How to get women into leadership positions? Not how you think.

Taru Mäkinen

9 December 2021

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Speak up. Be more assertive. Be confident. These are phrases women hear all too often when it comes to building success in the workplace. Don’t get me wrong, all of these could be useful advice depending on the situation. But why is it that they are most often aimed exclusively at women?

An article from Business Chief last year takes this even further. In a piece about challenges women face in leadership positions and the power of physical intelligence, the writers give women advice such as: ‘perfect your posture’, ‘strengthen your voice’, ‘manage tension’. No, no, and once again for the people at the back: no. 

All of these sound like reasonable tips, right? So why the very firm ‘no’? The issue here is not the seemingly trivial advice but the fact that, time and time again, the responsibility for closing the success gap between genders is given to women. 

Before we dive in, there are two myths to debunk here: 

  1. That women have a certain leadership style and personality 
  2. Only one type of leadership style (stereotypically ‘masculine’) can be successful

When looking at the key challenges women in leadership face, the most common that come up are: confidence, trusting their own voice, impostor syndrome, building alliances.

What these so-called ‘challenges’ miss entirely are the patriarchal structures restricting and stereotyping women, shifting the blame for society’s shortcomings to women themselves.

It’s not women’s or non-binary people’s responsibility to be treated as equals to men, it’s the responsibility of leaders, decision makers and businesses to treat them as such.

As content creators, we have the power to make a change here. Going beyond representation, we need to break down these assumptions and the nuances that maintain them. In this day and age, it’s astonishing that so much of advertising is still gendered. What is repeated time and time again is the semantic and semiotic positioning; women’s ads being pastel, happy, calm; and men’s ads being hard, efficient, with dark colours.

We don’t need to look any further than our everyday items. Gillette is a prime example of a product, with virtually exactly the same function, being portrayed differently when advertised to men and to women. Men’s razors have product names containing, ‘turbo’, ‘power’ and ‘king’ whereas women’s razors are sold with words like: ‘comfort’, ‘spa’ and ‘breeze’.

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While on the topic of grooming, cosmetic brands for men have adopted names like Bulldog or Mancave, presumably driven by the concept of ‘fragile masculinity’. It’s based on the assumption that said masculinity could ‘feel threatened’ if engaging in practices, such as grooming, that are traditionally perceived as more female. This type of gendered messaging is problematic in more ways than one, as it also sets certain expectations and characteristics that society expects men to live up to.

With us being bombarded with this rhetoric, is it really wonder then that stereotyping of genders in leadership is still so prominent? 

In 2019, harmful stereotypes in advertising were banned in the UK. This is great progress, but the problem lies deeper than legislation. In the advertising industry, senior creative positions are most often held by men. In fact in the UK, only 11% of Creative Directors are women. This leads to two undesirable outcomes:

  1. The real insight into gendered nuances may not be understood and eliminated if there is only one (the privileged) gender represented in the creative process.
  2. This creates a self-fulfilling prophecy of gender representation in advertising not changing, societal norms staying stagnant and that in turn hindering the access of women into those senior creative positions where they are so desperately needed to break the cycle. It’s the perfect storm. 

Just by scrolling through the sea of advertising on the internet and social media, it’s no wonder then that women as leaders are perceived to be less assertive or more insecure. 

As Cunningham and Roberts, authors of ‘Brandsplaining: Why Marketing is (Still) Sexist And How To Fix It’ put it: “the majority of brands still speak to women from a male perspective, explaining to them what they are and telling them what they can be.”  

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This is exactly the narrative when discussing the ‘challenges women face in leadership’. Telling women what they are (soft, empathetic), what they should be and do (‘be confident’, ‘speak up’), and what they can become (‘similar enough to men’).

Even in a society where we have seemingly achieved a more equal working culture for all genders than what it has historically been, we are still miles away from breaking down the attitudes that linger about what leadership should, or can, look like. 

By default what is often considered leadership behaviour is associated with ‘masculine traits’ (a concept that itself should be subject to debunking): aggressive, tough, authoritative, assertive. Here we run into the backlash effect where non-gender stereotypical behaviour is perceived negatively, namely for women in this case being perceived as bossy, difficult, or ‘hard work’.  

“Oh, but women leaders are better listeners and more empathetic!” Despite this comment being well-intended, it does a disservice to the very women it’s trying to complement. This type of discourse is built around the premise of two false assumptions:

  1. All men differ from all women (as leaders) 
  2. All women are exactly the same (as leaders)

What needs to change is the assumption that men somehow possess an inbuilt capability for leadership that women and non-binary people need to try and match. This also implies that women are not like typical leaders but ‘they are still actually okay’. Leadership and success come in all shapes and sizes, what stays consistent is being worthy of the trust of one’s team and peers. 

When it comes to improving the situation, it’s essential that women are listened to. Just like in any conversations about equality, true change can only happen when those who hold privilege truly understand where said privilege comes from and what effect it has. So instead of telling women to speak up, why don’t we tell men to listen up.

Oh, and what would be accurate advice for increasing women’s presence in leadership positions?

It’s simple. Hire women into leadership positions.