Developing Female Leadership
Women have proven to be dynamic and effective leaders and, in the corporate world, the influence of female leadership continues to evolve and grow. Female leadership is helping organizations to innovate, effect positive change, and welcome diversity in all its forms to not only improve general working conditions for everyone, but also the bottom line. Businesses are rightfully realizing the benefits of diverse and inclusive approaches to managing and developing leaders from within. Whether you are a woman looking to develop your leadership skills, or you are a manager—man or woman—with (a) direct female report(s), here are some key insights for developing female leaders.
A first step that you, or your organization can take, in developing diverse leaders and creating an inclusive environment is helping people recognize the potential for unconscious bias. Subtle behaviours and biases can contribute to certain kinds of work and perspectives being valued, or devalued, over others, and can lead to some people being marginalized and, subsequently, missing out on opportunities to contribute or advance. An important step in your own career development, and especially if you manage others, is to analyze your own personal self awareness. Taking inventory of our own potential biases and being intentional about challenging ourselves to seek out different perspectives will make us better leaders and will help us to better develop members on our team.
Fair and Actionable Feedback
When employees receive feedback on their work, it must be detailed and specific. Appraisal of work should use examples, it should be constructive, and it should be actionable. Whether you are giving or getting feedback, try to be aware of how it is being said. Annual evaluations are often subjective and, unfortunately, can contain gender bias. In her article “How Gender Bias Corrupts Performance Reviews and What to do About It,” Paola Cecchi-Dimeglio explains that women are more likely to receive critical subjective feedback (as opposed to either positive feedback or critical objective feedback). Instead, try to focus on real-time feedback from a range of observers. This will lead to more objective performance appraisals for all employees.
Define What Leadership Looks Like
What are the key leadership qualities at your organization? These qualities can be different across sectors and across lines of business, but all organizations should utilize frequent employee surveys to solicit and analyze manager performance. What traits do the top-performing managers possess? Ultimately, what emerges is a set of characteristics and behaviours that are valued in all employees. Without an agreed upon or acknowledged set of leadership traits and habits, people may revert to traditional, authoritarian stereotypes of what it means to be a ‘boss.’ Take time to discover the qualities of what being a great leader means within your organization. By working to define what great leadership looks like, career advancement and career progression will be based on the specific values of your business and organization and not some idealized or stereotypical notion of performance.
Mentoring is a proven strategy to help develop leaders (or your own leadership) within an organization. In particular, research shows that women are less likely than men to seek out mentors for themselves and, as Vivian Siegel writes, “generally, women don’t engage in self-advocacy nearly as much as they advocate for others. This means they are less outspoken about their ambitions in the organization.”
Organizations will do well to put structures in place that will allow for the expression of female ambition—and mentor relationships help with this. Mentoring provides space for women to explore and discuss their ambitions and learn how to express their goals in the context of the workplace. Mentoring helps develop confidence and the skills to overcome all sorts of challenges. If you are a manger, seek to facilitate these mentoring opportunities for members on your team. And, if you hope to develop your own leadership profile, look for an appropriate mentor within your organization and ask for support.
Provide, and Look for, Opportunities
Finally, leadership development, and specifically female leadership development, is an important part of a larger, fulsome business strategy. At all levels of an organization there should be clear indicators for when an employee is ready to move to a higher position. If you are a manager, encourage your organization to have identifiable milestones for leadership and progression.
For your own leadership development, look for challenging assignments or projects that will help you stretch your skills or that push you slightly out of your comfort zone. Tackling new projects and accepting new responsibilities will help female leaders develop new skills and abilities, broaden their understanding of the organization, and improve their confidence.