28 Feb Can female leaders be true to themselves?
Can female leaders be true to themselves?
Resistance vs. Acceptance of Stereotypes
Living abroad and finding ways to fit in pose different challenges to men and women. Issues specific to women in the workplace are of course prevalent across the globe, but as women living in Saudi Arabia we are confronted with a particular set of challenges – the need to conform while maintaining our own identity, rules and restrictions to work with that we are unaccustomed to, and an intricate cultural heritage we must navigate in both our work and social lives. You might run into these issues while volunteering, attending a job interview, or even as part of expat clubs and societies. If you are a woman who likes to lead, to inspire, to be heard, how can you succeed in this environment? What can you learn about women’s leadership while you are here that will aid you in the future? How can you be yourself, inspire other to do so, while still being aware of the trials involved?
A stock photo search for ‘women’s work’ brings up the following two images:
On the left we have a woman excitedly getting ready for housework, and on the right another happily looking at something on her computer. Do either of these look like you? Do you react positively to both images? Do you think one of them is more representative of women than the other? The lens through which we view ourselves in relation to others can be termed ‘the social perspective model’: we emphasize cultural and social norms in order to feel comfortable in our roles. Everyone does this, both men and women, but while the norms for men are ‘leader’, ‘breadwinner’ and ‘go-getter’, those for women do not have the inherent subtext of power. Unfortunately, this can encourage discriminatory practices against women. How often have you heard the phrases, ‘It’s not her place’, ‘That’s men’s work’, ‘She’s too fragile’, among others? Women who display the qualities of a good leader still face higher attrition and slower career mobility than men displaying the same qualities, because the woman is still viewed this social perspective lens. Women are also more likely to be stereotyped due to this cultural misunderstanding. Another stock image search, this time of ‘woman leader’ gives us these images:
The options are either a matronly figure leading children, or a model in heels and a power-suit. Is there nothing in the middle? Do you recognize either of these women? The stereotyping of women means they are typecast into roles such as ‘helper’, ‘nurturer’, ‘seductress’, ‘confidant’. As these labels are used it becomes very difficult for women to define themselves according to their own unique differences – the facets of their personality that define them as people, rather than women. Men can be unique in a room of men, e.g. ‘intellectual’, ‘dark humor’, ‘storyteller’, but due to being the underrepresented group, women will still ultimately merely be labelled as ‘woman’. A typical round of introductions in a mixed setting might be, ‘This is Ahmed, our treasurer – and a keen golfer, Steven who works on our guest list, he has a lot of good contacts, and Sarah, who is great at keeping all our spirits up!’ Sarah is described as having no title or skills in this example aside from being the nurturer of the group – a function that should in fact fall to everyone, regardless of gender.
Strategies for working with stereotypes
The dialogue across the gender divide continues on, and while of course we might like to see stereotyping wiped out all together, in Saudi Arabia and other patriarchal societies this will be a long process. How then can female leaders work with these stereotypes?
- Fade out: Men and women see leadership very differently – studies have shown that where men view leadership as leading while others follow, women view leadership as facilitating and encouraging others to lead with them. Therefore since gender is a hindrance to women leaders, some choose to lead in a manner that is considered the norm; that is, leading in the style that men lead. In effect, they disappear – they blend in with the men by ‘talking tough’, physically hide or change location, or copy ‘normal’ mannerisms. This reduces their chances of ‘being seen’, and so they are often passed over for leadership roles.
- Play up: Other women respond by playing into the established stereotypes for personal advantage. They play a role at work in such a way that they can benefit from it. So, for example a man with power insists on treating the woman as the ‘confidant’ and telling her secrets, she responds by emphasizing her trustworthiness and willingness to listen (even if she is completely uninterested, and this does not relate to her role). However, this furthers harmful stereotypes and limits opportunities for other women in the future.
- Shine out: The healthiest alternative discussed here is to register, value and project your fundamental difference. Talk about what makes you different – not just that you are female, but that you are driven, creative and skilled. You listen to opera, you take aerial yoga classes, you once won an orienteering prize. Show that it is your differences that will bring gains to the situation – whether it is a job opportunity, social leadership opportunity, or volunteering group. Stand out from the crowd, be memorable, get your voice heard. This will also creative the positivity to pave the way for other women to be considered for leadership roles.
You are more than the label ‘woman’ – you are YOU.
- Why Should Anyone Be Led By You?, Robert Goffee and Gareth Jones in On Leadership, Harvard Business Review, 2011
- Women and the Leadership Paradigm, Roslin Growe, 2000
Adelina Holmes is an Educational Adviser and Executive Coach living in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. You can contact here at firstname.lastname@example.org