Leading Like a Woman

My first read of the year has been a sign that this year I would be a lesson on women leaders- Not for Turning, a Margaret Thatcher biography. I was very excited when I started then I realised that maybe I should have read it as a hard copy. You see, I grew up listening to BBC radio because my parent’s generation was raised on the ‘Queen’s English’ and it was a mark of education so naturally, we had to speak English as well and speak it well. As a habit, I turn on the BBC to know what’s going on in The West and just general knowledge. When I was young, I remember how much I loved the radio shows and as I have grown up, I appreciate the other culture and education content that the organisation has built on. As an adult, when sleep would be hard to come by, I would kill two birds with one stone and play the BBC as I fell asleep. Think Dexter’s lab and how he learned French, it’s a win-win. And so, listening to the book has been one long BBC feature on Margaret Thatcher. I am so sorry.

My original inspiration was a question from a group discussion: Why is it that when we speak of leaders we look up to, other than Oprah, Mother Teresa and one’s mother, we automatically pick up male names? It’s 2021, there is not a shortage of women leaders to look up to. My next inspiration was the Activate Women in Leadership Summit that I attended just before I went into this little writing hiatus. The event is part of a movement to bring together women leaders and encourage more seats at the table for women leaders. After 2020, the strides organisations can make with women in leadership has really come into focus.

Women are often held to higher performance standards than men, and they may be more likely to take the blame for failure—so when the stakes are high, as they are now, senior-level women could face higher criticism and harsher judgement. Senior-level women are also nearly twice as likely as women overall to be “Onlys”—the only or one of the only women in the room at work.

Mckinsey, Women in the Workplace 2020

As I was plotting this post, I reflected on the leaders that have made an impact on me. I have had both male and female, admittedly more male leaders than female but in the same breath, I do know several women leaders outside my work experience. I can’t say that the leaders I encountered were one way or another because of their gender, their impact was because of one aspect that they all had in common- they love what they do, do not settle and had no problem raising up the people around them. They were all action and only a little bit of talk.

At the summit, the panel pointed out the ways in which women are pulled into leading like men. One comment was on dressing, the panellists commented that she found herself in time dressing down in dark colours because that’s how men dress- charcoal grey, black, navy blue or white and baby blue if you go light. She said she loves her colours but somehow, constantly sitting at a table with men, being the minority colour literally, she found herself blending in. Contrast this with Bozoma St John, an amazing woman. I fell in love with her after an interview where she impressed on me the importance of accepting your personality. Early in her career, a female executive cautioned her about wearing red- lipstick, nail polish or jackets in the boardroom and how women are discouraged to do so because they come off too loud and too bold. She was conflicted because she is a loud person and this advice was more like a silencer than something helpful as was probably intended. I did see the same advice recently about the same, don’t wear red lipstick to an interview, it’s intimidating the interviewer or something like that, I don’t know, I stopped reading because I took Bozoma’s advice and I look good in red lipstick too. And no, we aren’t going into the historical use of red lipstick, times have changed.

None of us will have any impact or influence if we are quiet. So don’t be quiet. Be loud as hell.

Bozoma St. John, The Bad Ass Workshop

Then there is the attitude question- being nice is bad. Women should be rude, crass and vindictive just like men. But then women will be called out for doing half the things men get up to and that’s just some bull. But women naturally care about and uplift others. Women make friends in club bathrooms, you can’t convince me that we are made to backbite and backstab each other to the top. And if a woman is nice, then she gets called out for not being authoritative enough. And if you are authoritative, you are too proud. Seriously! I look forward to the day that doublespeak stops. This brings me back to Margaret Thatcher, the title of the book I am stuck on is from a speech she made after her first year as PM in light of a very high employment rate. The statement was in response to the expectation of her backpedalling on her economic policies like her predecessor to appease the discontent of high unemployment. I was pleased to find that her economic policies set up Britain as an economic power for decades after. She said what she said she stuck to it and accomplished it even with some serious opposition. Boss!

To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase, the “U” turn, I have only one thing to say. “You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.” I say that not only to you but to our friends overseas and also to those who are not our friends.

Margaret Thatcher, Conservative Party Conference Oct 1980

There are so many rules and practices designed to scare women out of leadership. Some even propagated by fellow women. So then what do I see as leading like a woman? I see empathy, thinking things through, kindness, firmness, focus, humane, bringing people together, reliability, strength, excitement. Women have great leadership attributes that are as varied as the rainbow, no wonder we make colours look even better. Men, except Steve Harvey or creatives, are still sceptical of wearing colour, women are MADE to wear colour. Wear the colours!! So what if red is bold and scary? If you are scared by a woman wearing bold colours, it says more about you than her.