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Five ways women in leadership make workplace culture better

Women in leadership in workplace

Are you kidding me? It is titles like this that infuriate me.

If you have opened this hoping to get a list - STOP right now. Thanks to Google you can pop this in a search and find lots of articles aimed at convincing you that by employing more women you will improve and develop your workplace culture. 

Oh the irony. 

Most strong authentic workplace cultures don’t need this advice.

So, as I sit here this morning it is hard to know where to even start.

Our workplaces are not right.

We keep hearing terms like quiet quitting, or you know, actual quitting. Today I read the term Great Breakup from the recent McKinsey  Women in the Workplace 2022 report. This report is brilliant and should be required reading for everyone. Great Breakup outlines that women in leadership are “demanding more” and leaving to get it.

The reasons women leaders are stepping away from their companies are telling. Women leaders are just as ambitious as men, but at many companies they face headwinds that make it harder to advance. (Women in Workplace 2022)

Women's leadership benefits decision making and performance

How to shift the status quo of gender diversity today, not see it as a future problem

The article goes on to state that for many organisations and their executive leadership teams, if they don’t address the underlying reasons many of their female leaders (especially senior management roles) are leaving, this will become a very long term gender equality problem - the “demands” will be even more important for future generations.

I don’t write articles complaining about things.

I undertake interviews with incredible authentic leaders and I ask for their advice.

This is how the Brave Feminine Leadership interview series started. Curiosity about why there are not more female CEOs. Curiosity that started when I became a CEO and experienced  being the “only” in the room. Over 75 interviews later and my curiosity deepens with every conversation. I genuinely want to unpack and understand what is contributing to the shocking facts around women's participation and why gender parity has barely shifted despite the majority of industries and organisations saying they are committed.

Meaningful conversations with Chief Executive Women

I want to share some of the things from these conversations that keep resonating.

I need to start with the wonderful conversation with Professor Laura Kray (Professor, Ned & Carol Spieker Chair in Leadership, Haas School of Business, UC Berkeley) who shared that one of the major benefits of carving out space to talk about gender in leadership programs is that, for the first time for many women, they realise none of the experiences have been personal - they are not about you, they are about the society that shaped you.

The inner voice on repeat telling you that you are not enough is one example.

And it's just amazing to see women, quite successful women in their careers who we've all had these same, you know, sort of gender based experiences where really for the first time, some of them are realising that this is not personal. You know, this is something that transcends all of us and it's structural. It's, you know, baked into the system and although that can be a rude awakening and, you know, sort of depressing on one level, it's also liberating because it's again, it's not personal. It's not about you. It's about, you know, society. 

And we have to stay in the game.

So what does staying in the game look like for women leaders?

I think firstly it looks like acknowledging that you want to be in the game. Acknowledging that you have something to add to the conversation. That you are ambitious to make your mark. To test yourself, your skills and your capabilities.

I was privileged recently to work with a wonderful senior professional who had a deep desire to make an impact beyond the scope of her current role. She is deeply passionate about sustainability but wasn’t sure her current organisation would provide the chance for her to combine this deep passion with her day job. So deep was her commitment that she spent much of her maternity leave investing in additional education in the space. The step we worked on together was answering the simple question - Who needs to know?

Kathryn Fagg (Chair, CSIRO & Watertrust Australia & Non Executive Director NAB, Medibank Private) shared this advice in our wonderful Brave Feminine Leadership conversation:

Leaders are not mind readers. Once you know what you want - tell people.

For Kathyrn it was being direct prior to accepting an Executive role that in the short to medium term she wanted significant P&L management. She got it (the job and subsequently the P&L leadership).

Back to my wonderful sustainability leader. I challenged her to think hard about who needed to know of her ambition to help. I cheered as she courageously reached out, introduced herself to senior leaders globally and asked for their advice on how to achieve her goal. Less than 6 months later, her role now carries 20% of her time accountable for spearheading the sustainability goals for her region. A big job and her passion is breathtaking to watch.

