Women in leadership in the workplace is a big issue – the gender pay gap, and women in leadership on Boards, in the Church and as CEOs are often news items. And the news is not good.
It is a minefield of dispute, on which the Church is rather quiet (probably because they still find the idea of women leaders a challenge).
There is a line in the Bible that says, “Trust in God. Don’t lean on your own understanding.”
Apparently ancient rulers used to appear in public leaning on trusted friends and ministers, not as sign of weakness, but to show that they were able to rely on trusted advice, acknowledging the wisdom of others.
It’s a great image of good leadership – relying on your team, taking advice, confident of your position yet avoiding hubris.
And it’s a surprisingly gender neutral picture too: even though I think we would envisaging an ancient ruler as a man, the concepts of teamwork and relying on the strength of others could apply equally to males or females.
‘Lean’ has also been given a modern twist when a few years ago Sheryl Sandberg used the phrase Lean In as the title of her book, in which she described how women needed to have ambition – to lean in and strive – if they wanted to succeed. And she should know, she is the COO of Facebook.
When women lead, should we do it differently? Or should we as Sandberg asserts, learn to lead more like men – to succeed on their terms (I am guilty here of over simplifying her argument but she does give lots of advice on how to overcome the disadvantages women face as a result of being female).
What could be a different understanding on these issues?
First of all, the pay gap. It’s pretty well established that men get paid more than women for doing exactly the same job. This is unjust. Full stop. High profile cases in the media and the film industry attest to inequality.
The World Economic Forum announced in November that it could take 218 years to bridge the gender pay gap.
1200 companies in the UK must now produce statistics on equal pay – and the first reports are not good. 74% of the firms pay men more than women and more men are in higher paid jobs eg CEOs or pilots or finance advisors vs administrators, cabin staff or bank tellers.
This can be a crude measure – it looks at average wages for men and women in an organisation rather than like-for-like comparisons. This is an important distinction because there are many reasons for lower pay and we need to dig a bit deeper to make sure we tackle real gender unfairness in all its forms – rather than noting that cabin crew (mainly female) earn less than the pilot (mainly male) we need to see how we can change job expectations and opportunities. Easyjet has a great program to double its number of women pilots (from an appallingly low 6% to 12%).
Another limitation of the response to pay is that Western feminists tend to be urban and middle class, so the talk about pay disparity is about professionals. In my discussions with women in non-western contexts, talk about pay and access to household income is much more basic. I would love to see us standing in solidarity for women in factories in Bangladesh or women in villages in Zimbabwe who want enough money from their husbands to get a bus to the health clinic.
And in Australia when I played a small part in a campaign to get fair pay for women piece workers (paid for each piece of clothing they produced at home), it was interesting that unions were not really interested – the women were migrants with only a basic grasp of English and the union leaders were old school males. It is women like this who need pay justice as a matter of urgency.
Secondly, let’s look at women in leadership. We should encourage talented and capable women to lead. We should have special programs that overcome women’s lack of confidence. And we need to accept biology.
Some women want to work part-time or take time out as mothers or carers, putting career aspirations on hold.
We need to make it for easier for women to take up their careers again in their 40s or beyond, or to see ‘careers’ very differently. More men should be encouraged to make similar decisions without the stigma of being seen as lacking ambition.
It is NOT right to discriminate against women who have babies – and it is not right to look down on any woman or man who wants to work part-time so they have time for parenting as well. Part-time workers (who may want time for study, parenting, mental health, caring for aged parents…. the list goes on) are still seen as lacking dedication or commitment so talking about flexible working is vitally important.
Lastly, we need to look at the type of leadership we want. It’s not just numbers – we need to make sure that we encourage and appreciate women’s leadership styles.
This may be dangerous territory for me to enter because anyone who makes a comment about women being different to men can be accused of being sexist. But is it sexist to celebrate that women are more collaborative? Have stronger emotional intelligence and can articulate their feelings? Some of these behaviours may be nature and some nurture but we do need to appreciate the differences between men and women and recognise that when men and women share leadership, it creates healthy balance.
Such a recognition also frees men from the tyranny of having to be Alpha males. ‘Leaning’ is just as important for men as it is women – leaning on God’s understanding of issues, being a leader who is confident enough to ask questions of others and listen to their wisdom.
What would you like to see? Leave a comment or a story.