Empowering Leadership: When Women Win  - Lessons Learned And Advice From Female Leaders
Photo by Beatrice Barbazzeni

Empowering Leadership: When Women Win - Lessons Learned And Advice From Female Leaders

For centuries cultural biases and stereotypes against women strongly supported a different version.

Beatrice Barbazzeni

“Women hold up more than half the sky and represent much of the world’s unrealized potential.” (Ki Moon, 2011)

“She’s a woman, you know what I mean”. The rock band Wolfmothers was singing it right!

Did I leave you on your toes?

In the previous article of this series on leadership 4.0 and digital transformation we discussed how gender differences may affect women in leadership due to stereotypes, biases, and misconceptions about their capabilities, “feminine” roles, and duties. However, based on robust research evidence, I was able to demonstrate a lack of difference among women and males in leadership styles and performance, and that more educational programs would be needed to empower and further develop leadership skills in women to reinforce self-confidence and self-awareness, encouraging them to speak up the “truth”.

In today’s article, I will prove that women are more suitable for higher leadership positions, especially when dealing with 21st-century challenges, Industry 4.0, and digital transformation requirements. Moreover, lessons and advice from experienced women will follow with a few tips to support and inform young women entering the world of any workplace. Furthermore, xFAB Women Program, digitally designed to prepare and educate women that aim to achieve senior management and executive positions. Lastly, a preview of what will be encountered in the last article of this series on leadership 4.0 and digital transformation, will be presented: my top tips to win in life!

Leadership skills: who scores higher?

Women in leadership positions are perceived just as — if not more — competent as their male counterparts.

However, for centuries cultural biases and stereotypes against women strongly supported a different version. Indeed, the tendency was to believe that women do not aspire to high ranks of the organizations, but this bias had a tremendous effect in decreasing promotion decisions and hiring for leading roles affecting the number of women in key positions.

Nevertheless, a recent study [11] demonstrated that women are perceived by their managers to be more effective than men at every hierarchical and functional level inside an organization. Indeed, women were rated as excellent in taking initiatives, more resilient, goal-oriented and driving for results, more honest and competent, high integrity, and willing to practice self-development. Despite this evidence, women tend to underestimate themselves. In particular, young women under 25 show lower confidence in comparison to their male peers (that are overconfident and assuming even more competent than they are!), although at the age of 40 confidence rates increase and at the age of 60 women levels are way higher than men, which tend to decrease their confidence. These trends clearly show that young women lack strong confidence only at the beginning of their career and are less likely to apply for jobs if feeling, not enough qualified, although this fact would push them to take more initiative, to develop more resilience, and more receptive to feedback transforming them leaders in a long-term perspective. Indeed, this young attitude of showing a lower confidence declines later on increases even more than men in later life stages. The same outcome and trend can be said regarding leadership effectiveness among genders and different age periods.

Let’s suppose you are deciding about who to promote having to choose between highly qualified women and men, who would you promote? Most people would say that promoting a man is much safe, although this is just an unconscious bias that women can’t achieve senior-level positions. To avoid this bias, organizations should step back, pause, and reflect a bit more giving more consideration to women as well. There is a need for organizations to give more encouragement to women, where leaders should support and believe in their competence, encouraging the growth of their careers.

Lessons learned and advice from female leaders

Learning and reading about women’s experiences in leadership is a valuable approach to educate, encourage and support young women building and entering their careers as leaders.

In this regard, in the early 1990s, Eileen Elias was the first female Commissioner for Mental Health in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the US, developing her leadership roles both in government and non-governmental organizations while experiencing and coping with gender-based challenges to demonstrate her valuable skills and performances.

Based on extensive literature research from 2012 to 2017 and interviews, she was aimed to document lessons learned from women leaders in non-Fortune 500 companies among academia, research, non- and for-profit, and education [24].

