Tag Archives: Leadership

Why study motherhood and leadership?

Women are still significantly underrepresented in senior leadership roles in New Zealand. A recent Champions for Change diversity report showed women making up approximately one-third of leaders from the executive level upwards, and according to Diversity Works representation at these levels is going backwards. This is problematic. Somewhere along the lines, opportunities for women to participate are lacking. But why should you care? Firstly, should it not be an ethical and moral imperative that everybody in New Zealand has equal opportunities for education and employment? Secondly, we need more women at senior leadership levels. Listening to Vic Crone from Callaghan Innovation speak at a PhD event last week, we’re facing a period of unprecedented and intense change and need greater innovation and adaptability in our businesses. This will only come from a mindset shift within our senior leaders. A shift that encompasses diversity of thought and an exploration of different ways of working. 

So why are women not making it into these senior roles? There is compelling research to suggest that this could have something to do with women taking on less responsible duties, lower-status part-time or flexible work options, or dropping out of the paid workforce altogether when they become mothers. Yet, these kinds of decisions are often rationalised as a ‘choice’ individual mothers make to prioritise care-giving responsibilities over paid work. She hasn’t ‘leaned-in’, she’s ‘leaned-out’, and that’s her business. It’s a mindset that both mothers and organisations are complicit in maintaining. But it ignores the power plays of norms and assumptions surrounding appropriate roles for mothers, and dismisses the systemic issues in how work gets organised and rewarded. Up until I became a mother I believed I had equal opportunities and it was up to me to make the most of them. But upon returning to work after maternity leave, I was passed over for a leadership position in my team, and kept out of the loop on interesting projects that might require travel. None of these things were maliciously intended. In fact, easily wrapped up in ‘considerate’ assumptions being made about my new life priorities. But this, coupled with a felt expectation to work longer than my part-time hours in order to be recognised, were death knells to my motivation to continue in paid employment. Now, after spending the past 9 months immersed in literature, I’m very aware that my story is a cliche version of why women exit the workforce after becoming mothers – lack of opportunity to progress, feeling undervalued, a struggle with ‘balance’. The ‘lean in’ manifesto is failing working mothers because it individualises our experiences while excusing systemic discrimination. 

So I’m choosing now to research motherhood alongside leadership. Because if we can ‘see’ mothers as leaders, could we have greater power to address gender inequality at those senior levels? This is about role models, yes. But it’s also about deconstructing what we understand as motherhood, and what we understand as leadership. I see mothers as the ultimate embodiment of humanity – in that we have given our bodies to conceive, grow, birth, sustain, nurture, and comfort new life. But dominant archetypes of leadership are far removed from this. In fact, some might say the opposite, an aspirational ideal that revolves around clean, proper, contained, authentically follower centric and ‘god-like’ in their omnipotent manifestations.  I’m proposing playing with both concepts side by side to see what gets thrown up. In this contrast, could something new be birthed? My research question, at this stage, revolves around how do mothers’ embody leadership? 

Mothers bodies, and this contrast between two opposing ideals, are a site of inspiration for my research and, in that sense, I’m honing in on some very specific areas. But I’m doing so while looking around me. At the dad sidelined into the work no-one else wants to do because he insists on leaving work at 5pm to spend time with his kids before they go to bed. At the dad feeling trapped in long hours and missing out on seeing his children grow up because he’s now the sole breadwinner. At the mums struggling to be the parents they feel they need to be and the worker expected of them, reconciling this struggle with antidepressants, feeling unable to speak up at work or be transparent about where they’re falling for fear of being perceived as unenthusiastic about work and further sidelined into work they can ‘handle’. These are somewhat simplified, but very real examples, indicative of larger, more systemic challenges, surrounding how work gets organised, what gets rewarded and recognised, how people are able to bring their full selves to work, and larger issues concerning how we measure the success of our organisations. The dominant constructions surrounding motherhood and leadership, where I’m focusing my attention, are only one part of the bigger picture. 

