In my last blog I looked at why feminism is still a dirty word for some people, following a comment made to me by a friend at dinner. This week, I want to explore another comment from that same dinner: the notion that women are ‘too emotional’ for the boardroom.
I thoroughly disagree with this old-fashioned stereotype, for several reasons. Firstly, if women are unsuited to serving on boards, you would expect to find companies with more female board members doing badly. In fact, the opposite is true. A Harvard Business Review article found that companies with women on the board made better acquisition and investment decisions and had less aggressive risk-taking, yielding benefits for shareholders. This was particularly evident during the financial crisis of 2007 – 2009.
The article theorises this may be due to female board members balancing out over-confident male CEOs. Female leaders tend to be less conformist and ask more challenging questions, which leads to better overall strategic decision-making. Too emotional? I don’t think so!
Equally, what should we make of the fact that the countries which have responded best so far to the COVID-19 crisis are all led by women? Germany, Taiwan, New Zealand, Denmark and Finland all locked down earlier and have suffered half as many deaths on average as countries led by men. This is clearly not indicative of female leaders going to pieces in a tough situation.
Another interesting point is that men can actually get away with expressing more emotion than women in a business environment. Men displaying traditionally ‘masculine’ emotions like anger are seen as passionate, whereas women will be judged ‘aggressive’ or ‘difficult.’
I’ve seen the evidence for how wrong these gender stereotypes are in my own office. I can be emotional at work but so can many of our highly successful male staff. I am also arguably the most competitive and passionate person on the team.
I would also like us to banish the idea that showing ‘softer’ emotions like sadness makes women – or men - weak or bad leaders. After the terrorist attack in New Zealand in 2019, Jacinda Ahern embraced the relatives of those who died and cried with them. This does not mean she was any less capable of leading her country through a terrible moment. The fact that she was able to show empathy made people respect her more: the ability to show compassion does not reduce your strength. She also displayed her leadership and determination to unite the nation in the speech she gave two weeks later, using calm and dignified language rather than angry rhetoric.
Over the years, many of my own staff have experienced personal issues such as acute or ongoing health issues, bereavements or dips in morale and confidence. Compassion plays a huge part in creating an environment that makes them feel safe and valued. I believe my ability to show emotion and empathy at such times helps create a secure environment where individuals feel comfortable and valued, building loyalty and encouraging better performance. This helps retain staff and build long-term relationships.
In conclusion, it is not women who need to change but our outdated perceptions of what a female or male leader should look like and how they should behave. These perceptions are actually holding companies back, as shown by the evidence that those with a diverse range of men and women on the board perform better.
It’s time we ditched these tired stereotypes. People can share similar traits regardless of gender and we should stop trying to put men and women into different boxes. Expressing emotion does not mean you are incapable of rational judgement and strong leadership – and if companies want to perform well, they need an equal balance of men and women on the board!
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