Women - get to know your environment

Empathic, good listeners, collaborative, supporters, and team workers; women add tremendous qualities to a workplace while building solid relationships. At the same time, these skills match perfectly with assertiveness, risk-taking, and confidence that typically represent men’s attitudes. Indeed, based on a 2014 Gallup study investigating 800 business units, a demographic diverse workplace would bring positive impact in an organization, increasing financial performance and results toward success [25]. Similarly, a 2016 Catalyst research study examining 500 Fortune companies, mainly led by women, did show greater financial outcomes by the return of equity, sales, and invested capital measures [26]. However, a similar pattern can be observed in those organizations associated with the government, academia, medicine, research, education, businesses of different sizes, for-profit/nonprofit industry.

Learning to mitigate and interact with an environment mainly represented by men, understanding and adapting to their culture and values is necessary when facing gender-based co-worker male behaviors. Moreover, to avoid or cope with gender-based biases, women have to evaluate the workplace from the service, political and fiscal (SPF) areas while looking for supportive, gender-mixed, leadership teams.

Tip: Consider adopting men’s skills and strategies approaching attitudes; a great example is using humor when “criticizing”, networking, presenting in conferences, and leading top positions.

Invest in building trusted networks

Looking for advice, feedback, and collaborations is highly worth in any business type and naturally linked to network building, especially when occupying senior leading positions. Particularly, building strong relationships based on trust and mutual support is the key to industry success, although women tend to invest less time on it than their male peers.

Building networks among women belonging to high leading positions result in pretty much demanding due to a “soft” competition that arises between women, especially in the American culture. Indeed, women tend towards being critical instead of being supportive while thinking to be helpful. Becoming aware of this “negative” behavior would benefit the way they build relationships and consequently, worth and solid networks. Moreover, while avoiding asking even small favors women network less, although having a trusted network can bring unbeatable benefits such as problem-solving, support, and collaborations. Lastly, even when women are aimed to network, they may miss opportunities because of not recognizing immediate value based on circumstances.

Tip: Invest more time in joining and enjoying online networks (e.g., social media), as well as, in-person networks (gender-mixed) to grow worthwhile connections.

Find a mentor, become a mentor

A valuable way to learn, enhance skills, and level up a career is mentorship, although finding a trusted and reliable mentor in the workplace is most of the time hard. Indeed, many supervisors are always “busy”, unavailable, and not often professionally reliable. Finding the right mentor is not so straightforward; it may be searched inside your organization although it must be that it is known to you. Women in leadership suggest looking for professionals that are more experienced than you and proving to them you are worth their time and help. Have a clear idea of what you would need to learn, consider their suggestions and follow up on them while getting feedback over your progression.

What matters is also how you feel the relationship with your mentor. You may perceive it already whether you could have good communication or not. Moreover, a good way of achieving success and progressing is to share with your community and colleagues what you have learned from the mentorship experience; a friendly and generous way of supporting people and their growth through empathy and understanding their situations (that it was also similar to yours). Lastly, a valuable approach to mentorship in women would be in seeking male mentors. Indeed, men are often more successful at work because they know this environment quite well and they know how to approach it (e.g., networking).

Tip: Find a mentor that most suits your skills and personality, but at the same time be a mentor of what you learned and experienced.  

Speak up your voice and unlock willingness

Industries and most of the workplaces are managed and hierarchically orchestrated by men. For this reason, women have to face a few challenges when dealing with “unwritten rules”; conscious and aware that hard work will not always be rewarded.

Throughout history, men play a big role in women’s career and professional development. They have even controlled the way women look and dress letting women feel judged and obligated to conform. Even today, dressing for an interview or dressing for going to work became tremendously influential for women’s opportunities.

Clearly saying what you want and what you need would result necessary for women to leverage their careers while gaining confidence and self-esteem in the workplace. Most of the time it happens that women struggle even asking for a salary raise or salary equality, although they are more than worth it. Do not be shy, although speaking up in meetings can be debatable. Indeed, when a woman speaks in a professional context, she might be either too soft or too aggressive. However, to be successful and persuasive, find your way to express yourself without caring about men/others’ opinions. Use the word “we” or “our team” instead of “I”. This would also give the impression you are more collaborative and team-oriented; much more appreciated in a male-work environment (differently from men that are not afraid of appearing “cocky”).