It’s a space where very little research already exists. and I’m left wondering why that is? What I know is that motherhood can be an individualising and isolating experience that mothers, particularly those who have focused on their career, struggle with. Is it a touchy subject? Or is the emphasis placed more strongly on these individual mothers to ‘sort their shit out’? So everyone else shouldn’t concern themselves with it? In many cases, initiatives to address the transition of mothers back to work puts the accountability on those mothers to make it work or leave. Does shifting the focus to the organisational systems and structures make the existing power holders too uncomfortable? Or does it make you uncomfortable about your complicit role in it? Because what struck me when I began reading about this topic, is that we think we’ve achieved gender equality. It’s a particularly discomforting belief to see in young women, pre-children, playing the game by the rules and believing it to be fair. But what Anne-Marie Slaughter says in her TED talk really resonated with me, that the equality of women shouldn’t be judged on the standards of men. We don’t need more women acting like men in senior leadership positions. We need greater diversity of thinking and inclusivity around different ways of being in the world.  I hold to the view that women have a slightly different experience of life and parenthood, in that our bodies are very much part of the process, with different practicalities, norms and assumptions surrounding them. But are we too scared to touch bodies?  

So where to from here? I’m currently working on my research proposal in preparation for my provisional year review, and ethics applications, early next year. This means further shaping, and refining of my research focus, and a lot more reading of existing literature. My aim is to start advertising for research participants in March. At this point, I’m proposing to run focus groups with mothers who are also leaders, or aspirational leaders. I’m very mindful of my research making some sort of difference, in imbuing mothers with their own agency to question and resist normalised structures that wield power over them, and organisations to question their ways of constructing leadership and support mothers on this pathway. 

The disembodiment of leadership

I asked on a LinkedIn post recently ‘How would you describe leadership?’ The words I got in response included; enabling, inspiring, self-awareness, humility, authenticity, transparency, resilience, supporting, helping, recognising, empowering, facilitating, influencing, understanding, and nurturing (Sterling, 2019). These words imply a human-centered interest in one’s followers. But as I traverse the world of practitioner discourse and academic research into leadership, I’m beginning to feel inclined towards framing leadership as a disembodied experience. One further disconnected from the human experience than encapsulating it. There are several different ways I see this happening and I’d like to invite you to question your own norms and assumptions as I explore these, as well as propose some areas that offer potential to re-imagine leadership more humanely.

This all starts with how we understand leadership and how we play to the power of that. There are many different interpretations and definitions. Asking that question I posed at the start of this post – ‘How would you describe leadership?’ – generated a broad range of answers. Leadership is less a thing that can be objectively described, like ‘water’ is ‘water’, but a subjective construct that is open to many different interpretations and enactments. We drift to what’s popular, what’s within our sphere of understanding, what feels a comfortable level of discomfort for us. But it’s as if the very complexity and fluidity of leadership leaves it more open to established and entrenched norms and assumptions dictating how we understand it. What we know rushes in to fill the gap of what we don’t. 

So what are the norms and assumptions at the foundation of leadership? The big one is gender, and the stereotypes we are ‘captive’ to and complicit in. From an early age we perform the gender roles assigned to our bodies by identifying with a learned ideology, ‘girl’ or ‘boy’, and constantly creating ourselves in that image (see West & Zimmerman, 1987). We judge, and are judged by the labels and meanings attached to these bodies. Our own understandings, beginning with our first experiences, and developed over time. Our first encounter with leadership is via our parents; generally speaking the authoritarian father and the caring and nurturing mother (Sinclair, 2004). These are powerful constructs of self, and others that hold sway over us. Our ways of ‘being’ in this world are closely aligned with our need to be connected to other humans, to be seen, to belong. Our status as humans is called into question if we challenge norms. So, as Butler (2004) puts it, this means complying no matter how restrictive, debilitating or unrealistic these norms seem to be. 

