Women in leadership: Overcoming stereotypes, embracing authenticity - Hindustan Times
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Women in leadership: Overcoming stereotypes, embracing authenticity

Mar 12, 2024 03:37 PM IST

This article is authored by Dr. Rashmi Saluja, executive chairperson, Religare Enterprises Limited.

Women continue to be under-represented in leadership roles across industries, with significant gender disparities persisting at the C-suite levels and in boardrooms around the world. It has been seen that pervasive conscious and unconscious biases construct barriers for women to advance into senior leadership positions. However, the tide is slowly turning as more organisations realise the tangible benefits of diversity and inclusion.

Working women(Pexels) PREMIUM
Working women(Pexels)

The under-representation of women in leadership roles does not stem from a lack of competence but from deeply entrenched stereotypes around gender roles. Common misconceptions that construct barriers include:

• Women are too emotional for leadership roles

• Women lack essential leadership traits like assertiveness and authoritativeness

• Women prioritise family over career commitments

Data corroborates these notions. A study by McKinsey highlighted how women are often under-evaluated for promotions when compared to men. Gendered slogans like “think leader, think male” reveal the prevalent unconscious bias in most workplaces. Such limiting assumptions ignore the reality that stereotypically masculine and feminine traits can co-exist in individuals regardless of gender. Rigid dichotomies fail to comprehend that effective leadership requires a diverse blend of task-oriented assertiveness and people-centric empathy.

Authentic leaders navigate from their core values and convictions. Instead of conforming to historical leadership stereotypes, they lead with self-awareness and transparency, prioritising ethics and integrity.

Many prominent female leaders today are pioneering this leadership style and driving change through moral courage, compassion and collaboration. Former New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern’s crisis leadership during the pandemic is a powerful example of authentic, servant-hearted leadership transcending gender barriers. Other trailblazers include General Motors CEO Mary Barra’s authentic, empathetic leadership in crisis management and nonprofit leader Melinda Gates’ values-driven influence. Such women leaders leverage character strengths like integrity, emotional intelligence and commitment to a higher purpose to drive impact, leading through influence rather than command.

Women leaders continue to face significant barriers from conscious and unconscious gender bias. Studies reveal that successful leaders often exhibit traits commonly associated with masculinity rather than those associated with femininity. Women exhibiting the same traits face labels like “bossy”, “stubborn” and “aggressive” due to people’s inherent bias. Such double standards make it harder for women to exhibit confidence and assert authority.

Bias also exists in talent evaluation, as reflected in lower promotion rates. In research conducted, it was seen that women consistently rated their test performance lower than men despite both groups achieving the same average score. Structural barriers around talent development processes and lack of mentorship opportunities also impact career progress for women.

Organisations serious about gender diversity must mitigate bias across critical stages like recruitment, performance reviews and promotions.

Women also need more access to senior leaders as mentors and sponsors to enable talent mobility. Progress remains gradual but the needle is moving with more organisations investing in diversity interventions.

Gender parity in leadership is thus a strategic business priority, not just a moral obligation. A report by McKinsey found that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity were 25% more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile.

Higher innovation revenue, better customer orientation and loyalty, stronger employee engagement and greater stakeholder responsiveness are other proven benefits of gender-inclusive leadership. Diverse leadership boosts the diversity of thought and drives better decision-making through varied perspectives and role modelling, fostering stronger corporate performance.

Women leaders cannot dismantle existing stereotypes without embracing their authentic selves. Conforming to masculine stereotypes only reinforces that leadership belongs to gendered expectations. The most influential women leaders are leveraging their authentic strengths from personal values.

For instance, feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft led change through courageous advocacy for women’s rights by appealing to people’s reason and moral values. Former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi blended empathy, creativity and strategic vision to drive the company’s transformation and financial success. Poet Maya Angelou inspired social change through the power of her authentic voice and words. In India too, often women leaders in politics or business have been found to be leading with integrity and resilience.

Such examples demonstrate that embracing one’s uniqueness and leading through moral purpose inspires people far more powerfully than conformity to the status quo. Authenticity enables connective, transformative leadership by building trust and a community centred around shared values.

Accelerating cultural change alongside increasing women’s leadership representation is crucial for meaningful progress. Gender-inclusive talent strategies must address bias and dismantle systemic barriers. Approaches like blind resume reviews and mentoring programmes foster fairness and career mobility. Visible commitment from top leadership and middle management advocacy is essential, alongside transforming workplace language and imagery for gender equity, facilitating large-scale change toward parity.

While existing biases contribute to the “broken rung” phenomenon today, the future presents much promise for women in leadership. Younger generations show a growing affinity for values-based leadership. Millennials and GenZs are leading the charges for social justice, sustainability and inclusive cultures.

Women leaders, rather than succumbing to conformity pressures, are boldly leveraging their authentic strengths to challenge stereotypes and lead innovatively. Despite persistent systemic barriers, positive shifts in society and workplaces are emerging, easing the path for young female leaders. Bain & Company's report highlights that nearly 20% of Indian enterprises are women-owned, reflecting progress towards economic and social transformation.

Furthermore, technological advances expanding remote and gig working also provide more flexible work options to balance career and family. Such shifts can significantly improve talent mobility and career growth opportunities for women. The expanding caring, healthcare and creative economies with strong existing female representation also open new leadership avenues.

This article is authored by Dr. Rashmi Saluja, executive chairperson, Religare Enterprises Limited.

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