In the recent G20 Summit, the topic on female leadership caught my eye. Women taking on leadership positions are becoming a first or an emerging trend in many countries and organisations. Looking at the most extraordinary female leaders in the world, whether it is Angela Merkel, first female Chancellor of Germany, Dilma Vana Rousseff, first female President of Brazil, Sujan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube or Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo, they are all authentic leaders in their own right, and aren’t afraid to think innovatively or lead differently. As promising and encouraging as this sounds, the disturbing fact is that female leaders continue to be pigeon-holed despite their leadership abilities and potential.
A recent Gallup poll on leaders in the United States showed that if given a choice between a male and female leader when taking up a new role, Americans strongly lean towards male bosses. The stereotype of the female leader being the “Iron-fisted Ice Queen” who sets targets difficult for any human being to meet still persists. Such stereotype is not uncommon in Asia as well. Yet, the Catch 22 of this is that women who show concern or emotion at the workplace are seen as lacking courage and resilience to make tough decisions and lead change.
Another Catch 22 is where women are often perceived to be single and lonely, resulting in them being “married” to their jobs. Female leaders, despite their capabilities and leadership strengths are sometimes labelled with varying notions of polarity – weak vs. tough, emotional vs ruthless, masculine vs feminine, and the list goes on. When will we as female leaders be freed of these Catch 22 stereotypes and truly be perceived and enabled as leaders in action? Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s advice to women is to be resilient amidst these stereotypes, asserting, “Stop whinging, get on with it and prove them all wrong…it’s only a downward spiral once you’ve cast yourself as a victim.”
There is a long way to go for organisations world-wide in promoting diversity in leadership and enabling women to realise their leadership potential by providing development scaffolds through their leadership journey such as mentorship schemes and impactful leadership development programmes. Forum’s definition on leadership where leaders are not titles or roles waiting to be assumed but an ongoing journey of discovery where one is continuously learning by doing and reflecting, is the approach that I would recommend to increase the pipeline of female leaders in the years to come. Women in the workforce, aspiring to become leaders need to take charge of their development, understand how to establish credibility, what the common stereotypes are and how to avoid falling into potential role traps by leading with confidence, adaptability and courage.