Why aren’t there more women leaders? (Guest commentary)

It’s time for women to capitalize on their unique leadership abilities

Do men lead differently than women and does it have an impact? According to the International Labour Organization and Statistics Canada, women are still earning about 76 cents on the dollar compared to their male counterparts.

Research from Statistics Canada shows Canada is lagging with only 34 per cent of women in leadership roles whereas in the United States it is as high as 50.3 per cent, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. And only a handful of these women are in the top executive jobs. A recent survey by Catalyst, a research and advisory organization, revealed that 55 per cent of women and 57 per cent of men want to be CEO. So why is the gap still there?

A look at the female brain, hormones and the impact of cultural expectations might help shed some light on why women leaders still lag behind men.

The brain’s role

Using positron emission tomography (PET) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, researchers have found that men and women use different parts of the brain when conducting various tasks. In certain problem-solving situations, scans showed men typically lit up one side of the brain, whereas women lit up both sides, indicating significant differences in brain activity. The dendrites (tube-like transmitters) running between the two sides of the brain are also larger in women. Researchers feel this offers them the unique talent of multi-tasking.

Male leaders often have the ability to remain focused on a vision to get the results they want and perhaps using a single side of the brain is what keeps them focused. However, men can sometimes be perceived as single-minded — sometimes to a fault.

On the other hand, many women leaders can multi-task efficiently, knowing what the goals are and what must be done to accomplish results. Perhaps their two-sided brain activity helps keep all these balls in the air. But this multi-pronged approach can be perceived as scattered. Women are usually deemed to be good at all the “little stuff” — hence their amazing skill in administrative jobs — but adding up all that stuff amounts to getting a lot done. The end result is often the same as with male leaders, with completely different approaches. If, as frequently happens, men are assessing a woman’s appropriateness for a promotion, could she be unfairly losing out for appearing disorganized when, in reality, she is multi-tasking and getting a lot done?

Hormones – the impact on feelings, stress and working with others

Hormones have another large impact on leadership style, as testosterone and estrogen are the source of different abilities in male and female leaders. Men produce more testosterone, which historically provided them with the necessary confidence and assertiveness to compete, negotiate and often win. An example of the modern-day impact of testosterone on leadership is that men are typically more likely to go after promotions while women may wait to be noticed.

Women, on the other hand, produce a lot of estrogen, the hormone associated with the need to nurture. This results in women tending to prefer collaboration and inclusivity.

Men are able to remain focused on the bottom line, often without strong feelings of responsibility for their teams during projects or even when downsizing. Men can often distance themselves, whereas women are more likely to get involved and feel guilty about how their business activities and decisions affect their teams.

Women tend to feel more emotional and appear more volatile than men. Under stress, men produce adrenalin, which results in a “fight or flight” reaction. Researchers have discovered that when under stress, women produce higher levels of oxytocin, the hormone that floods a woman’s body when giving birth, giving them a desire to nurture or be nurtured.

In a stressful situation, women have a tendency to want to “talk it over,” whereas men want to move ahead and solve the problem or leave it alone. These different approaches get played out differently in the boardroom too. Men wade in and solve any problems directly, whereas women may prefer to take the time to be collaborative and inclusive, ensuring others’ thoughts and feelings have been taken into consideration before acting. Sometimes this results in delays for decisions, but women usually consider the time well spent.

This “emotional intelligence” material has been taught in leadership programs for years. The ability to nurture employees has become an increasingly valued skill.

Where women go from here

Most leaders are judged on their approach and their results. Evolution has set up some cultural expectations that are difficult to escape in the boardroom. If a man attempts to be too nurturing, he is often viewed with suspicion and quickly put in his place. If a woman becomes too assertive, she is deemed a “bitch,” alienating the very team she needs to get things done.

Perhaps women will soon be able to capitalize on their unique leadership abilities, their “hidden” leadership talents, which they haven’t been encouraged to use much so far. These are real assets that can be brought to the table. But for true progress to be made and equality in the workplace to take effect, both genders need to understand, accept and honour their different approaches. Society must learn that men’s and women’s methods are just different, not better or worse. By celebrating and embracing the differences, organizations will become more progressive, profitable and productive.

Elaine Allison is an international speaker and author based in Port Coquitlam, B.C. She is author of The Velvet Hammer: PowHERful Leadership Lessons for Women Who Don’t Golf. For more information visit www.elaineallison.com.

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