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Think Female, Think Leader

We often come across the phrase diversity is richness”. It is a universally acknowledged truth; however, according to the Six Seconds State of the Heart 2021 report and McKinsey’s “Women in the Workplace”, the typical female attitude – usually more creative, empathic, generous, open to dialogue, supportive and able to recognize group problems than that of men - changes when women become leaders.

The female presence in the workfield – and in top positions – has drastically increased in the last twenty years but, data in hand, in 2021 only 18% of positions with managerial contracts were held by women. Despite the adoption of the 2011 Golfo-Mosca law, which imposes a gender quota on the Boards of Directors and Boards of Auditors of listed companies in Italy, female leaders are still few (and feminist leaders even fewer!).

Women don’t usually know lots of female role models who held positions of power before them: as a result, compared to men they have fewer reference points and can struggle in emulating them.

However, to say that women at top positions are forced mimic male behaviors is not exactly correct. Psychology identifies two profiles to explain gender differences: “agent” behavior and “communal” behavior. The communal profile is typically attributed to women and is characterised by affection, availability, kindness, and ability to support others. On the other hand, the agent profile is identified by traits such as ambition, domination, strength, independence, self-confidence, and is often associated with male figures. The two outlined profiles are not connected to the female/male contrast from a biological point of view, but are rather the result of involuntary associations between gender and personality traits, also in relation to social rules and constructs. Women who adopt autocratic leadership styles are perceived as more competent within the workplace as their characteristics are sees as “more in line” with the male leadership archetype widely spread in the collective imagination. As a result, being perceived as “more suitable for the position” helps them deal with the challenges they face throughout their careers, often greater for women than for men.

To advance in careers, women are often forced to make emotional compromises and to imitate –even if unconsciously – the attitudes of men in positions of power, therefore having to manage a greater amount of stress that has no positive consequences on their psycho-physical condition, nor on company performance as a whole.

During the recruitment phase, women are often forced to answer questions such as "How do you reconcile career and private life?", "Do you think you want children?" or "Don't you mind having little time to spend with your family?". In the workplace, whereas men are often described as "determined", "competent" and "authoritative", their female counterparts enacting the exact same behaviors tend to be seen negatively, as "arrogant", "know-it-all" and "hysterical".

They are judged as too emotional, unbalanced and unsuitable to have certain roles, which is why they struggle to reach the top, regardless of the adequacy of their education and the solidity of the experience gained in the field.

The leitmotivs in many women’s lives are the bias that causes them, in the first place, to struggle in seeing themselves as entrepreneurs and leaders with authority, and the so-called "self-limiting" factors that are expressed in a lack of self-awareness about their abilities and potential, fear of failure and a constant sense of inadequacy.

These factors represent sneaky forms of self-sabotage that hinder the ability of women to recognize and express their own worth, and they are the reasons why women tend to change their behaviour when gaining leadership roles. Manuela Marangoni, business and career consultant, described the phenomenon by stating: “We feel obliged to hold back our emotions to show ourselves stronger and therefore more deserving”.

Although today many companies are still not convinced that promoting gender equality is a priority, there are several research results showing that businesses benefit from female leadership. Companies that promoted female growth and the diversification of the workforce in the company, have had benefits in terms of serenity perceived in the workplace, improvement of the balance between work and private life, increases in productivity and returns in terms of performance, with a consequent overall improvement of the financial performance.

There are many competent women with the qualities of true leaders who work and test themselves day by day to create their opportunities and obtain top positions. How long will we have to wait for men, even those who claim to be advocates of gender equality, to give due credit to the pioneering companies regarding gender equality and to the coutless studies that showed the positive effects of equity? How long will we have to wait for them to stop underestimating the presence of gender bias in the workplace and assign deserving women the positions they fight for? How long will we have to wait to finally have models for the women of tomorrow? Maybe we shouldn't wait anymore, but just fiercely take what we deserve.

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