Why You Should Always Aim to Leverage Your Female Skills at Work
Increasingly, we’re living in the era of female leadership, with the potential spectre of the first female president in the U.S., while in the U.K., there is a new female Prime Minister, plus a female First Minister in Scotland – and then looking towards Europe, we witness women like Angela Merkel, Dalia Grybauskaitė, and Christine Lagarde in powerful leadership positions. Little wonder, then, that in our proprietary research (the J. Walter Thompson Women’s Index), some 76 percent of women said it’s never been a better time to be a woman. Yet, while in public office women’s representation is making some headway, why does it still feel that it’s so tough for us in the boardroom, and why do so few of us make it there? In the U.S., for example, women still hold only 15% of board seats on the Standard & Poor 1500.
One startling discovery from our research was that while 56%of women say that they are more ambitious than their spouse, four out of ten say that they are their own worst enemy in being a barrier to fulfilling their full potential. So what exactly is going on?
Firstly there is the “fiction” of female management, from the idea that women excel at all the soft, “feminine” nurturing skills of management but we’re not cut out for the tougher stuff, right through to the idea of the “baby brain” syndrome: i.e. that motherhood dulls career, and that the best, most productive years of a woman’s career are before the baby buggy arrives.
In fact, the latter could explain why women who typically earn more than their male counterparts in their 20s earn less than their male peers in their 30s, with a tipping-point around age 35, which coincidentally is the average age of a woman having her first child in the U.K. according to the ONS. Go figure.
But it appears that much of what holds women back is purely perceptual, and the facts tell a very different story. Let’s take the example of female management skills; as you might expect, women managers excel at the softer, more typically “female” attributes, but what is more surprising, according to research by Zenger Folkman of over 7000 leaders, is that women excel at the typically masculine management skills such as disruption, drive for results and taking the initiative. This is based on competency assessment data of actual performance, so it involves fact, not perception.
However, Pew Research did look at perceptual data, which revealed that despite the facts of women taking the initiative, we perceive that it’s men who are risk-takers in management. But is this any surprise, given the way in which our perceptions are shaped by popular culture? For example, portrayals of female leadership in film are few, and often portray us in an unflattering light: think of The Devil Wears Prada and Working Girl, both of which have the trope of the “bitch boss,” but the facts clearly prove we are better than this! If you go back to the Zenger Folkman study, it’s women who excel in terms of inspiring and motivating others.
The mythology of motherhood equally can shape perceptions of competence, and it’s only recently that it’s taken scientific research to bust the myth of the baby brain. One can only imagine the surprise of many to find that motherhood, far from dimming the grey cells, improves mental cognition, and in fact from our own research 75 percent of women around the world said that they work harder and faster as a parent, and 79% said that having children, far from making them slow down, had made them work in a more productive and focused way.
So if one message leaps out at you here, it should be that truth is stranger or perhaps stronger than fiction! If women are their own worst enemies at achieving their goals, then perhaps that’s because we’re being held back by entrenched beliefs that suggest we’re not good enough. But that belief can be turned on its head: you don’t need to prove yourself to be “as good as a man” or even “good enough”: just go out there and be “as good as a woman.”9