25/11/2015 08:07 GMT | Updated 24/11/2016 05:12 GMT

Forget Alpha Males and Alpha Females - Leadership has its own quality

In the course of my work on gender equality I always find it fascinating to hear differing views on how successful women are perceived in the workplace. A couple of week's ago at a conference, it struck me how far we still have to go in challenging our perceptions of women in positions of leadership and power when feedback was shared that women in senior roles were viewed unfavourably when they acted like 'Alpha Males'.

In her best selling book 'Lean In', Sheryl Sandberg devoted a whole chapter to the negative correlation between increased success and like-ability for women and the recent comment about 'Alpha Males' confirmed to me that this view is still alive and well. I decided to look a little closer at what we mean when we talk about 'Alpha Males' and 'Alpha Females' and how our views of masculinity and femininity affect women's progression into leadership.

What does 'Alpha Male' and 'Alpha Female' actually mean?

According to the Oxford Advanced Learner's dictionary the definition of 'Alpha Male' is - 'a man tending to assume a dominant or domineering role in social or professional situations' [1]. Interestingly, I was unable to find a definition of 'Alpha Female' in the same dictionary so I opted instead for the definition of 'Alpha' as applied to a person; 'Denoting the dominant (animal) or human in a particular group'. [2] To me, both of these definitions describe a person who displays leadership traits.

What we 'expect' from leaders is not what we 'expect' from women.

When we think about women in positions of power and leadership, such as Hilary Clinton and Angela Merkel, our image of them tends not fulfil our expectations of 'ladylike' behaviour, yet they are seen as possessing the necessary qualities to be a leader. In an article on women in leadership, the Washington Post had this to say about Hilary Clinton:

'Hillary Rodham Clinton is the most prominent example of a political Iron Lady: a tough, tested woman who uses that profile to persuade voters to set aside historic suspicions that women are weak executives.[3] '

So, what do women leaders do if our expectations of 'femininity' do not chime with our expectations of 'leadership' and they are viewed unfavourably as a result? Well, I would suggest that rather than women leaders changing their leadership style, it is our own expectations of women that need to change. In reality, ANY position of power or leadership requires the person who holds it to be tough, decisive, dynamic, resilient and competent. - regardless of gender. Michael Kimmel in his book 'The Gendered Society' hits the nail on the head when he says - 'Men and women have to express certain traits to occupy a political office, and their failure to do so will make the office holder seem ineffective and incompetent'.[4] It is therefore unfair to expect a woman who is inhabiting a position of power or leadership to transform that position to make it fit with our ideas of what is 'feminine'.

Gender is present in all our institutions

We tend to think of gender as something we 'own' as individual on a personal level but as Michael Kimmel again points out, the truth is that gender is embedded in all the significant institutions and social groupings that shape our lives- school, family, work, peer groups and media. Together they promote collective accepted gender norms of masculinity and femininity that form the basis of our opinions of how we expect men and women to behave. The corporate world, where I have spent most of my career, is a difficult and competitive world for everyone to operate in and both men and women have to fit into a certain organisational 'norms' to succeed and thrive. However, by forcing women to fit into an additional 'norm' of femininity, we create an unfair playing field. In my experience, the business world shows all participants that 'Alpha' behaviour is rewarded both financially and by increased status and therefore we cannot expect men and women to behave differently along gender lines when they work in that environment. Each leader will have his or her leadership style related to his or her own personality but not necessarily related to his or her gender.

Modifying our own expectations of what is masculine and feminine is the way forward

The fact that we do not expect women to be aggressive, decisive or ambitious is really our own gender bias coming to the fore. Indeed upon reflection, I realise that I too have may have been harder on women displaying those traits then on men in the past. The truth is that leadership, success and power have their own dynamic so when we talk about men and women as leaders, let's judge their success based on important universal qualities and individual styles rather than through a lens relating to their gender.

[1] (1.1) [2] (1.3) [3] [4] Michael Kimmel 'The Gendered Society' Chapter 5, Page 107 & Page 111, Oxford University Press, 3rd Edition 2008.