by Patricia Wallington

Patricia Wallington on Distinct Challenges for Women Leaders

Apr 01, 20016 mins
IT Leadership

Is there really such a phenomenon as a female leader? Or are there only leaders who happen to be females? I have to admit I approach this topic with some trepidation. Stereotyping is not one of my favorite pastimes. That said, however, my experience tells me that there are some typically challenging aspects of leadership for women, as well as for their colleagues, their followers and their bosses.

For Women Leaders

Let me start with the former. For women who are or aspire to be leaders, I’ve found the following ideas can provide some helpful guidance.

On being yourself. It is very important to know yourself. Do not let others define you. There were times in my career when others told me what I “should” do or be as a “woman manager.” Most often this conflicted with my natural inclinations. What we should be is ourselves. No one can be better at being you than you can. Cherish your uniqueness! Be brutally honest in assessing your strengths and weaknesses. It was only when I reached this conclusion that I developed the confidence to really succeed.

On speaking out. Though not rare, it is still uncommon to find women in senior positions of leadership. So when a woman does achieve that status, the spotlight is brightly focused on her every action, good or bad, and her every success or failure. Learning to deal with this level of visibility takes some practice. Don’t use it as an excuse to avoid the risks and the tough actions.

Being seen is not enough. You must also be heard. Unfortunately, business still pays homage to the male voice. Do not let that silence you! Take a deep breath and speak up, speak out, give voice to your ideas. No need to be strident, but it’s critical to be heard. So be persistent. It may be a failure of the listener, but the fact remains that not being heard equates to not being followed. And a leader without followers is not a leader.

On belonging. OK, so you don’t golf or play tennis. Is your career doomed? I don’t think so. In my career I tended to resist artificial fun–that is, recreation that was really work. Belong to the team, be respected for your contributions. Pursue the extracurricular activities that interest you and build your network around them. Participate in multiple groups as a way to broaden and balance your life. Making the job your whole life is neither healthy nor productive for you or the company.

On success and failure. It takes courage to succeed. Being lucky helps too. But success also requires the courage to fail. Men seem to take failure more in stride than women–we have no mercy for ourselves when things don’t go well. But learning from these failures is the best revenge.

Women tend to be more cautious, particularly with career decisions. Gamble on yourself. If you won’t, who will? Tackle the tough jobs. Set aggressive goals and plan on meeting them. Tout the successes and learn from the failures. If you haven’t known failure, you haven’t taken enough risk and you will limit your career trajectory accordingly. Above all, don’t develop a victim mind-set where everything is someone else’s fault. Take control of your destiny, make your own decisions, and accept the consequences.

On expectations. As a woman, expect to do more, be better and work harder than your peers. It may not be fair, but it is real. In the end, you will benefit from the hard work. Your skills will be sharp and your confidence high.

Every mistake you make will be magnified. The downside of visibility is the difficulty of gliding by the inevitable missteps. Acknowledge them, extract the lessons, and move on. The more you dwell on them the longer the spotlight glares.

Remember: You stand for every woman. Your successes prove women can; your failures mean they can’t. Time doesn’t seem to be weakening this expectation, so I hope your shoulders are broad enough to carry this extra load.

For ColleaguesNow, for those who are fortunate enough to work with or for a female leader I offer the following.

On listening. Our voices may be soft, but our heads are not. Please make the effort to hear what we are saying. How many times have you let a woman’s comments go unremarked only to respond with “great idea!” to a male who made the very same point? I know this is unintentional, but it makes our effort to be heard that much more difficult.

On respecting diversity. The competitive landscape is so intense today. A company with a workforce of all ages, genders and national origins gains a diversity of thought and perspective not possible with a homogeneous population. Create an environment that supports and nurtures the differences rather than demands compliance. Be open to others’ viewpoints. Allowing yourself to question your own perspectives is good business.

On inclusion. Include, don’t exclude. Enough said!

On fairness. Treat us like you do everyone else. Recognize us when we succeed, and punish us when we fail. Follow us when we are effective leaders just as you would a male. Appreciate the advantages of a colleague or boss who sees things differently and can add to your own breadth of thinking. Don’t hold against us that which neither of us can control. Just give us a fair chance to succeed.

Let me conclude on a lighter note. Over the years I have collected things people have said about me. Here I will share a few that have given me a laugh or a moment of inspiration. I’ll spare you the hurtful ones.

“I found her.” As though I were lost!

“She needs a new hairdo.” Is nothing sacred?

“She’s not a good woman manager, she’s a good manager who happens to be a woman.” Thank you.

“She thinks like a man.” Meant as a compliment!

Think how great the world will be when it is great praise to say, “He thinks like a woman.”