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Leadership qualities do not have a gender

Written by: Corinne Houart
Published on: 21 Sep 2020

When I was growing up in 1970s Brussels, I was convinced that consideration of gender was an error of the past. We were all individuals, with variable skills and talents. Our mothers gave (breast) milk bottles to their partners to share-feed their babies; there were no “girl’s” and “boy’s” toy sections in our shops; we all had knitting and woodwork classes at school; and the stronger maths students in my class were girls.

Three decades later, we seem to have gone back to a pink and blue world. And while about 65 per cent of postdocs in biomedicine are now female, that still drops to 25 per cent of established research team leaders and 5 per cent of senior university leaders.

Almost all proposed remedies to this senior gender imbalance rest on the skewed premise that the established (white) man’s approach – dominance, exclusive focus, stoicism – is best, so we need to fix the “soft” behavioural traits most often found in women. We are used, for instance, to hearing that women’s “lack of confidence” and/or family responsibilities push them to stay too long at the postdoctoral level, or to leave academia entirely. But shouldn’t we expect all parents to feel responsible enough to balance their professional ambitions?

More importantly, my experience as a group leader and departmental chair confirms that lack of confidence is quite evenly distributed across genders, but manifests itself differently (culture and upbringing also have an influence). But lack of confidence isn’t really the problem here. The gender imbalance in leadership may in part be caused by the social expectation for men to stick to their career path, leading to many “falling up” a career ladder ill-suited to their skills and interests. Women pause more often for reflection and feel freer to take alternative routes – but this habit of self-questioning is misdiagnosed, both as timidity and as a problem. In fact, it is a quality that should be encouraged.

This is also true of other predominantly “female” characteristics. For instance, studies show that women apply less often for leadership posts because they are more likely to be put off when they don’t fulfil the complete set of criteria requested. The adopted “solution” is to teach women not to take these criteria so seriously. However, appointment processes would be most effective if the criteria were respected by everyone. Let’s train people to be more self-aware and take decisions according to their skills, limitations and life responsibilities.

Another example: at mock interviews for independent posts, someone on the panel almost always asks candidates to speak louder and/or project a more self-confident body language, despite excellent presentation and sharp, accurate replies to questions. This advice stems from a recognised bias towards loud voices and “charismatic” presence. But, again, the best solution is for us all to learn to pay attention to a much wider range of personalities.

The same biased valuation occurs around the pay gap. We established that the problem partly lies in women’s reluctance to ask for promotion. I would suggest that many men are actually asking for promotion too often. It is certainly reasonable to question a system that rewards scientists who chase posts in competing universities to boost their salary and lab support well above the local norm.

Still, it would be wrong – as some articles do – to simplistically paint “men’s traits” as bad and women’s as perfect. This is just flipping the bias. The world is not only pink or blue, and we need both ends of the gender spectrum to recognise that. If current leaders stopped unconsciously training their successors in their own image, leadership would be attractive to a broad set of personalities with unique approaches.

But how? I have taken part in many “women in leadership” and “gender pay gap” meetings, but their emphasis on fixing women is reflected in the very low male attendance. Universities would be better advised to define clear, unbiased criteria for leadership excellence that integrate human diversity, and then establish two structures.

First, we need goal-driven mentoring workshops for leaders, aimed at deepening self-awareness, transforming narratives and broadening skills. Leaders currently have little time for issues perceived as non-urgent, so perhaps each leader could simply be shadowed for a week by someone from an established team of independent, bias-trained observers, who would then provide them with written, confidential feedback. The exercise could be repeated a year later to allow progress to be measured, and the anonymised feedback could be compiled into a very useful report, distributed across university leaders.

That report could also feed into a working group charged with identifying the most important limitations in leadership and defining the priorities for changes.

An active reshaping of the definition of leadership is a path to a balanced and more effective professional world that makes full use of our diverse brains – including those inclined towards soft, thoughtful and caring approaches.

It is not enough for women to be in the room. We need to be able to lead while staying ourselves – and seeing our qualities integrated into men’s leadership, too.