It’s in this humanness, our need to define our world by what is normal, that we subert what makes us human; our bodies. We don’t ‘see’ humans anymore. We see a constructed ideology. One associated with leadership, and one associated with the appropriate genders of our leaders. These are overlapping constructs and have implications for the inclusion, or exclusion, of particular traits or behaviours. Critiques of the symbolism, undertone and focus of leadership revolves around a masculine narrative (see Sinclair, 2005; Ford & Harding, 2011; Ford & Harding, 2007; Nicholson & Carroll, 2013; and these are just what I’ve read so far!). When we ‘see’ leadership it’s generally a white man, poised in his power suit, or charismatically approachable with his open buttons and blazer. Ironically, men in leadership don’t get judged on their bodies but women do. Yet, we don’t ‘see’ leaders when women demonstrate behaviours that could be considered leadership if only we’d broaden our spectrum (Nixon & Sinclair, 2017). Where women are positioned as leaders, their contributions are undervalued even if they are creating economic value (Abdullah et al, 2016). Or they are more susceptible to harsh stereotyping or strict scrutiny that may affect firm performance metrics (Hoobler, et al, 2018). We have discomfort towards women with power (Nixon & Sinclair, 2017). Simply put a woman isn’t fitting into our normative understanding of her gender role, and what we imagine as leadership. She is penalised; not for what she does, but for what we believe.

So how would you describe a leader? Referring back to those words I used at the beginning; they are perfect, and perfectly aspirational. This beautiful manifestation of a leader knows themselves well enough to self-regulate and be true to the core to their values, preferences and emotions; they are able to connect with people, win acceptance, and know what to reveal to whom. They are inherently good, virtuous, with the utmost standards of moral leadership (Ford & Harding, 2011). We all want to be lead by a person like this. We may even want to be that person. This ideal has such a powerful hold on our consciousness. It’s certainly well intentioned. It plays to our desire to create a better world. But it’s the infallible allure of this, untouchability in its perfection, transcendence above the mere mundane ‘managers’ and ‘workers’, that positions leaders as above us mere mortals with our fallibilities and dark sides. It underscores the prevailing heroic, grandiose, ‘god-like’ archetype of leadership. And who do you picture when you read of gods? Leadership is simultaneously disembodied, above corporeal concerns, and masculine. 

What are the options? Ignore gender in the embodiment of leadership? We’re supposedly on a level playing field after all. Gender equality and all that. But Kelan’s (2010) study of ICT workers is a nice illustration of the perils of ignoring gender, to the continual reinforcement of the dominant bodied norms. These workers insisted that the workplace was gender neutral. Yet this quote and summary illustrates the subtext: “one should not bring to the foreground that one is a woman” (Kelan, 2010; p. 184) and then there is no discrimination. In leaving bodies at the door, we robe ourselves in a masculine worker ideal disguised as gender equality. But on the flip-side, where femininity is addressed (in the neo-liberal / faux feminist agenda, see McRobbie, 2009) it acts as a safety net of feminine values as we negotiate power with men. Both a stepping forth into the workplace and an apology for doing so; ‘it’s ok, I’m just a girl’. Ignoring femaleness in favour of a dominant work ideology emphasises that being a professional is being a man. Yet, expressing feminine embodiment within a masculine work culture could do more to subvert bodies than triumph them. Gender equality is not sameness, a level playing field or an assimilation, but a fearless expression of human embodiment within a context where this is welcomed. 

The presence of bodies, or lack thereof, remains an issue in the workplace. Women are still not making it into senior leadership positions, in fact the number in New Zealand is going backwards (Diversity Works, 2019). The bodies are simply not there. I am not proposing here that women necessarily have a better, or even different, way of leading (I might explore that in another post). But I invite you to question whether, in our quest for the ultimate, human, leader, we’ve made leadership an unattainable, disembodied concept? One that places women’s bodies as ‘other’ to the norm. Sinclair and Nixon (2017) suggest that being more anchored in our own bodies could consciously change our mindset towards ourselves and others influencing a leader’s capacity for openness and learning. And that bodies outside the norms, give greater opportunities to challenge them. Could registering feelings, including our dark sides, tensions and challenges; as well as embracing our messy, fleshy, corporealness, give us greater connection to our humanity and more ‘real’ forms of leadership? In my own research, I’m looking to explore whether embracing the embodiment, enactment and experience of being a mother could move leadership into a new conversation. One where real human bodies matter because they’re allowed to show up as such, not just as who we imagine them to be, or filtered by what we’re comfortable with. 

