Women in Leadership

29 November 2017

There is nothing more unfair than to have equal parts among unequal,” wrote Lorenzo Milani, paraphrasing Aristotle, in his Letter to a professor at the end of those sixties when the female figure was in a transition period, still unresolved today, and Europe began to talk about Equal Opportunities. That strong push to seek legal and social equality between men and women, which is still strongly questioning gender stereotypes today, has produced the hoped-for results?


Countless media references are pointing to lower pay for women, their minor participation in decision-making tables and low pink shares in so-called STEM professions (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). Women’s leadership, in the limited cases in which it is manifested, is still referred to as a prodigy and synonymous of a great cultural progress of the protagonist company. We understand, therefore, from the clamor created around the women in charge, that we are still far from seeing it as a matter of normal habit.


The principle underpinning Equal Opportunities policies is to give women the opportunity to make choices both for private and professional life without any form of discrimination. Resuming the quotation of Milani, it goes without saying that equality is created only where there is deep respect for the differences that, contrary to what some claim, exist both on a biological and cultural level.


James Damore, the Google engineer author of the text Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber, has outlined a theory that women are not ready to cover roles of responsibility in the tech industry. Google has distanced itself from these claims by firing Damore from the company, but the debate on the link between capacity and diversity of genres does not end with the false steps of the Lords of the Silicon Valley. Numerous researches have attempted to answer the question of whether there is a real difference between female and male leadership, highlighting how this actually exists, but should be interpreted with caution.


The differences between the leader’s figure in male or female form does not concern the level of effectiveness, but some dominant characteristics in the two genres. According to a study conducted by Caliper Corp, one of the leading talent management consultants, an in-depth analysis of the managerial style of 59 women leaders highlighted how non-coercive leadership based on relationships and teamwork, mostly feminine characteristic, functions better in modern organizations. Women seem to be more pragmatic, but also better listeners and more inclined to include the various team members. Greater flexibility and empathy combined with persuasion skills are consistent with an educational style often reserved for girls. That same education on the other side produces a greater humility and willingness to question themselves. Characteristics that are too often mistakenly interpreted as weakness by the same women, accustomed to consider the prevailing pattern of male behavior as being the only one correct, thus feeling in many cases unsuitable for covering roles of power.


As highlighted by Max Bergami, Dean of Bologna Business School, in his article Women’s Leadership: What women say, maternity is still a rock on the path to equality. Equality, however, cannot predict the same burdens and honors for both genres, since most of the responsibilities about children are still, almost exclusively, on women. Nonetheless, many companies involved in improving employees’ working conditions and CSR, include in their strategies the implementation of a corporate kindergarten.


In part is about biology and the theory of evolution, but it is largely a matter of education and culture. The obvious minority of women in the university classrooms of Physics, Engineering and Mathematics is also a result, according to recent studies, of parents’ educational choices. Lin Bian, Sarah-Jane Leslie and Andrei Cimpian have pointed out, in their research published on Science, that gender differences in intelligence settle down very soon and then affect the interests that children and girls develop from the very beginning. Even the simple choice of toys, dedicated to motherhood and house care for girls while boys are given constructions and simulations of virile and complex jobs, affects the fact that females feel intellectually inferior to males as early as age of 6.


In Italy, the female leaders in the private sector account for only 16%, but the trend has grown positively by 20% in the last five years. In part, the turnaround is due to the entry into force of Law 120/2011 of August 12, 2011, also called the “Rose Quotes” or the Law “Gulf-Moscow”, which reserves a quota of at least one fifth of its members to the less represented gender in listed and public companies.


The positive impacts of leadership on women are manifold and well-documented but, beyond determining whether women really have the right skills to win in a world of rules created by the opposite sex, it is necessary to understand that the complementary nature of the characteristics of both the genres find its best expression in a fair and equitable collaboration. This is all the more important with the entry into the workplace of the Millennials, a much more fluid generation than the precedents on gender issues, which risks not to find the right models in its more experienced colleagues.


People, regardless of sex, have extraordinary potential and different ways of expressing them. Limits do not exist, except in those who impose them on others.


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