A few years ago, I wanted to create a leadership program for women. I discussed this with my friend Aparna and we both were excited about the idea but unsure of the response from the world. We were sure that we would be able to provide an enjoyable and meaningful experience for the women, we were sure that there was a need for this but would people see it in the same way?
I have always had mixed feelings about this whole ‘Women Leadership’ idea. A leader is a leader, I thought. Why should gender enter the picture? Surely, we look for general leadership qualities in a person and anyone who has those should be the right person for the job, whether it is in a corporate or a country. I am a leadership development consultant who works with organizations to develop and enhance the leadership potential of employees. Over the last twenty years, I have worked with many leadership teams in a variety of organizations. The percentage of women in any senior leadership program is usually between 0-10%. I have rarely had more than 2-3 women in a group of 20 leaders. Often these women would not be vocal during the discussions. Some of them would come up to me during a break and talk about things that they did not bring up in front of the large group. Issues with in-laws, concern over children’s studies, the stress of having to handle home and a career, dealing with pushy male colleagues and the perennial ‘ work-life balance’ dilemma.
Something was not right.
These were bright hardworking women, who seemed just as capable and talented as their male counterparts but their struggles were different, the decisions they needed to make at different stages in their lives were different. One of the women didn’t want to be seen as ‘emotional’ by talking about her problems with her boss. Another claimed that she had seen herself as equal to any male leader but now in her forties, she had begun to have ‘female health’ problems that she could not discuss with anyone at work. She thought about quitting. ‘We all are treated equally at work’, said another. ‘And that sometimes is a problem. I am expected to take calls late at night when I have a young baby to take care of. But I don’t want to ask for special treatment.’ None of the women spoke about leadership skills that they needed. They knew about negotiation and networking. They could be just as assertive as men when required. They could take tough decisions. They received the same inputs that men did in terms of skills, tools and techniques.
Most organizations these days do something on Women’s Day, from ladies lunches to spa vouchers to the token seminar where prominent women come to offer words of wisdom and inspiration. A few companies run initiatives for women by offering them separate workshops or coaching and mentoring support. Some do it to check off the Diversity box. Most don’t do anything. An HR leader I met was proud of the fact that the organization did not see men and women differently. Everybody is equal, she said, so we don’t want to do anything separate for women. There is no glass ceiling, said another. We don’t offer concessions.
Offering women a separate space whether on buses or leadership programs does not damage the notion of equality but promotes equity. Equality is treating everyone the same. Equity is giving everyone what they need to be successful. Equality seems fair but can be damaging because everyone does not start from the same point. I remember a cartoon I saw showing three children of different heights standing on identical boxes to watch a match over a high wall. Giving the shortest kid the same box as the tallest does not help the little fellow to get a better view of the game.
Despite the stated equality, women were feeling more stressed and pressured. They were not rising to the top levels of the organization, they were leaving the table before their time. The organizational culture and working conditions are a major factor in determining the diversity of the workforce but these take a long time to change and are beyond the control of the individual woman. We have had centuries of patriarchy and male domination of positions of power. Women are relatively new to the leadership game. A recent research showed that there was a 70% overlap between the words used to describe a Man and a Leader and only a 10% commonality between the words used to describe a Woman and Leader. We still see leadership as a masculine quality and as long we define it that way, women will be at a disadvantage. The boxes we stand on are not big enough for us to get an equal view.
No one is going to give us the bigger boxes if they don’t ask for it. We need to create them on our own or just grow taller. From my conversations, I understood that what most of them needed was a safe space to discuss the challenges they faced without being judged. They wanted to discuss issues without being seen as females bringing up ‘female problems’. They needed support in getting unstuck from their limiting beliefs and mindsets. They wanted to hear how other women dealt with the same challenges. They wanted ideas on how to bring about a change in themselves and their environment, whether it was the office or home. They needed time to reflect and connect with themselves. Sometimes, the girls just wanted to have fun and relax.
Nirupama Subramanian is a Leadership Coach and Author. Views expressed are her own. Edited excerpts.