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  • Writer's picturethekatediaries

It’s complicated…

Updated: May 7

If I had to describe my relationship status to the topic of Women in Leadership, this would be my honest answer right now.


“It’s complicated”- while not the right answer from a loud and unashamedly boisterous feminist, it remains an honest one.


I feel uncomfortable to admit that considering one of my favourite pastimes is to nerd out on all things around the Women in Leadership (WIL) discourse- the data on why women make such fantastic and successful leaders,[1] as well as the current appalling state of female representation in higher echelons.[2] But this piece is unfortunately not about that; it's a little less fun. It pushes to a dark corner in the Women in Leadership (WIL) topic, an uncomfortable space I have avoided inhabiting for quite some time[3]- and it appears a vast majority have as well.


But a set of personal experiences forced me to confront a growing realisation: why women sometimes make the best leaders I’ve ever had the honour and privilege to operate under and, at the same time, the absolute worst bosses I’ve suffered my mental health, emotional stability and good old fashioned self-confidence working for.


After a long and unnecessarily painful experience working under my boomer boss last year- which climaxed in being physically (wo)man-handled in a public, professional setting, it baffled me how this bright, intelligent woman- who would have worked hard to pave her way in a bristly industry - could behave with such insecurity and vitriol. While I was keen to write the whole situation off as an isolated incident, thinking back to previous work experiences and talking with a sizeable subject pool of female friends, it began to appear less of an anomaly and more a recurring pattern.


*Side note: I’d like to acknowledge that we’ve all had poor bosses; bosses who are sometimes good, sometimes infuriating, and oftentimes incapable. When referring to the worst, I mean those people who will go out of their way to make life unbearably miserable, the ones that make you think, could I still be cute poor?


The unfolding and final resolution of the incident (on the back end of a persistent pattern of questionable behaviour and a wave of other complaints) left me with more questions than answers. Management themselves admitted how different the situation would have been interpreted if it were a middle-aged white man wrangling about his junior female colleague. The probability that said boss in said situation would now be preoccupied with polishing off his CV and rehearsing his interview skills is - I'd say- moderate to high.


While I acknowledge that this specific set of circumstances presents a complexity that cannot be reduced to a one-size-fits-all memorandum, it is nonetheless an experience that appears to indicate to a broader phenomenon of extremes—one that, in my humble opinion, requires greater attention, interrogation and thought.


So, I did what I always do in this situation- revert to researching the shit out of a topic to make it make sense- social science to the rescue! While I found plenty of coverage on the various unconscious biases [4] and problematic reactions to women in leadership,[5] I did not see too much pushing into this topic other than articles that provided only superficial and unsatisfying justifications,[6] let alone ways to counter it.


I felt deep down that it was a question for feminists to engage with. I didn't see it originating in conflicting personality types, pop or organisational psychology, or the current scarcity in the job market. I found myself asking what it is specifically about certain women in leadership that proves to be alarmingly and authentically detrimental to other women. Detrimental firstly on an individual level- to those directly on the receiving end of this misuse of power. But also how it causes collateral damage to the reputation of women in leadership everywhere.


Because, another fun feature in the double-standards playground that is patriarchy is that men are commonly seen as individuals- and a bad male boss only places his own reputation into question. Women in power - on the other hand- are, oftentimes, representative of their entire gender. When a female boss messes up, she puts into question the capability and respectability of all women everywhere, causing potential successor leaders to suffer the fallouts from her poor behaviour- i.e. less trust, less responsibility, enhanced bias, only glass cliff promotions[7], as well as potentially radicalising men(and women) with preexisting anti-feminist sentiments.


It doesn't take much to see that the very barriers female bosses have faced during their ladder climb and time spent in male-dominated spaces make them keenly attuned to a system created with a very specific (think cis-straight-male) user in mind. Out of this struggle, varying responses emerge. At one end of the spectrum is the option to leverage this hurdle to become more creative, empathetic and resilient, harnessing this perspective and experience to change the system for those who come after.


The very next boss I had after this incident was so radically different; the whiplash between the two superiors perfectly embodied this dynamic. Her honesty, down-to-earth approach and emphasis on personal growth encapsulated a skillset seemingly carved from her own professional challenges.


*Side note #2: While this end of the spectrum is nice, admirable, and preferable, I'd like to remain mindful of the extensive scope of roles and responsibilities typically shouldered by women on a daily basis, which can limit the resources left to consistently perform this kind of ‘radical’ ‘counter-cultural’ leadership.


On the other end of the spectrum, there is the option to adopt the very same problematic leadership traits we all love to hate. This second choice- to internalise misogyny- leads female bosses to police the system of bias, discrimination and inequity with even greater fervour and animosity- whether consciously or subconsciously. It means reacting to women who don't pay their dues or perform in the ways expected of their gender, ensuring that the women who come after slave away just as much (or more) than the women who have gone before, lest they “get off easy”.


However, it must be made clear that this second option is not only a feature of gender struggles. Sometimes, the greatest advocates of harsh and inhumane immigration policies are those who were once immigrants.[8] This regrettable human reaction, where the oppressed become the oppressor, is age-old. This curious phenomenon is unfortunate, and it would serve feminists well to be aware of how this might play out in conversations on meaningful representation in leadership.


I’ll admit, it feels very un-feminist and almost hypocritical of me to make this (in-group) conflict visible and bitch about other women. The last thing the world needs right now is more division or finger-waving. But, to be fair, it also has not been served by painting over complexity with gross generalisations. This feeling of unease for me to talk about such a dynamic comes from the genuine danger that things could quickly lead down a slippery slope of anti-feminist sentiment straight to the men’s rights camp, feeding flames to the fire of the “women should not be in leadership” sentiment.


