Many businesses are keen to say the right thing about diversity and gender equality. They set up working groups and committees and write policies. But the majority of large companies’ boards and executive teams remain male-dominated, with alpha male culture. This makes it hard for women to break through and succeed at the top.
As part of our research on leadership we are speaking to 150 of the world’s top female CEOs and influencers. We want to understand more about the barriers facing female leaders today, and what leadership lessons women can learn from other influential and inspiring women, so that they can break through, start to create a chain of successful women at the top, and move towards real equality.
Our research so far demonstrates that many women don’t like to talk about the differences between male and female leadership because they want to be considered on a similar footing. The interviews have highlighted that discussing female leadership qualities is seen as unnecessary and even as a point of weakness in some company environments.
However, we’ve found that there are broadly four different types of female leadership currently. They are:
- Female Pioneers: Generally late generation X and baby boomers, they tend to act more in the manner of alpha male leaders. They are often female power dressers, but underlying this is that they regularly face being seen as the ‘token woman’. Their leadership style is forthright and no nonsense, as this is what has been proven to make a difference in the male-dominated boys’ clubs. These women have been pioneers in a male-dominated corporate world and have left a strong foothold for others to step up. An example is Meg Whitman, CEO of Hewlett Packard.
- Feminine Leaders: These women are generally generation X and have been exposed to more equality. This means they have the confidence to bring ‘feminine’ qualities to work. These leaders explain: “When there is a woman in the room things get talked about more.” They tend to operate more in the construct of ‘women are equals’. They possess the qualities of being able to listen, care, understand and communicate very well. An example is Carolyn McCall, CEO of EasyJet.
- The Integrated Woman: These women are generally from all generations. They have gained strong leadership and influence through their ambition and drive to succeed personally, and to support equality in the workplace. These women have generally integrated their life experiences and developed leadership philosophies that they use as a guiding compass. There is less of a separation between work and home, they have an influential nature, and are very good at collaborating, empowering, connecting and co-creating with both men and women. An example is Lindsay Pattison, CEO of Maxus.
- Women of Inspiration: These women are from all generations and generally embody all of the other leadership types. They are driven by a higher purpose, are often globally recognised, and have broken free from male-dominated leadership constraints. They’ve started a chain of women of inspiration from the top. Examples include Arianna Huffington, Malal Yousafzai, and Mary Barra.
Female leaders need to be on a journey of working through their personal leadership patterns and growth areas, so they can break free from male-dominated constructs and harness feminine qualities. They need to take deep dives to integrate themselves and lead from their higher purpose. In this way they can strengthen the chain of women needed to bring more balance to the corporate world.
This article is an extract from the forthcoming book Secrets of Female CEOs – 150 Female CEOs on business life and leadership, co-authored by Steve Tappin and Ana Marinovic.
Steve Tappin is a world-renowned CEO expert and host of ‘BBC CEO Guru’. Ana Marinovic is an international coach and consultant and advocate of female CEOs and leaders.