The challenges women face in leadership – what the research says

My personal journey with motherhood and leadership led me to a PhD on this topic. I started out trying to make sense of what I perceived as my own failure at balancing work, leadership and family. But where I got to was unravelling cliches, so much like my own story, that point to the struggles women face progressing to leadership positions in New Zealand. According to the most recent Champions for Change report women still make up only 35% of executive level leadership and, in New Zealand’s top 50 NZX listed companies there are only 4 female CEOs. What I found was that despite motherhood being one of the key reasons that women ‘leak’ out of the pipeline to leadership, there exists very little (if any) research that addresses motherhood and leadership. The failure of women to progress is still rationalised as a ‘choice’ that women make to prioritise motherhood over their careers, a lack of confidence in speaking out or reaching up for the next step in their career, or, even when you weren’t a mother, a judgement that one day you would become one. All arguments that devolve workplaces of accountability for practices that are not set up to accommodate the life experiences of women, or a mismatch of expectations that leave women’s skills undervalued and women feeling ‘less than’ capable.

My research focus changed from there. What I noticed in all my reading was that leadership had a particular flavour to it. One that, generally speaking, looked like a white man in a business suit. Women were out of place within this leadership ideal, and the  experiences of mothers even more so as their bodies more acutely challenged those norms. Mothers in their carrying, birth and sustenance of new life, and all the unpredictable and embodied fluid messiness that goes along with that, are a complete contrast to the clean, sterile, logical, controlled and intellectually focused ideals of leadership. What the research points to is that women are more likely to hide their experiences of motherhood, soldier on through pain, fear and uncertainty and compartmentalise their home lives so as not to be seen as deficient in any way. To be a legitimate leader, she cannot be a visible mother. So, within my research, I sought to contrast the embodied experiences of motherhood with the masculine ideals of leadership to see what challenges that threw up, and what opportunities it presented. Not just for mothers in leadership, but for all women and their inclusion at senior levels of leadership.

With this in mind, and as part of my PhD research, I did focus groups with women in leadership (or who were aspiring to be) across New Zealand. My participants were company founders, executives in some of NZ’s biggest and most well-known institutions, to aspiring leaders and community activists. What came through strongly were the implicit assumptions and expectations that these women experience. Things that they can’t quite put their finger on that leave them feeling forced to perform in ways that don’t align to them, feeling ashamed and embarrassed, “less of” and not enough. Many of these women were looking around them and not seeing anyone who looks like them, or who are experiencing the same things, and as a result were feeling out of place and judged. It wasn’t that these women were less capable or less confident, but that the standards they were expected to perform to didn’t match up to who they were, or who they were becoming.

When you sit at a “male dominated” level of leadership it becomes hard to resist expectations of what a good leader looks, and acts, like. Even having more women in leadership isn’t always indicative of a diversity of representation. Women in positions of power were more often single with no children, or embodying “strong”, “dragon”, “tough”, “professional” characteristics.  Many of these norms and assumptions that go along with leadership are intertwined with predominant, and pervasive, masculine narratives of leadership that are often hidden behind charismatic and assertive archetypes. A great leader is able to connect with people and win acceptance. They know themselves well enough to self-regulate, be true to their values, preferences and emotions but also what to reveal to whom. They are inherently good, virtuous, with the utmost standards of moral leadership. We want to be led by a person like this. We want to be that person. This ideal has such a powerful hold on our consciousness, and it’s not to say that women can’t be these things but there is a certain degree of rationality and heroism tied around these leadership ideals. It’s the perfection, and 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 think of gods?

There are some powerful opportunities emerging in my PhD research for including more women in leadership. I’m still working through articulating those findings, but what I can say is that leadership does not have to look like what it always has done, or what we imagine it to be. We have an opportunity to re-imagine leadership and for women to own what makes them unique as leaders, including the full breadth of their human experience.

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