Yet, the current push to promote greater female representation in leadership sometimes appears more akin to an 'add women and stir' strategy. It is a sort of knee-jerk reaction to the increasing visibility and mainstreaming of outrage found in the lack of diversity in leadership. However, this tokenistic approach fails to engage meaningfully with the reasons for this disparity in the first place and further obscures several critical realities. It overlooks the inhospitality of such environments for those who manage to ascend. It also fails to address the structures and systems which - to this day - still conveniently leave aside the tools, access, and support necessary for women to have genuine success in these roles.


On a more sinister level, it also hides the reality that sometimes the most significant problem to WIL and DEI efforts is not Jim, the mid-level manager who doesn't know what DEI stands for and wonders why his female colleagues won’t smile more when he asks them to (don’t worry Jim, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion will most likely still be an agenda item to address at the next management meeting - still got time to figure it out).


But sometimes the bigger problem is the female boss who has taken up the mast of misogyny for the whole office and serves it out without any hindrance thanks to the clever cloak and convenient costume of her gender. This is not to say I would prefer Jim over Yankidoodle, but rather, when thinking of good leadership, I believe we need not more women in leadership but more feminists.

… Or more leaders with feminist qualities


What could this look like? Well, for starters, things that the data has already well and truly shown are beneficial as leadership traits.[9] Great leadership looks like creating team cultures of collaboration instead of competition, bottom-up participatory approaches instead of top-down dictatorship, and transformational relationships rather than transactional ones. This kind of leadership takes time and significant soft skills in order to leverage the best out of individuals and teams through characteristics and processes that distinctly contrast with traditional (masculinised) models of leadership.


Feminist leadership - when performed and implemented - would mean, yes, most likely more women in leadership,[10] but also more men who would be nicer to work with. A hot take here, but maybe if we had more men in leadership with feminist values, we wouldn't be so hell-bent on escaping male managers who continue to operate with limited regard for alternate experiences and harbour a wide range of unchecked bias. We could move beyond this surface-level need for gender quotas in management, prioritising instead leadership (and a ramp to leadership) that is empathetic, intelligent, fair, engaging, understanding and courageous.


Amidst this well-meaning push to increase the representation of women and the inadvertent desire to ignore or write off the bad apples, it's essential to be honest and recognise the pattern emerging between the women who have gone before and the women who are coming after. It is also critical to be aware of the temptation to blame individual women for their shortcomings rather than challenging the system that breeds these manager monsters in the first place.This can only happen by beginning to ask the question: how can we stop perpetuating patterns and supporting structures that make it not only acceptable but sometimes beneficial to act in ways that are misogynistic, especially when it comes to “getting ahead”?


This piece ultimately comes from a deep-seated conviction in the unmatched potential and extraordinary impact of women in leadership. Those who -to this day- continue to inspire me are the female bosses who were entirely badass, bold, brilliantly intelligent and empathetic. And whilst I can not offer any quick fixes to prevent leaders from shitting on the rug and ruining Women in Leadership for everyone who walks through the door after them, I can paint a small picture of what great leadership can look like and why it's worth fighting for.


One of my favourite bosses I worked for back in my dance days was a woman who succeeded as a choreographer in a traditionally male-dominated industry, with a leadership style so refreshingly collaborative, humble, motivational, and patient, you couldn't help but wonder how she got past the gatekeepers of egotistic directors and producers in the first place. She made us feel seen, heard and inspired to jump through (or jete through) hoops to realise her grand vision.


The wonderful thing is that I have many more stories of leaders with feminist characteristics who redefined what great leadership looks like; who have left an indelible impact on my life. For the reasons of how vital it is to have feminist traits in leadership- men or women, talking about these conflicting and uncomfortable dynamics currently being played out is a conversation we cannot be afraid to have.

________________

[1]

* Are Women Really, As This Major Research Says, Better Managers Than Men? (forbes.com)

* Women make better managers, study says - Hiring Advice (careerone.com.au)

* 40 Years of Research Proves Women Are Better Managers Than Men Because They Tend to Have This Crucial Skill | Inc.com

[2]

* Barriers & Bias: The Status of Women in Leadership – AAUW : Empowering Women Since 1881

* Gender inequality persists in leadership positions - Unesco

* 2.4 Gender gaps in leadership, by industry and cohort - Global Gender Gap Report 2022 | World Economic Forum (weforum.org)

[3] If you are new to this blog, then the lens I am looking through is white, cis-gender, from the global north. I’ll admit from the outset- not the most diverse but nonetheless it should be said that this positionality is how I understand the themes and experience that follow in the coming pages- now onwards and upwards!

[4]

* Not Very Likeable: Here Is How Bias Is Affecting Women Leaders (forbes.com)

[5]

* Merits | Free Full-Text | Challenges Women Experience in Leadership Careers: An Integrative Review (mdpi.com)

[6] i.e. the pandemic producing job scarcity, pressures on women to “do it all”, the age old narrative of women who can’t help but compete with one another

* Why women at work can be the worst for other women (dailyo.in)

[7]

* How Women End Up on the “Glass Cliff” (hbr.org)

* "Understanding the Glass Cliff Effect: Why Are Female Leaders Being Pus" by Yael S. Oelbaum (cuny.edu)

[8] This dynamis was originally explored by Frantz Fanon on the topic of colonisation and the systemic internalising of racialized violence by colonisers and the colonised alike.

[9]

* Adam Grant Explains What Distinguishes The Greatest Leaders of Our Time - FlexJobs

* 12 Characteristics of a Good Leader (ccl.org)

* Traits such as self-awareness, compassion, respect, integrity, learning agility, gratitude, and emotional intelligence, to name a few.

[10] based on their socialisation- which ends up fostering leadership styles that are transformative over transactionalWhat Science Tells Us About Leadership Potential (hbr.org)






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