Female representation requires understanding of what positions women seek and feel passionate about

What if I don’t know my passion?

Oh the pressure to find our passion. This is a hard one. We don’t all wake up with this deep driving force. In fact, I suspect for many of us we are so flat out getting through the day and our endless to-do lists that the very idea of “chasing our passion” elicits a groan.

The fact is though, no one is going to do it for you.

Staying in the game looks like investing the time to get clarity on what you really want to do. Gathering all of your strengths, focusing on the things that light you up, being proactive about gathering as much feedback as you can so you really understand where you are today and where you want to be.

Once you understand the gap there is a place to start. You can start to build a personal development plan to get you there.

Teresa* did this. Teresa is a senior professional in a male dominated environment who had been asked to be on the succession plan. As part of her growth she had taken a lot of sideways moves and whilst appreciative of the opportunities she wasn’t finding joy in work and was listening to her inner critic about her capabilities. Teresa took a deliberate and intentional pause to reflect on what she really loved. The answer kept circling back to leading others. She is a natural authentic leader. She thrives in delivering outcomes through others and leads with empathy, vulnerability, collaboration and a lot of fun. Her career track was taking her away from this love.

Not anymore. Today, Teresa is leading over 1,500 people and is firmly on the right succession plan. Step one was to recognise her superpowers and strengths. Step two was to tell someone.

We do have all the answers. If you can be intentional about slowing down, trusting yourself and then committing to take the action.

A step towards Gender Equality. Make a decision to play the long game not the short game.

All of us have experiences where we have felt ignored or our voice hasn’t been heard. 

Getting upset about it won’t change it.

Getting into leadership roles where you can make a difference will.

Sally Bruce’s interview was full of this advice. 

And I really had to learn instead of stepping into it and getting upset about it, that playing the longer game was the game I needed to play, and then I could be at the table to stop it happening for others

Sally Bruce, Brave Feminine Leadership Interview Series 2022

I love the term Poise. Poise in leadership is critical. It is about the ability to manage your emotions when everyone around you is losing their head. Poise is about the long game. Don't confuse Poise with old school leadership. You can have poise and still be vulnerable. Practice this skill.

I’m sticking with Sally’s interview for the final tip also.

Leadership is all about power. Let’s get really clear that it is power to do something and NOT power over people. So, my last thought for today is all about how are you using your power as a leader?

Are you a role model for the future?

"You've got to role model what you want to see, you really have to. Unless you are doing it, it’s do as I say, not do as I do. You actually really have to…You’ve got to be a role model because actually your permission feels a bit like bullshit unless you're doing it."

Sally Bruce, Brave Feminine Leadership Interview 2022

It is early 2023, a time for reflection for all leaders.

As you consider the years ahead and you reflect on your own personal development, your own path towards the impact you want to make, how are you answering these questions?

  • Do I want to be in the game?

  • Who needs to know what I want to do?

  • Do I have clarity on the gap between where I am today and where I want to be?

  • Am I playing the short or the long game?

  • Am I being the role model I needed to see?

Circling back to the title of this article Five ways women make workplace culture better. I can't think of a better way to finish than by sharing the wise words of Natalie Walker on Diversity. Natalie is a proud Kuku Yalanji woman and our conversation is one of the very rare times she has spoken about herself. She is typically found advocating strongly for others. Our full conversation is available here.

Like let's just reflect that we want to have a society that reflects the people who are in it. It  just doesn't make sense to me… it doesn't make sense to me that our organisations are not diverse because that's not reflective of the communities that they operate in.

Natalie Walker, Brave Feminine Leadership Interview, 2021

If this blog has started your thinking, I would highly recommend to listen to the 4 wonderful conversations that I quoted from in the blog as a next step.

Do you feel that you might love to start this journey together? Click here to learn more about our Brave Feminine Leadership Training program.

If you've been inspired by this blog and are eager to learn more about leadership, then I highly recommend reading my recent blog post "One Conversation Changed it All for Me". It's filled with actionable tips that can help you take your leadership skills to the next level. So don't miss out, read on!