I was struck in the confusion during and immediately after the 2016 presidential election by Ezra Klein’s reporting about Hillary Clinton. He had noticed major, consistent differences between what the public said about her and what people who had actually worked for her had told him. Following this “gap,” as he called it, Klein came to understand that Clinton led by listening and by forging enduring relationships — two significant political leadership qualities that presidential campaigns frankly fail to test. Summarizing, he wrote: “You do not need to assert any grand patriarchal conspiracy to suggest that a process developed by men, dominated by men, and, until relatively late in American life, limited to men might subtly favor traits that are particularly prevalent in men.”
I’m not writing this to explain 2016, nor to defend Clinton (as much as I’ll readily admit that, despite her flaws, I’m still with her). Instead, I want to establish more clearly what female leadership looks like in general, if such a thing exists, and what needs to happen going into the November midterm elections to ensure it gets its due in our government.
Aside from Klein’s points that listening and coalition-building represent more “feminine” political leadership styles, in the course of my research I found very few attributes that are unique to women leaders. It’s a nebulous thing; on the one hand, leadership is leadership — the qualities one gender needs to succeed in politics and business are roughly equivalent to the next. And on the other, leadership styles are as plentiful and varied as leaders themselves.
See for yourself.
Forbes lists as great leadership qualities the abilities to self-manage, act strategically, communicate effectively, hold oneself accountable, be goal-oriented, have a vision, understand complexity, foster creativity, promote teamwork, build and maintain long-term relationships, and adapt. Meanwhile, Entrepreneur identifies seven different skills: practice emotional control, avoid drama, be honest, brave, and empathic, know thy self, and maintain your reputation. Some of these assets might jump out as more traditionally “masculine” or “feminine,” but leaders need to check off as many as they can, regardless of sex.
Compassion and collaborativeness were two qualities I saw repeatedly defined as “female.” Others seemed to result from women succeeding in a male-dominated world, or alternately were framed as advice for those seeking to do so. For example: having strength, perseverance, and the ability to spot opportunities that might otherwise be overlooked — and to self-advocate for them.
Another was being able to build “women-empowered workplaces” as businesses fall on either side of the #MeToo movement.
We are all products of the world we live in, and the traits we assign to leadership are simply descriptions of the leaders we have.
With only 6.4% of Fortune 500 companies and fewer than 10% of U.N. member states run by women as of 2017, the problem is apparent: we simply do not have enough non-male leaders to have fully-fleshed out descriptions of leadership.
I read several columns enumerating various traits of great leaders. All of them featured photos of confident-looking men. Indeed, when asked to picture leadership, being male is one of the qualities both men and women imagine… and prefer.
In a test, Organizational Behaviorist Tina Kiefer, a professor at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom, asked a group of majority non-English-speaking executives, to draw an effective leader. Most drew men or described their gender-neutral drawings using male pronouns. This phenomenon, which was picked up on by psychologists all over the world, led to more detailed studies about how people view leadership. For example: two leaders follow an identical script written to test the accepted leadership trait of speaking up with ideas. One, called Eric, decisively “exhibits leadership.” While the other, Erica, who read the exact same script, does not gain status from speaking up, and thus is not viewed by participants as a leader. A single letter — and chromosome — makes all the difference.
Alice Eagly, author of Through the Labyrinth: The Truth about How Women Become Leaders, puts this double bind succinctly. “So what’s a woman to do, be nice and kind and friendly, as our gender stereotypes about women require, or be tough and decisive, as our stereotypes about leadership demand? To be one is to be seen as nice, but weak. To be the other is to be seen as competent but unlikeable.”
Add to this conundrum the greater cost that women bear when setting out for success. Many feel they must choose between mothering and leading. Others, who choose both, are overwhelmingly responsible for finding and managing childcare. Sheryl Sandberg covers these factors and more in her excellent TED talk, “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders,” about why women drop out of the workforce in high-income sectors more often than men do.
But in the wake of Trump’s election, women have dropped in… to politics at least. 2018 is rumored to be another “Year of the Woman” — a phrase not used since 1992, after Anita Hill’s testimony against then Supreme Court nominee and alleged sexual harasser, Clarence Thomas proved insufficient for the Senate to keep him off the bench. Subsequently, demand for more female voices in the Senate rose. More women ran and were elected, raising the number of women in that chamber of Congress from just three in September of ‘92 to six by January of ‘93.
It is maddening that pussy-grabbing men taking office is what inspires such activation among women, but it’s not 1992 anymore. 23 women currently serve in the Senate, and if we double that number again this year, we’ll be much closer to equal representation.
Thanks to women-led organizations like Emily’s List, Emerge America, Vote Run Lead, and Crowd PAC, as well as additional Republican-led efforts, women candidates have much greater support going into their races for governor, the House, and the Senate. Women voters, too, can show up to the polls with necessary, empowering information.
In writing this article I set out to cover specific leaders and the qualities that make them successful, but what emerged was a system — a relationship — between leaders and the people they serve. Definitions of leadership change depending on who holds power, but it’s the people being led (us) who do the defining. We must trust our leaders and expand our gendered perceptions of leadership in order to define them as such.
Lara Wilson Townsend is a writer, brand designer, producer, and movement artist who, along with her husband and puppy, attempts to cram her various interests and occupations into an ongoing project called Compound Yucca Valley (@compoundyv), an art space in the high desert.