Use a strategic approach (e.g., eye contact) to catch the attention and to facilitate support toward your situation in work meetings. Practicing humor is a good choice.

Be aware that motherhood is still not appreciated for women that aim to reach high leadership positions. Accept the possibility that there might be implicit discriminations toward it, and try to cope with it.

Be aware that you will be constantly under examination to prove your skills, competencies, and work experiences. Self-awareness and self-confidence in your capacities will help you overcome mental stress and obstacles.

Tip: Learn to accept and be aware of “unwritten rules” in your workplace.  Keep an eye on these behaviors and facts to cope and overcome them.

Women of color: be a role model

History already showed that “color” may lead to biases and prejudices, as well as, being a woman. But being a woman of color is a harder battle. In this regard, a March report of 2016 from the American Association of University Women (AAUW) examining leadership positions from universities, courts, religious institutions, corporate boardrooms, halls of Congress, and other organizations, are mostly represented by men. A few factors were identified such as race, ethnicity, socioeconomic or disability status, sexual orientation or gender, and age would influence women who seek in achieving leadership positions. Furthermore, the study reported that board director roles at Fortune 500 companies represented by women is just 3% and these are Black, Hispanic, and Asian women. Indeed, women of color barely can expect to get a job at Fortune 500 company, and only 4% of those who made it, effectively reach top leading positions become CEOs.

Tip: According to the February 2016 AAUW study, Becoming a role model is very powerful to self-empower, especially if you are a woman of color.

Leadership: give in or give up?

Why do women seem to avoid leadership roles? Do you also think that women cannot handle too many responsibilities? Although this is one of the most common assumptions that men do, the truth is way different.

One reason why young women leave the workplace aspiring to fit better for other positions such as freelancers or consultants is lower payment when compared to men, as reported by Business Consultant Anne Loehr in her blog. Indeed, the March 2016 Harvard Business Review discussed that a lack of proper compensation while executing the same performance as men did, is a primary factor that pushes women to leave.

Moreover, other reasons were given such as motherhood and difficulties in finding a work-life balance, especially around the age of 30, although payment is still the real factor declared by young women,  early in their career.

Another reason that was found, was that women are not inclined to relocate, or even spend many hours just traveling to reach a workplace.

Leadership style was another fact that resulted relevantly. Gender stereotypes and gender-roles biases would influence how women show their feminine traits when reaching top leadership positions. Differently, men in leadership would be perceived as strong, confident, excited, and dedicated. Finding a good compromise and balance in assertiveness (without being aggressive or too shy) is challenging, said Gail Bassin, Co-Chief Executive Officer, JBS International.

More training and experience in facing these misconceptions is what women need, as well as, the possibility to find the right place to work that better matches their personalities and skills.

Tip: Get in touch with women and men leaders. Learn from their own experience and apply the learning to your environment.  

Mistakes to avoid, advice to learn

How to spot gender inequalities and face them to gain success as men do?

Over years, women had to fight against certain “labels” negatively influencing their confidence and behaviors, particularly in public performances (e.g., giving a talk in meetings). One example is at work meetings. Women have a tendency to talk softly in presence of others, but they are more laud and secure in the one-to-one discussion, said Dr. Mochly-Rosen [24]. On the opposite side, men speak loud, looking more confident even they may have less expertise and preparation than women, while women tend to underestimate their expertise. Women tend to be more careful, whilst men strongly speak up even when they do not know much in meetings.

Becoming a team player is another valuable aspect to encourage women in leading a workplace more effectively. Although this skill appears to be more suited for men, growing up mostly playing team sports while women alone with dolls or solitary games, women can benefit from being team players. Trust and improved performances are just a few positive achievements in leading positions.

Emotion management is also necessary when facing the workplace environment. Against prejudices and gender biases, designing women as weak or emotionally sensitive, women should learn how to control their own emotions to look more professional. Indeed, Dr. Kimberly Elsbach, Professor at the University of California/Davis found that crying can be seen as unprofessional, weak, and manipulative.

