The words men, power and leader go hand-in-hand. It is the way the world has generally been. Despite 100 years of emancipation, not much has changed. Female political leaders are still a rarity, and many who do succeed appear to have to be as macho as a man.
It is even more marked in big business. Only one tenth of FTSE 100 executive directors are women and only one twentieth of CEOs are. An appalling statistic – there are more male CEOs called John than there are female CEOs. By mid-career, women’s aspiration and confidence erodes, while men’s doubles. Women are too often without support and encouragement – compared to men on their way up – and told (by men) that they are “not cut out for power and leadership”. And when women, as well as men, struggle for the same positions, they are seen as weak, passive and often unwelcome.
As leaders, men may have the power, but women are more powerful
In her lectures on women and power, Mary Beard proposes an elegant grammatical solution: Change power from a noun into a verb. Instead of a trait, or a possession, turn power into an act: Someone doesn’t “have” power; they “do” power. The advantage is to turn power into a baton that passes from hand to hand, a temporary action that comes and goes and doesn’t have to define you. The aim is to break our addiction to mystical qualities like “genius,” which we still associate almost entirely with men. The hope is that women can move past their ambivalence one act at a time; do a power on the senator in the elevator and call it what it is, revel in it. Try it. Go through your day and chronicle all your small acts of power.
Research also suggests that women are more likely to be driven by long-term outcomes, and good at leading to those ends. Men are more motivated by the thrill of the quick win. That is why banks’ trading floors are mainly male, whereas the managers of big investment funds are often female.
The same combination of hormones and social conditioning that drives males to like the short-term, also drives them to take more risks – excited by the sense of power that comes with taking big risks. Research suggests that women are more likely to understand disruption, embrace transformation, to innovate and think in new ways.
More boldness vs risk-taking
Leaders have teams around them. The most powerful thing a leader can do is ensure that their collective performance is stronger than any individual. Research shows that leadership teams with plenty of women – especially if led by women – are more likely to achieve this. Male teams and leaders are too focused on their own goals, needs and pressures – and so more likely to hang on to their personal power.
The same combination of hormones and social conditioning that drives males to like the short-term, also drives them to take more risks – excited by the sense of power that comes with taking big risks. Research suggests that women, by contrast, are more likely to understand disruption, embrace transformation, to innovate, to think in new ways – to be bolder.
Overall, women are more likely to live up to the best definition of the role of leadership: to create the conditions for everyone to succeed. In other words – to give up ‘control’ and ensure shared power for the greater good.