At first glance, the article last week in Forbes seemed a worthy celebration of women who had risen to the top of leadership in business and government – CEOs, managing partners, justices, prime ministers, presidents, entrepreneurs, moguls and magnates, politicos and policymakers all.
Yet the second line in the article The World’s 25 Most Powerful Women is easily overlooked or taken as conventional wisdom: “They are the smartest and toughest female business leaders…”
We can stipulate that any top leadership role summons a certain degree or manner of toughness. This is rare atmosphere at this altitude of leadership. Shallow breathing doesn’t clear the mind.
Still, the article deifies toughness to the same level of “smart” as one of the two defining characteristics of top leadership. At a time when women still only make up four percent of the CEO slots among the Fortune 500, it might be time to connect a few dots.
Is our construct for top leadership shaped by the exigencies of the role or rather by the natural qualities of those who have held those roles? We can play tug rope all day about how social norms have served as barriers to blending the roles of men and women in business and public life, but the whole of history and a whole lot of anthropological and social behavior studies continue to point to some inherent qualities of each. Mars/Venus, think/feel, physical/emotional, transactional/relational, choose your weapon of debate.
If we can appreciate some of these distinctions, why does business culture still herald “toughness” as a standard of success for women, while seemingly discounting other qualities that in many ways may be even more essential to success in an ever-connected world — collaboration, relational acumen, resilience, intuition, and yes, even a gentler, more empathetic approach to the world around them?
Sure, the qualities of empathy, courage, drive, and resilience hew to no gender boundaries. Still – and behavioral research backs this strongly – men are warriors, women are nurturers. It is the “power” of women to no less degree than the inherent qualities of the male species. At the least, we ought not to discredit this inherency in pursuit of the other. We need both.
Four percent. That’s all – and that number, despite all the books and speeches, is stuck there. Maybe we’re stuck.
The question is not whether there are enough women who are “tough” enough. The question is whether business has the foresight – and, yes, “smarts” – to assess its leadership culture and make the tough decision to change it if they expect to be competitive in a very different world.