 So, if I can leave you with one more question; how would you describe the kind of leadership that makes you uncomfortable?

References

 Abdullah, S. N., Ismail, K. N. I. K., & Nachum, L. (2016). Does having women on boards create value? The impact of societal perceptions and corporate governance in emerging markets. Strategic Management Journal, 37(3), 466–476. https://doi.org/10.1002/smj.2352

Butler, J. (2004). Undoing Gender. Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203499627

Diversity Works. (2019). New Zealand Workplace Diversity Survey 2019.

Ford, J., & Harding, N. (2007). Move Over Management: We Are All Leaders Now. Management Learning, 38(5), 475–493. https://doi.org/10.1177/1350507607083203

Ford, J., & Harding, N. (2011). The impossibility of the ‘true self’ of authentic leadership. Leadership, 7(4), 463–479. https://doi.org/10.1177/1742715011416894

Hoobler, J. M., Masterson, C. R., Nkomo, S. M., & Michel, E. J. (2018). The Business Case for Women Leaders: Meta-Analysis, Research Critique, and Path Forward. Journal of Management. 44(6).

Kelan, E. K. (2010). Gender Logic and (Un)doing Gender at Work. Gender, Work & Organization, 17(2), 174–194. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-0432.2009.00459.x

McRobbie, A. (2009). The aftermath of feminism: Gender, culture and social change. Los Angeles ; London: SAGE.

Nicholson, H., & Carroll, B. (2013). Identity undoing and power relations in leadership development. Human Relations, 66(9), 1225–1248. https://doi.org/10.1177/0018726712469548

Nixon, C, & Sinclair, A. (2017). Women Leading. Melbourne University Publishing.

Sinclair, A. (2004). Doing Leadership Differently: Gender, Power And Sexuality In A Changing Business Culture. Melbourne University Publishing.

Sinclair, A. (2005). Body Possibilities in Leadership. Leadership, 1(4), 387–406. https://doi.org/10.1177/1742715005057231

Sterling, A. (2019, July 9). How would you describe leadership? LinkedIn Post. Retrieved July 16, 2019.

West, C., & Zimmerman, D. H. (1987). Doing Gender. Gender & Society, 1(2), 125–151. https://doi.org/10.1177/0891243287001002002

 

From Motherhood to Leadership

In 2019 I begin my PhD. It’s going to take me 3-4 years.

I propose to bring together three streams of research; learning, leadership, and feminine studies, to understand, and make recommendations around, how to better design leadership development programs for women leaders, specifically mothers, and close the gender gap.

We know that women are still underrepresented in leadership positions.

The results of a survey of 705 New Zealand organisations (Diversity Works New Zealand, 2017) reported that, in approximately 20% of organsiations, women make up less than 25% of leadership and governance teams. This is even more so for larger organisations.

The current research around this challenge appears to be siloed. The challenges for mothers returning to work is discussed (e.g. Nichols & Roux, 2004), the opportunities for women to take on leadership roles, and the style in which they do so, is unpicked (e.g. Madsen & Andrade, 2018; Ely et al, 2011). But new insights into the leadership gender gap, and what to do about it, could come from a more holistic and integrated understanding of the home factors affecting return to work, and women’s ability to take on leadership roles.

Research into learning supports this view that understanding performance in role cannot be isolated to one variable. The ‘AMO framework’ (Boxall & Purcell, 2011) argues that all employee performances are a function of employee ability (A), motivation (M), and the opportunity to perform (O). In Sterling & Boxall (2011) we showed that learning could be short-circuited, much like a three-legged stool, where any one of ability, motivation, or opportunity is deficient. I propose that AMO is also a useful lens to apply to the women in leadership challenge.

