June 21, 2020 //

Women in Leadership during COVID-19 – Part 2

As I continue to continue to dive into the subject of women in leadership (in preparation for our July 2020 Agile Women Leaders Certificate Program), the next logical step (given that COVID-19 impacts virtually every narrative on the planet) was to examine whether women leaders are out-shining male leaders during this epidemic.  As such, this article constitutes Part 2 of my Blog Series:  Women in Leadership during COVID-19.

In Part 1 (released June 7, 2020) of this Women in Leadership during COVID-19 series, I provided the history and data that strongly supports the theory that women leaders have outshined men during the COVID-19 crisis.

In this, Part 2 (and Parts yet to come) of this series, I wanted to dive into the reasons that are likely behind that phenomenon.

So let’s begin this article with the blue elephant in the room:  When Americans think about leadership, men virtually always come to mind.  Case in point, Dr. Abbie Griffith Oliver, assistant professor at the J. Mack Robinson College of Business at Georgia State University, annually asks her students the question “What leader (living or dead) do you admire?”; and year after year after year, only about 5% of her (male and female) students have identified a female leader….and it is most commonly Mother Theresa.

And it is because of the implicit biases that we’ve all developed due to the profound lack of women in charge, female CEOs experience “benevolent sexism” every day.  For example, governing boards are more likely to give advice to female CEOs and the media is more prone to use derogatory language to describe their leadership moves even when they are identical to their male counterparts.  [Case in point, look at the vitriolic push-back that female Governors, such as Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan, faced in response to her “stay-at-home” requirements related to the pandemic, as compared to the much more measured response that male Governors received in response to virtually identical requirements].

And that double-bind brings us to the Emotional Intelligence Paradox that I address in my May 25, 2020 Blog Article Emotional Intelligence – Just the Facts Ma’am.  In a nutshell, that blog article explains that, even though the genders are found to be overall EQUAL in Emotional Intelligence (AKA “EQ”), men and women do possess different EQ strengths/competencies. Dr. Shawn Andrews explains this in her book, The Power of Perception: Leadership, Emotional Intelligence and the Gender Divide; she states, “in general, WOMEN tend to score higher than men in the ‘communal’ areas of EQ (namely sensitivity, empathy, honesty, caring, understanding and compassion), while MEN tend to score higher than women in the ‘agentic’ areas of EQ (namely assertiveness, competitiveness, independence and confidence)”.

But studies have also shown that when we envision a “leader”, we (men and women alike) are (consciously or subconsciously) conditioned to view successful leaders as being “agentic”; much less often do we hear about leaders who are successful because of their “communal” strengths.  As such then, we (both men and women) associate leadership traits with behaviors considered to be more common (or even more appropriate) in men.

And therein lies one of the deepest roots of gender bias when it comes to leadership:  leadership qualities are typically the same as those used to describe males, because the socialization process has produced the expectation that male social qualities also happen to be leadership qualities.  As such, the belief is that when women are in leadership positions, they are going to have to demonstrate agentic qualities in order to be successful.

But here is the irony…(i.e., the “paradox”) that this demand creates for women leaders:

We demand that women demonstrate more Agentic behaviors to be successful leaders, BUT men and women often view Agentic behaviors to be less desirable in women…thus creating the classic double standard that dramatically favors male leaders. Herein, the cross-pressure of communal qualities that people prefer in women, versus the Agentic qualities that people prefer in leaders, puts a tremendous burden on female leaders who are trying to find a leadership style that works.  In other words, are women supposed to be assertive or nurturing in order to be successful leaders? 

But here’s the good news related to that paradox…and I would argue one of the reasons that women leaders have excelled during the COVID-19 process…

When I consider Dr. Oliver’s annual study referenced above (where Mother Theresa was virtually the only female leader for whom students stated their admiration), perhaps this pandemic has people looking for leadership from a “Mother Theresa”…a woman who famously expressed her communal qualities by selflessly caring for the sick during a plague…BUT also expressed her agentic qualities by leading — against all manner of opposition — the set-up of soup kitchens, a leper colony, orphanages, and a home for the dying destitute.

Bobbi Thomason, an Assistant Professor of Applied Behavioral Science at the Pepperdine Graziadio Business School, mirrored that theory when she stated “In a strange way the double-standard for women, while unfair, also means they are more likely to be well-rounded leaders, because women have to cultivate both the more ‘traditional male’ qualities and ‘traditional female’ qualities.”  (And as a modern day example – think Oprah). In other words, being literally “forced” to have a diverse repertoire of leadership strategies (both agentic and communal) has clearly served women particularly well in leading through this COVID crisis.

Stay tuned for future blogs in this series, where I will break down the relevant female qualities that I would argue are integral to the assertion that women leaders have out-shined male leaders during the pandemic.  Namely, I will address the roles that confidence, vision- setting and risk management play in the success of women in leadership, particularly during a crisis.

And if you’re interested in taking a closer look at topics related to women in leadership, make sure to check out my recent blogs on the subject: Women in Leadership during Covid 19 – Part 1, and Emotional Intellignce – Just the Facts Ma’am.

Or for an even deeper dive, you might consider our 1-hour (virtual) class Women in Leadership – The Emotional Intelligence Paradox, our 4-hour (8-person) Women’s Leadesrship Support Forum, or our 12-hour (virtual) Agile Women Leaders Certificate Program.

In the meantime, comment below:  Do you agree with the basic premise of this 4-Part Blog series?  And if so (and even if NOT), why do YOU think women leaders have excelled during the COVID-19 crisis?  We’d love to hear from all of you!

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