3 things I’ve learnt from female leaders (as a guy)
A few years ago I was doing a story session with around 60 leaders almost all of them male. I was working with Kelly, a female leader who was facilitating the session with me. We were doing a section on how to manage challenging conversations and Kelly used an example to illustrate a point I had made.
Without hesitation, a male leader commented “That’s a great point Kelly because…” and went on to repeat exactly what she had said word for word. I pointed out that was exactly what Kelly said. I looked around and people were nodding so we moved on. Later I was debriefing with Kelly:
Mark: “How strange was it when that guy repeated what you said?”
Kelly: “Not that strange”
Mark: “What do you mean?”
Kelly: “It happens every day. Didn’t you notice everybody start nodding when he repeated it?”
Mark: “Actually I did”
Kelly: “It’s like they don’t hear what I say unless a guy repeats it. Sometimes I feel like I’m invisible.”
This feedback threw me. We had worked together for over a year and while I had seen other behaviors, I hadn’t noticed this before. I decided that maybe this was specific to the environment Kelly was in so I asked other female leaders I worked with. I learnt very quickly that her experience was far from unique.
In fact, there are three things female leaders have taught me about the challenges they face:
- “I don’t feel heard”
Depending on the environment they are in, many female leaders feel that they struggle to have their voice heard, especially when they are the only woman in the room. Often their ideas are only heard if and when a male colleague repeats it.
- “My authority is questioned”
For many senior female leaders, even when they own the decision they are making, their authority is regularly questioned. This is not only by senior colleagues who are at their level or higher, but also often by people that work for them.
- “I constantly need to prove myself”
Even the most accomplished female leaders with a strong track record of delivering outstanding outcomes, feel like they constantly have to prove themselves. Despite any past achievements, they feel like they are continually having to start from scratch.
In speaking to female leaders, what I discovered is that I was limited by my own perspective. I have always worked in areas with high female representation and had never experienced these challenges so I mistakenly assumed that others saw the world the way I did.
While there is no simple answer in how to shift this, there are a few things female leaders can do to help deal with these challenges:
- Get support beforehand
If you are going into a meeting where you need to get an outcome, think about what support you have and how you can get them aligned prior to the meeting. While this may not guarantee your outcome, it should at least ensure that your voice is heard.
- Ask a better question
When you are constantly questioned it is normal to be defensive, over explain and feel the need to justify yourself. Don’t. Instead, ask a better question like “What does that mean?” or “What makes you say that?” This will force the other person to justify themselves and give you the opportunity to guide the conversation.
- Don’t ask permission if you don’t have to
If your authority is constantly challenged, you may feel the need to seek lots of opinions before making a decision. This can make it harder to achieve your ultimate outcome. If you are confident and have the authority to make your own decision then don’t ask for permission.
While these strategies aren’t a cure for the unique challenges’ female leaders experience, they can be an effective way to help you deal with them. If nothing else, they should at least ensure that you never have to feel invisible.