The Blog

Good Thing, Bad Thing: Lessons from a Crazy Month in Women's Leadership

It's been quite a month for women in leadership. The referendum has revealed all kinds of rifts -- within political parties, in regional and generational attitudes to the EU, but also in the treatment of men and women in power.

Drawing any single lesson from the past five weeks is hard. I'm reminded of how easy it is to fall into lazy ways of thinking, how important it is to challenge our own assumptions. I can't help but think of the Taoist story of the farmer and his horse, and what it demonstrates about the duality of good and bad.

Here's what I mean:

Bad thing? Women don't always support other women. Millennial American women haven't universally embraced Hillary Clinton. Before she got the job, several women were quick to throw cold water over the idea that Theresa May's appointment would be a win for feminism, many citing the treatment of Yarl's Wood immigrants as reason enough to question her self-professed feminist credentials.

Laurie Penny called the Tory candidacy a "panicked, Pound-Shop Thatcher tribute-band contest". Post-Brexit, I was astonished to hear a woman who'd supported Boris Johnson say she'd be more likely to align with Michael Gove (who betrayed him and is now out of Cabinet) because 'not everyone is ready for a female Prime Minister'. So much for #SheforShe.

Even though the likes of Catalyst and McKinsey have evidence linking the presence of board-level women to better business performance, in politics, we still don't see that much real push for diversity.

Good thing? Maybe we've finally shelved the 'Queen Bee' myth. Women don't feel the need to support fellow women just to boost their numbers at the top. The current millennial attitude suggests they aren't hampered by false loyalty. That they want more diversity among the current crop of female MPs is implicit - and dissatisfaction with the status quo may galvanise some to re-think what political leadership looks like from the ground up.

Bad thing? Inevitable comparisons to Margaret Thatcher. Women in politics don't have to use Mrs Thatcher as a role model. Doing so, as Cathy Newman points out, hems them in. Why can't we have role models as diverse as the times demand? Angela Merkel, Aung San Suu Kyi, or even Boudicca might be just as fitting.

Good thing? Thatcher was a groundbreaker for UK women, and we shouldn't underestimate the influence of female role models, even if they're just to rebel against. As divisive as she was (and still is), Thatcher has been name-checked by the likes of female entrepreneur Anya Hindmarch as an inspiration. It's said that Nicola Sturgeon went into politics because she was so angered by Mrs Thatcher's legacy. Women leaders have a 'normalising' effect on our perceptions of what's possible, even if we don't share their views.

Bad thing? Women are still judged collectively - and personally - as leaders. May is not a tough negotiator, but a "bloody difficult woman", according to former Chancellor Kenneth Clarke, Sheryl Sandberg was a bossy pupil. The media makes great play of Merkel's maternal qualities although she has no children.

The double standards applied to women have been well documented and they persist, despite predictions they'd erode with each generation.

Women in power still cannot get away with as much, at least not in office. Boris Johnson was allowed to be, even cherished as, eccentric and tactless. May has been likened to a Stormtrooper. She's allowed to show eccentricity in only the smallest ways (sartorially). We don't want our female leaders to be funny or dishevelled, and it's rare to see women described as charismatic.

Good thing? Charisma is hardly a formula for leadership success. Jim Collins punctured the showy leader myth long ago with "Good to Great". True leaders don't pursue their own agenda, or seek to exert power over people. In tumultuous times, we want a safe pair of hands -- a stereotype often applied to low-key leaders.

Bad thing? When a woman takes on a tough job, it's assumed she's been handed a poisoned chalice. She's on the 'glass cliff', doomed to failure. The thinking is: she didn't get the role because she was the best person for the job. She got it because no man wanted it.

This assumes several things: that women are less capable, of course, but also that women at the top are interchangeable. Mary Barra is not Marissa Mayer any more than Nicola Sturgeon is Theresa May. The assumption that there is a cookie-cutter's outline of a woman leader is unhelpful, even if that outline is flattering. Women don't necessarily make better leaders; they aren't inherently more compassionate or more communicative than men.

As Laurie Penny puts it: "Women aren't enchanted beings who bring light and harmony to politics by wafting fragrantly through the corridors of power. Women are just people."

Good thing? All you need to do to prove naysayers wrong is not fail. Meanwhile, you're gaining invaluable crisis and risk management experience. What's more, every time someone raises the glass cliff theory, it's a challenge to prevailing opinion. Do some still see women as no more than moppers-up and patsies?

It's not always easy to see the good in something you feel is fundamentally bad. Playing 'good thing/bad thing' is a useful exercise in testing your bias. It's also a reminder that not everything falls into neat categories. Sometimes you have to get comfortable with conflicting truth.

This is imperative for future leaders -- we need people who can reconcile themselves to diverse ways of thinking. If women are part of this new wave, that's no bad thing.