Women leadership is a delicate balancing act

RESURGENCE

Women leadership is a delicate balancing act

An article that looks at the trends and highlights of women in leadership positions in India and across the globe, and examines the possible reasons for the feminine leadership styles to be far more effective than the masculine one. The author also explores the dilemma women face in straddling the two worlds of work and home.

As I started on this incredible journey of getting to know and understand and delve into the topic of women leadership, I leant about the vast body of literature and research that is existent and throws up fascinating insights. I would like to take the reader along on this incredible and fascinating sojourn. This is a topic that has existed since times immemorial, and today, with the spotlight turning once again with renewed interest and resurgence in this arena.

It is indeed heartening to note that today, we see a large number of women in engineering and business schools. This is a marked shift from the yesteryears; however, the number of women in the workforce according to Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) is merely a 6 per cent which is a dismal cry from what we would like to see. While it is true that the numbers are better as we look at finance and information technology, however, one cannot turn a blind eye to the larger talent pool. The next question that follows is what can we do to increase the talent pool? This is where educationists and policy makers echo and reiterate on the need to educate the girl child which is truly a more sustainable approach to leadership development.

 As I interviewed several women from all walks of life ranging from academicians to business leaders to creative artists, each one of them seemed to equivocally voice clarity in purpose and vision - a hallmark of effective leadership.

There is a plethora of research around feminine leadership style, masculine leadership style and a blend of the two - the androgynous leadership style. According to the O&D Leadership Journal 2003 study, women can build more inclusive, collaborative and transformational work environments and leadership styles. Women’s innate style lends itself to a more consensus driven organisation structure.

According to the Journal of International Business Studies (JIBS) 2009 issue which studied male and female leaders in 27 countries and across 6,165 leaders, found that leadership style is influenced by both the industry and the culture.

For example, the Telecom industry saw the emergence of a less participative and more masculine prototype for both genders, while in the finance and food industries, the feminine leadership advantage seems to prevail. So which style do we see most?

Women’s leadership style research is still inconclusive though among the successful women leaders interviewed, all seemed to reiterate a situational style of leadership along with a deep preference to leverage on their innate feminine strengths.

The next question is about a noticeable few women occupying the corner office.  Is this a global phenomenon? The answer is a resounding yes. According to the Academy of Management Study (AMS) in 2003, the following factors contributed to the lack of women in senior roles: (a) not having spent sufficient time in the leadership pipeline, (b) lack of general management experience, and (c) exclusion from informal networks.  As I conducted several focused group discussions covering 55 women in across pay grades, the same themes emerged across the target pool. A finding that came as a surprise to me was research on women’s career histories, which reveals that women are more present performance-focused and unable to cite their 5 and 10 year career goals.
A question I would like ask the reader: Is this finding a function of the dilemma faced in straddling the two worlds of work and home?

I would like to share the highlights from the Mckinsey Leadership Project which is relevant to build our own understanding of the drivers, enablers that sustain successful women leaders. This study has significant learning that can be applied to both organisations and to women at large. Mckinsey developed a centered-leadership model based on the five dimensions.

The first is to do with finding one’s strength and putting it to use in the service of others. Second is around managing one’s own energy and becoming aware of the lows and highs and where the energy comes from or gets drained. The third aspect is positive framing or adopting a more constructive view of the world and to develop resilience.

The last and unifying dimension is around building stronger relationships. A distinguishing feature of all the successful women leaders interviewed from all walks of life and across career phases demonstrated a strong belief in one’s own skills and abilities, a clear sense of purpose, combined with a compelling and defining vision that empowered them to excel and defined their career journeys.

As a practitioner, I would now like to understand the implications of these conversations and dialogues and possible ways to identify a focused development effort.

Case Western Reserve University has articulated their findings on “strategic leadership development practices for women and organisations” in a 2008 study.

This study proposes a combination of formal and informal development practices ranging from assessment, on the job training, networking, mentoring, coaching, career planning and developmental job assignments.

Coaching plays a significant role in the development of women. Women particularly face a distinct set of career decision factors that takes into account multiple life roles that play out during early, midlife and later stages of their careers. According to a study by Bilimoria & O’Neil, careers of women tend to fall within three age related phases: the idealistic achievement phase, pragmatic endurance phase and re-inventive contribution phase. At each of these phases, women do require differential coaching focus on issues of achievement and confidence, work life balance.

Each of these developmental experiences provides a platform to learn new skills and enhance existing skills.

Women need to be accountable for their own learning agenda, take control of their own careers and charter their own career trajectories. It is imperative that women feel good about their innate strengths and recognise their own capability for success.

(The writer is Senior Manager, Corporate Human Resource Development (CHRD) at Wipro Ltd.Email: tanusree.mazumder@wipro.com)

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