Kennedy, et al. (2012) argues that leadership development needs to be focused on mindset. Returning to work after becoming a mother is hard and often viewed negatively (Nichols & Roux, 2006). Invariably this is going to affect motivation to lead and any learning that needs to go along with an ability, or mindset, to do so. But current explorations linking leadership and motherhood together are limited to the counselling profession (e.g. Levitt, 2011).

Interventions to address this need to look at the whole system – not just within the box of a leadership development intervention or blanket work/life policies. The manifestation of a negative unconscious bias towards women could result in limited opportunities to apply leadership skills (Madsen & Andrade, 2018). And the positive effects of worklife practices on the proportion of women in management positions was not observed in organisations that were male dominated (Kalysh et al. 2016). The opportunities for women to lead are still limited.

But we now get to the crux of this challenge. What is the specific leadership value that women, particularly mothers, bring to our organisations? And, therefore, do we need more of them? Billing and Alverson (2000) point out that ‘feminine’ leadership traits are not necessarily the ideal for our organisations – in particular those that value a drive for results over relationship building. So is this more about a paradigm shift in how our organisations operate? “The most important role of leadership development is to renew the leadership concept so that it reflects the new challenges, changes, and strategic directions that organisations face” (Probert & James, 2011). Personally, I’d like to think that there is untapped value in mothers to lead. But do they even want to in the current context?

I’ve just scratched the surface of the research into the multiple variables at play here. It’s a precarious balance between leadership and motherhood; the leadership abilities needed to step up, the motivation to participate with everything else going on in a mother’s life, and the opportunity to do so within the organisational context.

The immensity of the life shift that comes from becoming a parent could be better appreciated. It’s something I have very fresh and first hand knowledge of; becoming a mother, and navigating the significant psychological shift that comes along with that, then returning to a very ‘masculine’, results orientated corporate environment. Alongside my own experience, I see my peers – women / mothers of the same age and stage – leaving the workforce altogether or ‘dumbing-down’ their roles because it’s simply too hard for them to meaningfully contribute. It’s more a case of not wanting it all. I propose to undertake qualitative research that encompases a broad spectrum of systems and structures affecting mothers as leaders, with a view to making recommendations on what could be done differently to close the gender gap.

 

References

Billing, Y. and Alverson, M. (2000). Questionning the notion of Feminine Leadership: A Critical Perspective on the Gender Labellng of Leadership. Gender, Work and Organization. 7(3), 144-157.

Boxall, P. and Purcell, J. (2011). Strategy and Human Resource Management, 3rd edn, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Diversity Works New Zealand, (2017). New Zealand Diversity Survey. 2017 Bi-Annual Report – October. Retrieved from: https://diversityworksnz.org.nz/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/1017-Diversity-Survey-Report_HR.pdf. 4th October 2018.

Ely, R., Ibarra, H. and Kolb, D. (2011). Taking Gender into Account: Theory and Design for Women’s Leadership Development Programs. Academy of Management Learning & Education. 10(3).

Kalysh, K., Kulik, C., Perera, S. (2016). Help or hindrance? Work-life practices and women in management. The Leadership Quarterly. 27. 504-518.

Kennedy, F., Carroll, B., Francoeur, J. (2012). Mindset Not Skill Set: Evaluating in New Paradigms of Leadership Development. Advances in Developing Human Resources. 15(1). 10-26.

Levitt, D. (2011). Women and Leadership: A Developmental Paradox? Adultspan Journal. 9(2), 66-75.

Madsen, S. and Andrade, M. (2018). Unconscious Gender Bias: Implications for Women’s Leadership Development. Journal of Leadership Studies. 12(1).

Nichols, M. and Roux, G. (2004). Maternal Perspectives on Postpartum Return to the Workforce. Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic, & Neonatal Nursing. 33(4).

Probert, J. and James, K. (2011). Leadership Development: Crisis, opportunities and the leadership concept. Leadership. 7(2), 137-150.

Sterling, A. and Boxall, B. (2013). Lean production, employee learning and workplace outcomes: a case analysis through the ability-motivation-opportunity framework. Human Resource Management Journal. 23(3).