Women should embrace unique traits to lead the way up the corporate ladder, says Spice4Life
Whilst the number of women in managerial roles and traditionally male-dominated professions has increased globally in recent years, the percentage of women in senior leadership positions is declining, despite many studies indicating that gender diversity contributes significant advantages.
“Women account for less than a quarter of management positions globally and the disparity is even greater when it comes to higher-level management positions,” says Yael Geffen, CEO of Lew Geffen Sotheby’s International Realty.
“In 2019, women represented just 6.6% of Fortune 500 CEOs and data compiled by the research group LedBetter, revealed that of the 234 companies that own almost 2,000 of the world’s most recognized consumer brands, only 14 had a female CEO and nine had no women at all in executive positions.”
Yet research by leading organisations clearly demonstrate the benefits of optimising the strongest feminine traits in business.
According to McKinsey & Company, employee diversity can translate to significantly increased productivity, greater innovation, better products, better decision-making, and higher employee retention and satisfaction.
In their Women Matter research, McKinsey found that women leaders tend to use five of the nine most important types of leadership behaviours more often than men: people development, expectations and rewards, role model, inspiration and participative decision-making.
And a recent report by Harvard Business Review found that whilst men are consistently rated better than women on two capabilities, developing strategic perspective and technical or professional expertise, women are rated better on most key leadership capabilities, including taking initiative and bold leadership.
If this is the case, why then are women still finding it so difficult to break through the glass ceiling at senior levels?
Over and above the entrenched gender-based stereotyping and largely due to societal perceptions of how females should act, Geffen believes that women are often their own worst enemies, selling themselves short when it comes to the crunch.
“For far too long, women have determined career success by their ability to adapt to the male-dominated business culture, bowing to an unconscious belief that unless a woman meets the criteria exactly, she won’t be considered.
“All too often we see women making every effort to conceal their emotions and their femininity in the workplace lest they be perceived as weak, but this is exactly the opposite of what they should do.”
Recounting her own experience, Geffen says that changing these beliefs and stereotypes starts with the individual woman.
“I remember when I lived in New York and was the only female in management at the company I worked at, the guys would toss a football around at every meeting but they never thought to pass it to me. One day I asked them to include me and, although they were shocked, they obliged.
“I realised then and there that although I did want to be accepted by them as a peer, I definitely did not want to be one of the guys – because I’m not. I’m very much a woman; one with a unique skillset that contributes significantly to any table.”
These days, Geffen celebrates women like New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Arden, who with her baby on her lap in Parliament, is celebrated as one of the world’s best leaders.
“Why not, she gets the job done and is a fantastic role model!”
“Empathy and compassion are two highly underrated traits that come naturally to most women.
“Similarly, I have created a culture in my workplace where we are transparent about life events and our emotions around these events. Guess what? it makes us far more productive and efficient. We rally together and support each other; we lift each other up when one team member needs support. That’s life.”
Geffen adds that many men are, indeed making it easier for women to get ahead these days.
“Some male industry leaders have really embraced me and I particularly enjoy my relationships with Adrian Goslett of Remax and Tony Clarke of Rawsons. They are really progressive and supportive of female leadership.”
Studies into the behaviour of male and female leaders show that women are much more likely to be role models for the change that they seek and should therefore not try to think nor act like men in any way other than to assert the same level of confidence.
“I think that South African women, especially, tend to experience a level of insecurity when it comes to going out and getting what they want, especially their pay cheques. Even when I was appointed CEO, I felt that I had to prove myself, not only as a woman but also as a parent, and I’m not sure I would have felt as much pressure had I been a man.
“I think women in general have a harder time with not feeling liked by everyone. This is something I had to get my head around because I am an empath and I feel deeply.
“In positions of management and leadership you are bound to have conflict, so it’s important to separate the personal sentiment from the business objective, but still be your authentic self.” The real estate industry in South Africa is still dominated by male leadership and Geffen feels that i’s a breath of fresh air to have Vuyiswa Mutshekwane chairing the National Property Practitioners Council (NPPC).
“There are some males who have embraced me and some who still treat me like that strange girl on the playground. I have chosen to leave and not be a part of any clubs or institutions that continue to show an outdated sexist approach.
“Unlike men with career ambition, most women will wait for an opportunity to come to them, they won’t ask for that promotion or request inclusion in a management training program. And they usually do so out of fear. Fear of negotiating, of being turned down, fear of failure. So, they wait their turn, hoping it will happen without them having to ask.”
“However, the truth of the matter is that the natural attributes normally assigned to women are enormously beneficial leadership qualities in the workplace,” says Geffen.
“And, usually devoid of the pack leader mentality, these traits enable us to help others set and attain goals, to promote teamwork and to invest time in the mentoring and personal development of others.
“Women are also more effective at networking and establishing trust because they are naturally inclined to build relationships, listen meaningfully and help others and they generally view work more holistically, as a facet rather than the sole focus of their lives.
“In contrast, men tend to be career-centric and intent on maximising their financial returns from work but, although these may seem like negative traits, when viewed alongside their feminine counterparts, the complementary nature of these contrasting attributes becomes very apparent.”
Geffen believes that both the masculine and feminine systems are vital to a company’s success,
“Friction occurs when these two energies are out of balance, usually due to either sex overcompensating.
“For instance, if a woman is trying to be very masculine and hard in her approach, people may fear her, but they won’t respect her and they certainly don’t want to be around her.
“These women do not champion other women, but see them as fierce competitors. This is a completely outdated concept as the most successful women in the world champion one another. Look at Oprah Winfrey, Marianne Willamson, Melinda Gates and Pink.
“You cannot become your best self by yourself; others make us great so let’s stand for each other’s greatness. There is more than enough room for all of us.”
However, Geffen concedes that forging a career in a male-dominated field can be intimidating and challenging and that the women currently at the top have worked very hard to reach their goal.
She offers the following advice to other women who strive to make their way up the corporate ladder:
• Be authentic and don’t be afraid to stand out as the only woman in a room as it can be a distinct advantage in terms of being heard and remembered;
• Don’t underestimate the importance of being your own advocate and don’t be afraid to put yourself forward to ensure your colleagues and superiors know who you are and what you are capable of;
• Pay attention to details from the get-go as it’s especially important for women to develop a thorough knowledge of their field and the expertise that makes them stand out as invaluable to an organisation. It is also the best way to command respect;
• Continually expand your network and develop contacts who will champion for you in your industry;
• Lead by example while being open, supportive and collaborative with others;
• It’s critical to place the right people in the right positions and, as the leader, it’s your responsibility to protect the team by addressing weaknesses in order to maintain confidence and support;
• Show recognition where it’s due because it’s highly unlikely that you made it all the way to the top on your own and, by celebrating those who supported you along the way, you return the favour and develop strong networks and relationships;
• Trust your instincts because although there is much to be gleaned from statistics and data analysis, relying on them too heavily can impede your progress and cause you to miss opportunities.
Geffen concludes: “We are not going to achieve equality overnight, or even in the next few years, but I have noticed that if you act like there is already equality in the workplace, then it’s more likely that there will be.
“So, whilst it’s important for us to acknowledge the need for change, it’s our actions and attitude that really matters. Encourage others to get ahead and be the kind of boss that you would aspire to work alongside.
“ As Oscar Wilde said: ‘Be yourself, everyone else is already taken’.”
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