Redefining Female Leadership

The stereotype of a leader in the workplace has moved on from a white man in a suit, barking orders at his underlings through a plume of smoke. But what has this image been replaced with? The word ‘leader’ is still likely to conjure up images of a figure with power and authority - albeit without the whisky cabinet. If a female leader comes to mind, chances are that you are picturing a woman in a position of power, such as a female founder, CEO or head of a team.

I find this problematic. Yes, female representation in senior roles is important. And yes, the fact that we have an increasing number of examples to draw upon does, of course, demonstrate some progress towards gender equality. Restricting our understanding of female leadership to women in positions of power, however, is limiting. In doing so we encourage ourselves to judge gender equality in the workplace by the proportion of senior women to men, instead of by the extent to which we have tackled the patriarchal structures that underpin gender inequality and allow it to persist.

Last month we learned that nearly 40% of FTSE 100 board positions are now held by women (up from 12.5% 10 years ago). (1) This is brilliant, don’t get me wrong, but this metric has come to dominate our conversations about workplace gender equality year-on-year. Why are we focusing our attention on the 414 women on FTSE 100 boards, (2) rather than the ~15.49 million women in the UK workforce? (3)

Partly because the former is easier to track and measure, and does genuinely indicate changing perceptions towards women. And partly, I think, because we are holding onto a traditional view of leadership that centralises hierarchy and authority. Our ingrained belief is that to have influence and power, to be a ‘leader’, you need to be at the top of the tree. Until we democratise our definition of female leadership, so that it is attainable by all women in the workforce, we do not stand a chance of reaching meaningful, cultural gender equality in the workplace. 

I co-founded Beyond Her in an attempt to tackle this problem and to propose a new definition of female leadership. Beyond Her is a community of women learning to be confident, resilient and compassionate leaders, regardless of their level of seniority. Our ambition is to empower women early on in their careers, so that they are armed with the leadership tools needed to make change happen now, for themselves but also for society.

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Photo from a Beyond Her event last year.

Female leadership should look like having the confidence to share an opinion, to negotiate a promotion or to change company policy on inclusive hiring practices, environmental impact or pensions. The ability to do this should not be dictated by level of experience. By promoting a view of female leadership that is removed from notions of hierarchy and control, we naturally move away from a singular focus on gender parity in senior roles. Instead, our remit broadens to encompass the voices of all women in the workplace.

For change to happen, however, a grassroots female confidence revolution needs to take place in conjunction with an organisational culture revolution. It is all very well empowering women to speak up, but if a biased perception of female leadership still exists within an organisation, then their voices won’t be heard - or worse, they will be disadvantaged for having spoken up. As Matthew Syed explains in Rebel Ideas, ‘employees who frequently offered new ideas and concerns were significantly less likely to receive pay rises or promotions. The penalties were even higher for women, where speaking up can violate gender stereotypes.’ (4)

And yet, as Syed argues throughout his book, organisations that welcome constructive dissent benefit hugely from the greater diversity of thought that it brings. Psychological safety is paramount for constructive dissent to thrive, so that employees can freely express contrasting opinions without fear of repercussions. Some organisations have attempted to increase psychological safety by embracing flat or decentralised structures, moving away from hierarchies in the hope of encouraging greater autonomy amongst employees. The removal of explicit hierarchies, however, can sometimes result in the emergence of unspoken ones; gender stereotypes can still prevail.

Because there is not a one-size-fits all approach to organisational structure that will guarantee an increase in constructive dissent, it can be more effective to think about decision-making processes instead. How decisions are made in a business can often mirror the hierarchies and power dynamics at play. Rather than defaulting to the boss’s decision, making decisions by consensus (everyone agrees) or by consent (no one objects, even if they don’t fully agree) can help ensure that everyone’s opinion matters. (5) By normalising hearing from all those in a meeting or on a team, the stereotype of a supreme leader ruling with an iron fist starts to melt away. 

Embedding these practices is good for everyone in an organisation. Making space for constructive dissent allows collective intelligence to flourish, which, in turn, leads to more innovation and fewer mishaps. As we have explored, an additional bonus is that these conditions also help nurture a gender equal workplace. By intentionally rejecting patriarchal modes of leadership, organisations enable displays of female leadership from all women in the organisation. 

The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is #BreakTheBias. Let’s confront the bias that allows us to believe that female leadership is exclusively held by women in positions of power, and instead create the environments and opportunities for all women to be leaders.

Rachel is an On Purpose Associate and part of the October 2021 cohort of the Associate Programme. She is the Co-Founder of 'Beyond Her', a community of women learning to be confident, resilient and compassionate leaders.

1.  ‘Sea-change in UK boardrooms as women make up nearly 40% of FTSE 100 top table roles’, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, 22nd February 2022.
2. 'Almost 40% of UK FTSE 100 board roles now held by women’, BBC, 22nd February 2022.
3. ‘Women and the Economy’, House of Commons Library, 2nd March 2021.
4. Rebel Ideas, Matthew Syed, 2019.
5. On Purpose training session on Consensus-based Decision Making, led by Charli Fritzner.