Jackie Kinsey, Chief Leadership Officer at ThoughtWorks

In today’s rapidly changing business environment, the definition of what makes a good leader needs to adapt and change with it.

Female leader
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The traditional image of a leader as autocratic, in control, unemotional and hierarchical is a leader who is relevant to a work environment where technology wasn’t central to work. Today’s technology-centred environment is more fluid, constant and open which therefore creates the opportunity for a different type of leader to empower this new way of working. The range of personalities, styles and approaches is infinite, and therefore there should not be one solitary style, or stereotype, of an effective leader. The workplace is varied and challenging, therefore, being authentic and honest with yourself are two essential characteristics to being a good leader in today’s workplace. The obstacles that cross our paths often occur when we have stretched ourselves in an unnatural way, but ultimately you need to find a way and definition of leadership that works best for you and by doing so help to change and evolve the current outdated stereotype.

At ThoughtWorks, we wanted to focus on accelerating our women leadership talent pipeline and experiment with different approaches and explore how to facilitate a broader range of leadership styles. We created a programme where the goal and outcome was to make an impact. It didn’t matter what area of the business or how deep and broad – just an impact. A number of the participants struggled with the openness of this goal and what this allowed for was even less restrictions. We took the participants through a process to explore what they were passionate about and then figure out what they could do to move these ideas forward.

After running a number of rounds of this programme, the results have been incredible: one woman is currently setting up her own startup around a vision to improve a product in the medical industry and another women progressed from being an amazing business analyst to co-leading with another woman our Brazil business, which has 360 people in four locations. While these are just two examples, all of the participants have taken action and moved forwards towards the area they are passionate about and so made an impact for two reasons.

Firstly, the individuals explore and define leadership in their own words and terms. This is a deep and reflective exercise, where the women define leadership in words that describe them best, which are varied, and enables them to step into a space that they have tailor-made. The women feel comfortable, confident and relaxed with their personalised definition of leadership. The second reason why these programmes have been successful is because the women are able to focus on what they are most passionate about at work. Confucius said, “Choose a job that you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.“ In doing these two things, our leadership team members develop a clear focus on their passions and leadership style, which provides a strong springboard into future career development and progression.

While there is often a lot of conversation about why separate programmes or attention is needed for younger women when it comes to leadership development, we don’t often hear about the reason why these programmes are needed. There are inherent implicit biases in us all, both men and women, that we need to be aware of when it comes to the standard stereotypes and systems of work. Instead of accepting the unconscious bias as truth, it is better to bring these to the surface so we can all be more aware. For example, during a session in our leadership development programme, some of our younger women discussed how they didn’t feel there were problems and perceived work as a meritocracy.

However, as women progress (or not) through the system of work it becomes apparent that this isn’t the case. Women make up 50% of the workforce, but are they on 50% of the boards or leadership teams? Not right now, so one of the values of having a female-only group is that you can discuss and focus on growth, and we remove one aspect of bias around subtle differences in gender behaviours from the meeting. We all have unconscious bias and some of the things we accept in our day-to-day world subtly reinforce this. One observation which captures this is on the London Underground. Ironically my husband pointed this out to me – as I hadn’t even noticed.

The informational voice is a female, and the instructional voice is a male. While this is an example of unconscious bias, it points to a larger struggle women face in business when it comes to leadership positions.

If as in the case of the London Underground announcement distinction, they are expected to give information rather than instruct, they will have a harder time gaining respect as they are going against an unconscious bias that both men and women have. This is why all leaders need to invest the time to challenge their conscious and unconscious biases. It is only through this practice that the unconscious becomes conscious and therefore can be corrected as and when appropriate and we will be able to have a more inclusive and equal work environment. One example of where exploring these biases resulted in a positive outcome is research conducted by Claudia Goldin and Cecelia Rouse surrounding Orchestra selection, named “Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of “Blind” Auditions on Female Musicians” After they introduced blind auditions with screens there was an increase between 30 and 55% of the proportion of female new hires.

When it comes to the ‘system’ of work and pay, I was disheartened to read the latest definition of “Mummy tax.” The BBC recently shared a report which reinforced the statistic that when women return to work after having a baby, they continue to earn less than men for many years afterwards, This affects all women in all industries, and it isn’t always about having maternity leave. Jennifer Lawrence wrote an open letter reflecting on how one potential reason for the difference in pay between her and her male movie stars was she had not been assertive enough in asking for more pay. It would be great to imagine a world where people were genuinely paid equal amounts for equal work.

The Equal Pay Act in 1970 was hoping to do this but it hasn’t been achieved yet. One very helpful exercise we use in our leadership development programme is exploring assumptions, given that assumptions shape our behaviours, whether or not they are valid. Jennifer Lawrence had an assumption that she “failed as a negotiator” and that in asking for more money she would be seen as “ungrateful” or “spoiled.” I don’t think that the male movie stars thought for a moment how the request would come across and how they would be perceived, they just asked for what they wanted. In order to change the system we need to be aware of the biases, and to challenge and then act on our own assumptions to create a more equal system.

With this in mind, what suggestions would I have for women entering the workforce? First, be aware that this isn’t an equal and fair world but also have the courage and conviction to ask for what you think is right both in terms of opportunity and pay. Secondly, get comfortable with what you want to ask for and practise asking for the pay rise in a way that fits your communication style and approach. This, of course, does run the challenge of going against implicit bias, but it is the only way things will improve. Finally, do not let your own assumptions hold you back;challenge the assumptions you may have about either how people perceive you or your work in a way that is authentic to you.

When it comes to what makes an effective female leader, it is about reflecting and clarifying what your strengths, skills and passions are.

If you are clear on these areas then stepping into situations and leadership won’t feel as much of a challenge. Don’t let the existing perceptions of what a leader must look like stop you from considering yourself as one. We have a duty of care to each other to help support, mentor and share our stories to illustrate the variety in leadership styles and help give the future generation of leaders the confidence and ability to lead in a way that works for them. In doing this, we will eventually change the ‘system of work. You should be empowered to challenge the assumptions and biases that exist today, but by doing it in your style, this will help us have a more inclusive and diverse definition of leadership than we have today.