An outsider, studying our culture from the headlines on business and news magazines, might wonder what all the fuss is about. Women wanted the top jobs, then they got them, then they didn’t want them anymore. Men wanted to keep women out, then they thought that becoming more feminine would give them a competitive advantage, then they got tough and ruthless all over again. Now women are nearly as ubiquitous as men in the middle management ranks, and there are enough women making an impact at the “C” level that no one can label them token representatives anymore. But while things may look slightly better in terms of numbers, something is still not quite right below the surface. Male or female, gender isn’t supposed to matter in the corporate setting anymore. So how come the bulk of the research out there points to the same ugly problems concerning women in leadership?
You see, ever since the industrial revolution — or at least the 1930s — the organization had been markedly masculine. The dominant “mechanical school” of organizational theory, for example, was founded on such ideas as centralized authority, specialization and expertise, division of labor, principles, rules, and regulations. The emerging organization, however, was more feminine in gender because it was characterized by collaboration, the delegation of authority, empowerment, trust, openness, concern for the whole person, an emphasis on interpersonal relations, and the inevitability of interdependence. The type of organization that would appear to be the perfect platform for what Dr. Lois Frankel calls the “feminization of leadership”. In her instructive book, See Jane Lead (2007), Frankel states that women have always lead, but not in ways that were valued or recognized in the old, mechanical school. Women, it would seem, were finally in the right place at the right time
So Soft It’s Hard
With a flattened organizational structure, and a knowledge economy that put a premium on such feminine characteristics as collaboration, trust and sensitivity, it was only a matter of time before some social psychologist decided to start grooming men in a new way. After all these years, men were now told that hard skills were not really that important when it came to leadership. Technical attributes were like tool belts; they could be picked up at the hardware store when needed, and strapped on to suit the task at hand. Being smart was way less important than being emotionally intelligent.
According to writers like Daniel Goleman, women have emotional intelligence in spades. All that time spent chatting instead of getting to the crux of important issues? That was really about bonding, openness, sharing, empathy, building rapport, and trust. How about the need to consult everyone in the organization from the boss to the janitor before making an important decision? That was all about consensus building, alignment, and seeing the issue from multiple perspectives.
During the boom years, it seemed to work. Productivity was high, stock prices rose, new markets emerged and old markets got bigger and more profitable. Maybe this business of the organization and leadership becoming feminine wasn’t so bad after all? Then the bubble burst, the economy contracted, and long-range projections for growth fell off a cliff. Time to baton down the hatches. After all, when the going gets tough the tough get going.
That’s when women started to reconsider what I call “ROL”, or Return on Leadership.
Who’s Sorry Now?
When the going got tough, a lot of women decided they didn’t want to be any tougher. All of that slaving for the big bucks, working yourself to the bone, ripping the fabric of your family and personal life to shreds . . . maybe it just wasn’t worth it; the ROL was in the “red” for many talented women. They never felt the need to obtain an online MBA or graduate degree, it was futile. The headlines on those business and news magazines said it all. Women Aren’t In...
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