Have you ever been standing in line patiently waiting for the till, and your senses are suddenly bombarded with the flashy headlines from the magazine rack? ‘How to be a career woman’, ‘become the ultimate boss lady’ or ‘step up into his shoes’ has been boldly paired with an image of a woman in a suit. These statements are made with the best intentions and we love how far we’ve come, but for centuries women have been told how to dress, walk, talk, eat and sleep, and now we are changing the narrative.
Talking about women empowerment and ‘women leaders’’ is a tricky subject, especially when there are so many nuances to the topic. As leaders, we have the power to shift the mindset that women need to be molded into some idealised image. Here are some tips on how you can help women embody more of who they are, and less of who we expect them to be.
Recognise that there are masculine and feminine strengths. We ALL embody both.
We lose something valuable in a society where women and men try to enhance their masculinity just to be treated fairly. This inauthenticity doesn’t only deplete us, but it creates disconnection when we act according to how we think others want us to be. When we have our masculine masks on, we change the workplace dynamic to be more guarded. So what can we do to reconnect?
- Take the emphasis off competitive behaviour & reward team effort
- Create safer spaces at work by normalising mistakes
- Use humour and compassion when discussing human errors
- Celebrate feminine traits in both men and women
- Become curious about behaviour and ask gentle questions – people know more than we give them credit for.
- Remember emotions are not masculine or feminine, they are human.
- Normalise the expression of emotion in men.
Remember authority stifles autonomy
Being too directive or authoritative in your leadership approach can stifle your teams’ creativity, resourcefulness and ability to express themselves. This approach can evoke fear and stagnancy and rings the familiar bell of an old patriarchal paradigm. So how do we make the shift?
- Start by becoming genuinely curious about the human-being in front of you.
- Be mindful that pushing women to be in power is still pushing.
- Remember, success doesn’t look the same for everyone.
- Practice patience with yourself and others. Change takes time.
- Once we find balance within ourselves, we can form a more balanced society.
Change the narrative
When we perpetuate the narrative that women are victims and nothing else, we leave women in a position where they are expected to live up to this label – this is an example of confirmation bias. Confirmation bias refers to the tendency to search for information that validates or confirms our preconceived beliefs or perceptions. This can sometimes happen when we put huge emphasis on talking about women specifically. So how can we change this?
- Rather speak about gender dynamics as a whole
- Read up about intersectional feminism
- Ask questions, it’s ok not to know everything
- Be mindful to include the LGBTQ+ community into the discussion
- Recognise that the dynamic is being played out by both men and women
- Both genders are responsible for setting up a better relationship with one another
Become sensitised to gender roles
Gender roles are still firmly entrenched in most cultures and perpetuated by both women and men. Although it takes time to shift these restricting beliefs, we must remember that they have very likely been established since childhood. It takes patience, communication and an openness to mistakes in order to really make a shift. Remember that women can also play a role in their own oppression and we will all need to make a change by monitoring our own bias and prejudice towards women.
- Notice your assumptions and expectations about women and men.
- Challenge yourself to where you have the same qualities as your opposite
- Notice your judgements towards others because these can help us build awareness around our social expectations and bias.
- Respect that some individuals are content with how they identify.
Knowledge is power but it can also be a defense mechanism
Taking the time to read up on gender issues is imperative if you want to understand the deeper dynamics at play, but sometimes it can create obstacles for women in leadership. These conversations about gender can evoke all kinds of emotions in both parties which sometimes leads to defensiveness. Common defense mechanisms in the workplace could show up as ‘intellectualising’ or trying to show we are experts on a subject. Intellectualising an issue distances us from others and often shows up when we are feeling protective of ourselves and our vulnerabilities. People instinctively know when we regard ourselves as superior to them, so it’s important to always check in to see what’s going on for us. This way we are able to level the playing field and create the connection we all want. So how can we connect more authentically?
- Facilitate discussion rather instead of teaching or lecturing.
- Share your own struggles and how you plan to overcome them.
- Focus on your own journey and explore why you are inspired by the educational content, rather than focusing on how other others should receive it.
- Be conscious of when you are experiencing strong emotions and be curious about why.
- Defensive behaviour is completely normal and understandable, what counts is that we work through it with ourselves and others.
- Remember we are ultimately responsible for managing our own emotions and setting our own boundaries. Start with you!
Create a zero tolerance policy on sexual harassment
Sexual harassment is still a pervasive issue in the workplace and includes physical, non-verbal and verbal sexual advances from colleagues. Often used as leverage to secure employment or control others; sexual harassment can be detrimental to an individual’s wellbeing and must be prevented at all costs. It’s imperative that leaders learn how to spot the signs and create a safe supportive space for all. Here’s how you can help.
- Introduce a zero-tolerance policy
- Raise awareness around the issue
- Have regular workshops and train employees on proper conduct
- Report and treat concerns seriously