Why the world needs more women leaders, and how it’s time we drop labels like ‘girl boss’.

Speaking for women

This week, I was very lucky to be featured as a part of Karren Brady’s Women in Business & Tech exhibition 2022.

In my presentation – Why the world needs more women leaders, and how it’s time we drop labels like ‘girl boss’ – I talk through my experience as a women leader and offer some pieces of advice for women progressing in their own career.

All too often, we hear terms like ‘girl boss’ which are being thrown around as an empowering label for women. But why do we have to be a girl boss? Why not just a boss?

Should being labelled as a girl boss make us feel proud?

As a mum of 5 children, 4 of which are girls, I regularly hear the phrase “girl boss” around the dinner table. My daughters ranging from 22 through to 13 all believe that being a girl boss is kick ass and they are proud of me for being one.

But something about being called a girl boss doesn’t sit well for me – not least because at 50 years old, I’m not sure in any circumstances I could be referred to as a girl! Can we not be a boss without the word girl in front?

For the last decade at least, most of the calls I receive from head-hunters have in one way or another mentioned the bonus that I would bring to a role because of my gender (usually quota related).

And even after almost 30 years of it, I still can’t help in that moment feeling kind of outraged about being judged not solely on my ability and track record of success. And it led me to start wondering whether there would ever be a time in my life when we as women don’t need to keep proving ourselves over and over to be given leadership opportunities.

As women, we face both external and internal challenges which we must overcome to reach leadership roles.

Social stereotypes still mean that most people would subconsciously rather have a leader who is a man, and this has not changed for decades.

Ask anyone, to describe what a leader looks like for them and they are likely to say male, handsome, middle-aged, tall, bold, decisive, rational, and completely in charge of their own emotions. Role models like Barack Obama, Martin Luther King, Steve Jobs, and even Richard Branson or Mark Zuckerberg will come to mind.

However, you would think that in terms of leadership, only the ability to lead and motivate others should really matter.

In reality, whether a manager is male or female isn’t important however during recruitment processes, stereotypes subconsciously play their part in decision-making as they also do to create that creeping doubt as to whether we actually have what it takes to become that stereotypical leader.

And even once we get into leadership positions, we find ourselves facing stereotypes again but this time, the negative view of the nightmare woman boss from hell.

Some words I have heard used to describe me over the years include ice queen, too emotional, childbearing age, too tough, and too weak and none of them were meant positively and all of them made me question myself.

And when we push against social stereotypes, it creates fear within ourselves. If we are a woman, we must be a bad leader. If we are a good leader, then we must be a bad woman.

In 1983, American businesswoman Rosabeth Moss Kanter famously identified four “role traps” for women in the public domain: the pet, the mother, the battle-axe, and the seductress. I’m not sure any women leader wants to be categorised as any of those!

And if we can battle against the stereotypes, we then have to conquer our own internal beliefs as to whether we have the confidence in ourselves to make it as a leader.

As women, we don’t understand or appreciate our own power and in terms of work, we always underestimate our capabilities. Men meanwhile over-emphasise their skills as leaders even before they start to work (gender bias starts early).

For a woman to apply for a job, she wants to have 100% of the skills necessary. A man will apply with 50% and expect to learn as he goes. Same with pay rises. We wait for our hard work to be appreciated whilst our male colleagues put themselves forward for a raise at every opportunity.

Women still bear the brunt of the childcare and the work at home. Of course, this is shifting as more women progress however, I know personally that when there is a crisis at school with one of the children, it is the mother that gets called and is expected to respond with immediate effect.

Sheryl Sandberg talks about a hesitancy for women to lean in – even with more women coming out of uni than men, and more holding professional-level jobs, there are only 4 female CEOs in the FTSE100. We are frightened to take the plunge. We are frightened to lead. We are frightened of what success looks like for us and what it will say to others.

And we must remember that psychological threats are as real as physical – studies in women rank public speaking as a higher threat level than death itself.

And not only do these barriers deprive us of female leaders but also deprive us of effective leaders.

Studies of successful women in leadership roles have demonstrated some core strengths. Let’s call these girl boss powers.

  1. The girl boss is persuasive in selling their vision. They think in a multi-dimensional rather than linear way.
  2. In adversity, the girl boss is strong and resilient and focuses on turning challenges into opportunities.
  3. The girl boss demonstrates an inclusive, team-building leadership style of problem-solving and decision-making.
  4. The girl boss is willing to reinvent the rules to adapt in an ever-changing world.
  5. A girl boss is value-driven rather than authority driven with a need to make a difference in the world.

And not only are these skills unique, they are quite possibly at odds with what men practice, and certainly the male leadership stereotype.

So, I guess the question is, do the uniquely honed skills of women have value in today’s marketplace and the answer is hell yes.

Think Simon Sinek’s, The Golden Circle, and the power of purpose, think about the generational shifts we are seeing and the desire for our teams to be nurtured and feel valued. Think about the requirement of agility for businesses to pivot in today’s ever-changing world and the servant leadership required to make that happen.

In fact, for me, it feels like exactly the time when the skills of the girl boss should be having a moment. We see the requirements of the modern leader coinciding with the skills that the girl boss brings so together I am confident that we are at the edge of a revolution (rather than the snail-paced evolution of the past).

But as inclusivity is at our core as women, let’s not forget the skills of our male counterparts. It shouldn’t be an either or. And if we can build an alliance between both women and men, to design and nurture the leadership skills of the future together then we are in the best position possible to ultimately create value in the companies in which we work and for the wider world.

I would like to leave you with some of my learnings to help us all power the change that we hope to see:

  1. Take control – find the organisations that support women and diversity with a purpose that suits you – stay true to your values and use them as a protective cloak.
  2. Look after yourself as a matter of priority and other women around you.
  3. Accept you can’t be good at everything – nurture self-confidence – find cheerleaders and role models, mentors.
  4. Networking – Get in the know and give yourself the best shot at options as they arise.
  5. Don’t outwork others, outsmart them.
  6. Allow yourself to be led by women, hire women, coach women.
  7. Be brave. Take small actions. Dip your toe – what’s the worst that can happen?
  8. Accept opportunities – that’s how you make change – even if you get the advantage of a quota – who cares – take the opportunity and show the world how amazing women leaders are and what a difference they can make.

So, all of this fascinates me. And, while I don’t associate myself with being a ‘girl boss’ – I’ll allow my daughters to have a different perspective on this – there’s no mistaking the power that women leaders can bring to any organisation, regardless of labels.

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