In a male-dominated society, qualities that are traditionally regarded as more “female” in nature are often referred to as “soft skills.” These are qualities like being relationship-focused, tapping into feelings and intuition, or paying attention not just to the content of a conversation but also the tone and atmosphere.
These “soft skills” are usually seen as less valuable than the “hard skills” of managing a business. So if you’re a marginalized voice in a male-dominated society, it’s tempting to try to find your voice⎯ and to be heard⎯by adapting to the culture around you. And yes, this can be an important first step in accessing your power and climbing the ladder.
But it comes at a price. By simply adapting to the culture around you, you end up further marginalizing those qualities that are traditionally regarded as “female.” A disturbing consequence, not only because it creates a split within ourselves as women, but also because I believe the qualities typically associated with female approaches are undervalued and sorely needed in today’s world.
Many of the female leaders I coach have suffered burn out because they felt they had to prove their worth to climb the ladder. And the way to prove their value was to exhibit characteristics typically associated with masculinity. The price they paid was strained marital relationships, stress, depression, maternal guilt, and more.
And it’s not only women who suffer from the marginalization of “female qualities.” The marginalization also impacts men and the
organization as a whole. Integrating and equally valuing the female and male qualities is essential to create sustainable organizational cultures that benefit everyone, women and men.
My main work with female leaders has been around finding their voice and their power by getting behind their differences instead of pushing against them. When you’re able to stand up for your differences in a congruent way while also valuing the contributions of men and the importance of so-called “male qualities”, you find your voice and you can transform the leadership culture in organizations.
The challenge and responsibility for the organization is to encourage and include the marginalized voices not just of women, but of all marginalized people and groups. These are the voices of people who don’t just go along with mainstream views and opinions, but offer the alternative ideas and perspectives needed for innovation and organizational transformation.
To a woman pursuing leadership positions, I advise exploring not only what you want, but also why you want it. Look at leadership as a calling. What does the calling of leadership enable you to do, be, and create that truly ignites you?
Great leadership is built on self-awareness: who you are, your core values, your unique powers. Getting in touch with that inner essence will enable a woman to climb the ladder without betraying her nature and values; that essence will give her the power to stand firmly for who she is and what she brings to the world.
Niyati Evers is an international facilitator, teacher and writer with more than twenty years of experience working with group dynamics and personal change processes around the world.