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Leadership and Professional Development – is it different for women? Well actually, yes…

A woman in a leadership role

In my earlier blog I suggested that negotiating some aspects of leadership identity and practice is actually different for women – for example, how to lead convincingly without being perceived as ‘bossy’, how to be passionate and enthusiastic without attracting the tag ‘over emotional’, or how to influence and create impact without being overly dramatic.

Our 30 or so participants over breakfast at the Ivy recently confirmed that these issues really do need addressing in a specific way for women, if gender equality in leadership positions is ever to become a reality in our lifetime, but not necessarily through women only programmes and initiatives.

What barriers do women face in making it through to leadership roles?
Our audience readily identified several. Women are easily drawn into self-limiting beliefs about what is possible when they contemplate the scarcity of women at more senior levels and the apparent difficulty of the roles – it seems from our audience that ‘I could never do that’ is not an untypical self-assessment.   Women also tend to self-limit in planning their lives generally – ‘there’s no point in pushing for that promotion when I know I want to start a family in the next 12 months’. Women also feel constrained by ‘presenteeism’, all too often an undiscussable feature of corporate culture – ‘you need to be in the office and seen to be engaging in the real action’. Leadership roles, particularly at senior levels, are also often associated with long hours at work which are just unattractive if not impossible for a lot of women.  There are undoubtedly key moments when women get lost in their career progression or simply give up, e.g. returning from maternity leave – ‘it’s just too damned hard’ -especially for those not yet earning sufficiently to afford a nanny.

So, what can be done to encourage and enable women to progress to leadership roles at all levels in organisations?

Environment and organisational culture appear to be key enablers.  Men and women both want a different way of working, one that is conducive to their outside work responsibilities and gives them more control over their careers through flexible working practices.  Furthermore, women need to be encouraged to ask for what will make it possible for them to progress and take on more senior roles.

Secondly and importantly, men need education in what it means and feels like to be ‘the other’, i.e. in the minority, to understand the adjustments required to be truly inclusive. This issue goes well beyond gender equality of course to embrace ethnic, religious and sexual orientation differences as well.

Thirdly, organisations need to get real about their expectations of leaders. The unspoken expectation, for example, that a candidate for a senior leadership role has successfully completed roles with significant P&L responsibility in more than one location outside the UK is unhelpful for women for whom this can be very difficult to fulfil.  Perhaps women need to take better advice and guidance on the organisations they join, the location of the client base, the centres of gravity of the business, etc.

Fourthly, there are other ways of being present – technology is an important enabler and if well used, can help bridge the gap where rapport building and relationships are critical to success. Agile working in this context becomes another key enabler – organisations need to make much faster progress on making this a reality.

And finally, our audience suggested that women only programmes have a place in encouraging more women to develop the self-confidence and belief to progress to senior leadership roles.  Apart from those who felt they might actually be rather lonely on a women only programme, those who had experienced this, mostly in their early to mid- 30s, spoke powerfully of its impact on their career development and their lives generally. At the right time, perhaps at the first or second points on the leadership pipeline, women only programmes offer important opportunities to explore leadership identity, communication style and personal presence, decision making processes, risk taking and most importantly to develop appropriate self-confidence in one’s value and ability to participate in the social and professional milieu at the top of the organisation. Self-limiting beliefs can be challenged, their confidence and self-efficacy developed and their portfolio of skills enhanced to include the gravitas and professional edge required in more senior roles.

This article was written by Gill Reynolds – Senior Leadership Consultant of the Kaplan Licensed Faculty.

To learn more about Kaplan Leadership and Professional Development please contact us at

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