Women in Leadership

January 26, 2015
Raina Delisle
Jennifer Walinga

Women are noticeably absent from corporate boards and executive positions in Canada. Many companies don’t even have one female director on their board. And according to a survey of business executives there is strong opposition to any kind of regulation that would force change. But School of Communication and Culture Director Jennifer Walinga, who researches women in leadership, says some change would do them good.

On Wednesday, Walinga is giving a talk on women in leadership and the positive impact feminine values can have on organizations. The event, Women in Leadership, is open to the public with admission by donation to Women in Need Community Cooperative.

In advance of the event, we discussed gender and leadership. Here are some highlights from the conversation.

What is a feminine model of leadership?

A feminine model of leadership is more systemic, holistic, collaborative and nurturing than the norm. These are qualities that we typically associate with women, but that doesn’t mean it’s a model used by only women.However, men are often seen to be more individualistic, posturing or alpha in their leadership positions, which one might call the peacock model. It’s so counterintuitive for feminine leaders to be the peacock, to push forward – that goes completely against their grain.

What are the benefits of the feminine approach?

In the increasingly complex and fast-paced workplace landscape, we know how important it is to be more systemic as a leader and more holistic in your view of the organization. We used to refer to a triple bottom line approach – where you’re thinking about the social, environmental and financial aspects of business – however, this is a simplistic model and based within a capitalistic paradigm as opposed to a humanistic or ecological paradigm. A more complex, ecological model is able to hold infinite elements in view because at its core are fundamental values and principles: respect for diversity, interdependence and collaboration.

Where is resistance met around the feminine model?

The fear around the feminine model is that it will take too long. How do we involve everybody? It’s too complex. We can’t factor everything into the problem-solving process. But actually you can. And when you do that, you achieve the opposite; you achieve a greater clarity because you’ve got the full picture. You’re not trying to solve the puzzle by working in only one corner of it. Where there is complexity, ambiguity and unpredictability, it is tempting to exert greater measures of control because we seek stability. Our default is more rules, more bureaucracy. But imagine kayaking down a river through rapids. Trying to control the river is impossible. The key is to have a good sense of balance, but also to have the tools to navigate the rapids, seek refuge in the eddies and right yourself when you flip over. When you hit a calm patch, take that opportunity to appreciate your surroundings, but also practice your skills: your roll, paddling technique, strength and fitness.

How has the quest for more women in leadership changed?

We’ve gone through the phase where we tried to fight discrimination and be more like men. Even fashion was representing this desire to muscle our way in and create space for ourselves by wearing shoulder pads. It was an indication of us trying to claim our space at the table. But we were fighting on the wrong turf. We need to create a new turf, stage a new kind of engagement, and speak our values more clearly and more insistently. For example, we’re afraid to say we can’t make an 8 a.m. meeting because we have to get our kids off to school in the morning; we’re afraid that will make us look like the stereotypical overwhelmed woman who can’t handle her life. We need to find a way to say it that’s strong, grounded and powerful, and communicates the values the world needs to hear, which is that our first priority is family, community, humanity.

What advice do you have for male leaders?

My advice is to examine your good reasons for behaviour that excludes or dismisses certain individuals. Everybody wants power and power can be good and bad. There’s power over, and there’s power to. Some leaders want power over because they want people to feel secure. But there are costs associated with power over. There are other creative strategies that operate more on principles of support, trust, authenticity and kindness, and they really work. We can all find our power to listen, to invite participation, to co-create, to collaborate and to communicate.

What can women do to break into leadership roles?

Leadership roles are traditionally constructed by men for men. And these roles are oblivious to the demands of a feminine model – to being a mother for instance. So the roles look a certain way: the meetings happen at 8 a.m. or 5:30 p.m., the hours are extensive, the meetings are political battle grounds and family life is not taken into consideration. Success is measured against the criteria of long hours, tough attitudes, total commitment and single mindedness. Women look at the roles and think there’s no way I’m doing that or I just don’t want to play that game. If women just reconstructed these roles, which they’re starting to do, the roles and the playing field could look very different. We all have to work together to strive to reconstruct both the roles of leaders and the field upon which those roles are played out to allow for different kinds of leadership and leaders. Sport offers a terrific metaphor. In many sports, women may not have the strength or power of men, so they rely on speed, technique and fitness instead. What results is the same sport, just played in a different way.