The Feminization of People Leadership

July 29, 2022

I was really trying. I wanted to do well, to prove myself.

So when my boss said I should be more directive and less empathetic… well, I did that.

This was back in the early days of the consumer cellular industry. My job was to train our billing administrators to use a new digital billing system. Many of them were weary of the transition and feared the new technology.

Even in the ‘80s, dealing with cell phone bills was a sensitive topic for our clients.

My boss had been at it long, and I deferred to his expertise.

He suggested I make more clear demands of our bill admin, “tell them what to do,” he said.

I felt I was being asked to show up in a way that wasn’t true to being myself, but I did it anyway.

Not long after I tried acting like him, feedback came rolling in.

It wasn’t good.

“Moe is too serious.”

“She has unrealistic expectations.”

“She’s far harsher than necessary.”

”A little sensitivity to the demands would be helpful.”

Trying to be more like my boss did not work for me.

This wasn’t the last time I was told I should be more “assertive” in my career.

Over and over again, I’ve been asked to assimilate to the dominant culture of the business—the mostly male, hetero, cisgender, and white norms like loud direction and “be more confident.”

All too often, this approach has back-fired, resulting—as it did in the cellular business—in me being seen as too much, too aggressive. I’ve become “the bitch”.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Trying to sort out how to show up against the backdrop of the insider culture can be confusing.

It’s frustrating to feel like if only I were different, I’d have the success I want, but then trying something different and getting labeled, put down, and shamed.***

It’s been some time since those early days. In the intervening years, I’ve leaned on those formative moments in my career to become a trusted guide and consultant to leaders of all kinds.

Often, I work with men. When I do, I spend a long time helping men to become more comfortable showing up as their authentic, tender selves—leveraging their empathy, patience, and collaboration. For many, this means pushing up against their inherited notions of masculinity.

When working with women, I spend a lot of time guiding them to become more assertive, take up more space, be more confident, and be more precise. For many, this pushes against their inherited notions of femininity.

In our all-too-binary world, leadership traits follow suit along gendered lines.

Our inherited notions of good People Leadership are built on outdated and patriarchal models from centuries ago. Leaders are taught to have all the answers, all of the time, and never let anyone see our tender inside.

This is the model of leadership that says that a good leader…

  • survives by focusing on the future and moving as quickly away from the past as possible;
  • has immense capacity to stand alone, resolute;
  • never waivers in his can-do optimism;
  • is motivated by the vague idea of “helping others”;
  • rewards hard work, action, and task completion exclusively;
  • strives for perpetual growth;
  • acts in moderation and quiet strength;
  • values status and rank over connection.

There is nothing wrong with these—most of us benefit from utilizing them at the right time and place!

And yet these traits are counterpoised against other, more prototypically “feminine” traits that are increasingly urgently needed at work.

Last week I asked you, my loyal people, what you thought were the most important traits for the People Leaders of tomorrow. The top traits were:

  1. Curiosity
  2. Empathy
  3. Flexibility
  4. Cooperativeness
  5. Long-Term Thinking

All of these traits fall in line with traditionally “feminine” qualities.

Results from my community survey showed 20 leadership traits ranked in terms of their importance for the future of People Leadership.

Researchers Michael D’Antonio and John Gerzema attest to this change—and the “feminization” of leadership—in their book The Athena Doctrine: How Women (and the men who think like them) will rule the future. They say, “All leaders, male or female, innately possess feminine qualities like empathy, candor, and vulnerability – the difference lies in which leaders choose to suppress those qualities and which choose to leverage them as strengths.”

So here’s my message: it’s time we stopped asking women to assimilate to old, patriarchal leadership styles and began embracing the true power of feminine leadership.

I’m passionate about this message.

This is why I’m hosting a women-focused leadership, and entrepreneurial retreat in January called About Damn Time to Go Our Own Way.

You can read more about the event here.