When my son George was born in 1972 I was determined to give him attributes I found compelling in men: kindness, respect and an awareness of others, creativity, a willingness to listen and to collaborate. To accomplish this, I kept TV out of the house, ensured he had creative toys like blocks, Legos, and art supplies like paints and pipe cleaners. I brought him to theater and galleries as was age appropriate. I began teaching him colors at the Picasso exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum when he was 18 months old in a backpack. I began a storytelling routine so I could instill in him the skills to listen. Yup. I was raising a creative, kind leader.
By the time he was 2, George was making guns with his pipe cleaners, drawing pictures of rocket ships and army tanks. Where did he gain an affinity to guns? How did he know about army tanks? No idea. But it wasn’t from me.
Eventually he turned into a professional jock (Ok. I’m a proud. He’s a silver-medal Olympian.). But he’s not creative, certainly listens with very biased and judgmental ears, and only kind under a gruff exterior. How did I not raise the person I tried to raise? Sure, it was ‘nature’. But where did the ‘nurture’ go?
DO MEN WANT THE SKILLS TO CONNECT?
I have come to believe that not only do most men not have the communication and connection skills women have but are content without them as per this funny story. Friends recently did construction on their house. When they showed me around, one of the new rooms had 5 comfy leather chairs lined up side by side facing a huge TV screen. It was obviously a Man Cave. I started to laugh.
Peter: What’s so funny?
SD: This is obviously your man cave.
Peter: Why is it so obvious?
SD: Women would never line chairs up like that. They’d be in a semi-circle.
Peter: Why would you do that?
SD: So we could engage with each other, communicate, see and hear each other.
Peter: But why would I want to do that?
THE REPRESENTATION OF WOMEN IN LEADERSHIP
I was the second woman on a public BOD in the UK in 1986. I quickly learned to keep quiet during our Board meetings: men would over-talk me when I spoke; they’d seize and spout my ideas to broad approval with no attribution; fail to invite me to meetings (“Oops! Sorry. My bad.”) even though my group was bringing in 142% of the net profit of the company. I was once so furious tears of rage seeped out of one eye. “Awwww. Let’s give Sharon-Drew a moment to compose herself,” said the Chairman. “I have no need to compose myself. I’m just enraged at all of you.” Funny, but the next meeting one of the other Board members cried. As women have done for centuries, I had given them permission.
Times have changed a bit. But why, why, has it been such a struggle? And why, why are women in leadership still uncommon? 35% of leadership positions go to women, even though 60% of the workforce are women; 20% of companies have at least one woman on their Board, and there are 53 women CEOs – 10% – in the Fortune 500.
There are lots of reasons offered as to why the numbers are so low: women have babies and aren’t represented in the workplace; women aren’t accepted into the Boys Club and don’t have the mentors to provide them a leg-up; men don’t respect women and won’t listen to them; women don’t play by the rules. Obviously these are all silly. And yet.
Much has been written about the differences between men’s and women’s leadership styles. And yes, it’s been proven that working for a woman leader offers more success – staff are happier, there’s less turnover, more profit is generated, teams work better with a more creative output. For sure more women are being hired in leadership roles. But it’s not enough and it’s not representational.
WOMEN HAVE GREAT SKILLS
With so many excuses as to why women aren’t promoted to leadership positions, maybe it’s time to explain precisely why women make great leaders.
- We care. That’s right. We not only care about the bottom line, our place in the market, our regard among competitors. We care about people – staff, teams, creativity, well-being. In my company I gave staff one week and $2,000 a year (in the mid-1980s) to take some type of program that wasn’t work-related to boost their creativity and expand their thinking. They had to take one day off a month to do volunteer work in the community. They weren’t given vacation days but told to take off whatever time they needed to maintain their clarity, so long as they covered the work )I literally had to push them out the door to take vacations).
- We listen. Women not only listen for details, but we closely attend to differences in speaking patterns so we can ascertain shifts, problems, feelings. Our listening enables us to bond with another’s humanity, not for what they’re doing but who they’re being.
- We’re curious. When women notice a problem, we get curious. Instead of going straight into action, we wonder about its origination, how to fix it from inside, how to assemble the right people to design a fix. And then we trial different approaches, get team agreement for different outcomes.
- We’re problem solvers. And not in conventional ways, but often out-of-the-box thinking.
- We’re risk takers. We have less fear of failure then men, with a greater understanding of possibilities. Since we’ve had to go-it alone, we’re willing to offend the status quo.
- We communicate. We inspire discussions, ask questions, pose hypotheticals. We start conversations where there is too much silence. We don’t do denial.
- We collaborate. Working in groups is natural. If you’ve ever done an exercise where everyone in the room is given 6 pipe cleaners and told to make a ‘reporting’ structure, all the men attach each to the ones above and below. Women make a daisy chain, in a circle. It’s endemic.
- We work to the future. Instead of taking steps sequentially with a perfect forward-moving plan, we think in systems, in circles. We see the aggregate and try different actions to cause change as a whole.
I will never understand the full set of reasons given why women are kept out of leadership positions. But I do know that by leaving us out, our companies suffer, lose market share and profit and have diminished creativity and kindness.
It seems that in today’s workplace, change is afoot. I look forward to there being an equal number of men and women leaders someday. And just maybe we can all raise our sons in an environment where kindness doesn’t have to be hidden, and equality and respect is the norm.