The world needs more women leaders — during COVID-19 and beyond
by Louise Champoux-Paillé, Cadre en exercice John Molson School of Business Concordia, Concordia University; Anne-Marie Croteau, Dean, John Molson School of Business, Concordia University, and Steven H. Appelbaum, Professor of Management, Concordia University
The challenges of the 21st century require a new multi-dimensional style of leadership
With the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic top of mind for most of our leaders, economic recovery plans are being studied and analyzed by researchers.
As with any plan, success hinges on certain conditions being put in place. The one we consider most important is the gender balance in positions of power and influence within our societies.
Gender parity leads to collaboration and a blending of visions, and paves the way for the adoption of more comprehensive and inclusive solutions than if they’re conceived from only one perspective.
A recent study that looked at the performance of 194 countries in their fight against COVID-19 found that women-led countries were generally more successful in fighting the pandemic than those led by men. However, it’s worth noting that there was already a balanced representation of both sexes in the countries’ key roles of power and influence, suggesting that leadership environments with gender parity lead to healthier, stronger and more consensual decisions.
Leadership has historically been defined in terms of the stereotypes that characterize men in power: rationality, pragmatism, hierarchy and a focus on short-term outcomes. This helps explain why the legitimacy of power is more associated with men, as revealed by the Reykjavik Leadership Index.
The index, launched in 2018, helps measure perceptions of women in power in 11 different countries, including all G7 countries. It assesses the perceived legitimacy of male and female leadership in different positions of power, and it shows there are still unfortunately large disparities.
Now to ask the tough question: Is leadership gendered? In other words, do gender prejudices about leadership lead to harsh judgments from society?
To quote a 2019 research article one of us co-authored entitled “Women as Leaders: The More Things Change, the More It’s the Same Thing”:
“Women and men remain categorized according to their sexual roles; women have community behaviours and men have so-called self-determination or individualistic behaviours. The … leadership style attributed to men is considered normal and acceptable, but when women seek to make it theirs by displaying characteristics such as assertiveness, tenacity and competitiveness, they no longer fit the stereotypical definition that has been devolved to them.”
We believe it’s time to revise the definition of leadership to make it more multi-dimensional by expanding the list of qualities it should include while understanding that leadership is expressed differently depending on the challenges and needs of different organizations.
More compassionate leadership
We advocate for a leadership style that is more consensus-building, caring, more open and inclusive and more likely to encourage participation by others. When women join leadership teams, there is an increase in leadership qualities like empathy, compassion, communication and collaboration that become part of the DNA of those organizations.
Recent research has concluded that even alpha male subordinates prefer and prosper under a leadership style with more feminine characteristics.
There are advantages to a multi-dimensional leadership style, in particular during difficult times like the ones we’re experiencing now. Employees are looking at their leaders for inspiration and reassurance. They need to be listened to and they expect the leadership team to pay attention to signs of exhaustion and provide support to those who need it.
Time will tell if a gender-neutral leadership style exists and is successful since there’s not an equal number of women and men in leadership roles.
A quick look at the Canadian business community shows the various difficulties faced by women that create barriers for them to access these leadership roles: biases, stereotypes, work-life balance, absences due to motherhood and corporate policies ill-suited to the realities of women’s lives.
All of this means that very few women reach the highest levels of our organizations. Only four per cent of president and CEO positions are held by women and none of them hold this position among the TSX60 companies. The situation is even more dismal for racialized people.
Achieving full potential
We strongly believe that everyone, men and women, should be able to achieve their greatest potential. Women need to know early on in their lives that they can be leaders and should not limit themselves. Kamala Harris, the newly elected vice-president of the United States, said on election night:
“Every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities.”
We have yet to see what the “Harris effect” will be, but previous research has suggested having positive role models leads to some powerful outcomes, particularly for women and women of colour.
The challenges of the 21st century — climate change, health, the environment, depletion of global resources, an aging population, talent development, social inequities, telecommuting, new technologies and so on — require a new multi-dimensional style of leadership, because the challenges ahead of us require the contributions of everyone.
We advocate for a leadership model that incorporates the skills, intelligence and talents of all in order to tackle these challenges.