leadership role, they are, sadly, often judged by a different standard than men. They may be considered “bossy” instead of “a born leader”, emotional instead of empathetic, and on it goes. By the same token, women who are not used to working in a mostly male domain (which was definitely my domain) are sometimes intimated or put off by some of the “jovial” behaviour of a group of guys. There are ways for us to smooth these cultural differences. Goodness, they must exist within most households!

There’s plenty of work to do.  But it only takes a few people who see special potential in a young woman to then take the time to help her gain the confidence and the skills to put that potential to use.* Those few people and their successful mentees will add up.  And there is nothing more rewarding than watching those you have mentored or encouraged spread their wings. That’s when you know that our future is in good hands.

*[Of course, this is equally true of seeing special potential in young men who do not have the natural confidence of many and who are equally in need of that time and encouragement.]

Image Credit: Tufts Dental School


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16 Responses to Thoughts on women in leadership – Part I

  1. Pingback: Thoughts on women in leadership – Part II | Robby Robin's Journey

  2. Pingback: Youth With a Message – The Atomic Unicorn

  3. Hi Jane, I loved your article. You have broken it down so well. Your point on the lack of confidence is so relevant and I see this within myself and younger women in my profession. I totally agree that we need to change this mindset and instil more confidence in women from a young age. There is absolutely no reason why any young woman should ever doubt her abilities.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Hi Atomic Unicorn. Thank you. I just realized that I hadn’t responded to your comment. It’s fascinating in that it’s been part of the fabric of society for so long (forever) that women (and girls) were raised to be deferential to men that it’s almost part of our DNA now. Definitely something to be overcome!

      • Hi Jane, I agree with you 100%. Each day I am working on empowering myself and others around me to realise that gender bias is unacceptable and that we have the power within us to do something about it. Thank you for your insights. I look forward to reading more and to being inspired!

  4. Stemium says:

    I agree with your points overall however it wasn’t until I finally made it into a leadership role that i became more aware of #7. In some ways progress has been made but in many industries this does not seem to always be the case.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Yes, you may have nailed the biggest challenge. It could possibly be called the “you just can’t win” conundrum. You may find yourself up against it if you act too much “like a woman” or too much “like a man”. For us older women, we can just not give a you-know-what about what others say or think, but that’s a mine field for younger women. I wish I had good answers. More recognition of this human foible would be a good start.

  5. jane tims says:

    Progress is being made … I remember when I was the only woman in an Engineering class at University, and I have been the only women at many meetings. But where I worked there are now about as many women as men and most women I know are speaking up and making their voices heard. I agree with your point that men are not the enemy. Men in my life have been universally supportive and helpful.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks, Jane. It sounds like we’ve had similar experiences. But it does concern me that so many women do not feel the same, and how many competent women second guess their abilities as they “climb the ladder” or choose not to.

  6. Eloi Duguay says:

    Yes Jane, I agrée with you especially that men are not out to refrain any woman to be working side by side on boards, research groups and a senior level management. Remember when we were on the same board together I didn’t feel that women on that board were less listened to than men. Keep up your writing even if you decline some speaking arrangement, you are doing an excellent job!

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks, Eloi. Yes, that was one of my very favourite Boards. Everyone was respectful of each other’s opinions, everyone had lots to contribute, and it was more or less equal representation of men and women, and anglos and francophones. Actually, I’ve had my best experiences with public sector boards and cmttee, maybe because they work hard to ensure that kind of balance. Perhaps a good model for other sectors!

  7. Roy McCarthy says:

    Can’t disagree with any of that Jane. The old prejudices do still exist though and we still have a way to go. A male-dominated board of directors (for example) will assume that the female HR director is there to take minutes, or make the tea.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      It’s interesting, isn’t it, how things can change so much and yet not so much. I think many of the remaining changes have to come from raising girls to feel comfortable and confident as equals in all situations. I’ve experienced too many instances in which women either feel or act subordinate to men who hold similar positions. Often it’s just in their mind, but sometimes they’re made to feel that way. We’ve made lots of progress, but we’ve got a ways to go.

  8. Great article Jane and I especially like the 7 points. I think this could just as well have been titled People in Leadership?
    Personally I have worked most of my life believing people are equal unless they choose otherwise and I have observed many leaders and followers who choose those roles. Occasionally life can be difficult but generally there is always a choice and it never ceases to amaze me the choices we make.
    Thanks again for your thoughtful articles.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks, Wayne, and I agree with you completely, in principle. You’re right, that’s the way it should be. But the reality is that many extremely capable women simply do not see themselves in those roles. At. All. And we all lose as a result. As you say, what we should have are the most competent, compassionate, committed leaders possible, regardless of gender or any other differentiating “characteristic“. That’s not always the way it works.

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