Learning to properly communicate thoughts and intentions is worthwhile, especially when building collaboration and looking for cooperation. “Attacking” people during a discussion would have the effect of miscommunication. People would feel attacked and would respond to the emotion and not to the topic under discussion.

Perfection does not mean confidence. And confidence is essential for an ambitious and successful career. Women need to leave the opinion that they can speak up only if they know each detail or are highly expert on the subject. Being confident helps women to gain trust from clients, networks, and strengthen solid relationships. Women need to believe they CAN.

Tip: Believe you CAN. Focus on building self-confidence and self-control over your emotions.

Building future leaders with xFAB Women Program

As previously discussed, gender-based roles or stereotypes may negatively affect women in reaching the top leading positions, despite a lack of gender difference in leadership style and performance. Hence, achieving executive levels remains an area and opportunity mostly dominated by male managers, although in the majority of educational programs (e.g., MBAs, universities, etc.) female students outperform and exceed in number when compared to males. Even though scientific evidence proves higher women’s skills, they still have to deal with inequalities, taking tougher hurdles while entering workplaces.

Thus, encouraging the development of leadership programs to empower women’s skills through self-awareness, confidence, adaptability, and flexibility would be required to support women in overcoming challenging workplace situations and succeeding in any organization’s culture.

Build on the belief that “to change society through changing mindsets of executives of companies” needs women’s involvement, “xFAB-Women” is an innovative digital platform ecosystem created to propel talented women to board seats and executive development program, based on the demanding need of more “female thinking, future-readiness at decision-making levels” to upgrade the world.  With a strong focus on empowering women through self-confidence and self-awareness, xFAB-Women differentiates from other educational programs (that are dedicated to women already arrived at executive positions). Indeed, the platform is focused on making women future-ready about technological advancements, innovative leadership models to manage abundance and exponential changes, resilience, and grit to cope with a “male environment”, adaptability and confidence when approaching executive roles. Besides empathy, assertiveness, persuasiveness, and sensitivity - recognizable women qualities - are also strongly supported.

Organized over 3 months, xFAB aims to reinforce women toward the senior management and top executive leading positions. The program aims to prepare women to become “future-ready” and “future-fit”, to transform mindsets toward abundance and opportunities, while gaining essential knowledge about future business models, governance, compliance, and way more! Over 5 steps, easily on a digital platform,  The Future Readiness Program is a combination of a corporation and executive environments throughout getting trained, certified and connected to peak performance. Moreover, certified women will be matched with companies to cooperate at board meetings while overcoming gender distinctions in executive leading positions.

Understanding the why is the key to a diverse, healthier, and successful organization. Thus, involving women in leadership would support the growth and development of any healthy and successful workplace environment.

A program to get in touch with talented and experienced executives, aspiring business leaders to gain new perspectives and energy toward empowering the future of women.

Xponential Talks YouTube Channel
Xponential Talks YouTube Channel
Xponential Talks YouTube Channel

“The new world needs new leadership, creativity, and innovation. Combined with digital transformation and new abundance based business models. This is what makes us future focused and future ready.” (Paul Epping)

Moreover, Xpotential Talks is the “voice of the future”; a platform integrating video/audio podcasts to release, share and spread stories of the greatest players and companies who will impact the future with full potential. To know more watch it here and for further information reach out to Xponential at: info@eqxponential.com.

“You Rock”: my top tips to becoming the exponential winner of your life

Almost at the end of this series on leadership 4.0 and digital transformation, from discussing leadership styles and theories, to innovative approaches, models, and qualities of leaders in digital transformation and Industry 4.0, from researches uncovering misunderstanding on gender-based differences to empowering women with educational training programs and role models, now it’s time for the most WANTED article… My 10 top tips to succeed while transforming into an exponential winner!

If you also wanna be the Rock’n’Roll Star of your own life, hang on, and see you soon!

Photo by Beatrice Barbazzeni

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Beatrice Barbazzeni

Beatrice is a Ph.D. student in Neuroscience aimed to achieve her MTP with discipline, perseverance and grit:“empower inner potential leading to the growth of exponential winners".