It’s 2022 and the United States has just reversed a judgement that legalized abortions. No longer does a female in America hold the right to make decisions about her own body. This doesn’t affect me, living in a different country, and also not a topic I feel strongly about. However, it left me questioning the very concept of femininity and its place in the workplace after just leaving a male-dominated company due to this very topic. Specifically, I questioned, if we’re really honest, whether there’s a place for feminine leadership and femininity in general in the workplace?
I don’t believe the average workplace today supports femininity. In order to succeed as a female, you have to become more male in your thoughts, actions and behaviours. But what if adding femininity can augment the workplace? What if you don’t have to choose the one or the other, but can create a beautiful dance by blending the two styles together? This post aims to highlight the differences between male and female leadership qualities.
Must Love Dogs
In nature, we don’t expect dogs to climb trees or cats to bark. We get a dog if we want loyalty and companionship. We get a cat if we want to keep mice at bay and enjoy the rather temperamental cuddly softness or playfulness. Some people prefer cats, while others prefer dogs.
We accept that dogs and cats have different qualities. Yet, we expect all people, regardless of gender, to behave and exhibit more male-like traits in the business world. Females who express their emotions are seen as weak. Not responding well to the more masculine pressure to develop people is seen as not good enough. Or caring about relationships rather than focusing only on work is seen as unnecessary. In a man’s world, you have to be tough, set your emotions aside and just push through. Of course, this can be valuable, but there’s also value in a more feminine approach to leadership.
A typical work environment mostly only values women who can assert themselves, make tough negotiations, and become “one of the boys”. The successful female leaders compete with men by playing a man’s game. They give up their femininity in order to be taken seriously in the business world. They even stop wearing dresses in many cases to fit into the more masculine environment.
Yin and Yang Archetypes
Males and females are both human, but biologically we are different. Scientifically, we have known for a long time that men have more testosterone than average women. We now also know that the different genders have different levels of serotonin and process it differently. Oxytocin is also handled differently in males and females. These hormones directly affect how we handle different situations and ultimately, our behaviours.
Men and women have different qualities. Depending on their personal development, they have different strengths and weaknesses. A wise leader is one who knows their weaknesses and surrounds himself or herself with people who can strengthen these weaknesses.
Women can develop masculine traits as much as men can develop female traits. It is, however, more comfortable for most people to exhibit traits natural to their gender. When we look at the differences between these general male and female archetypes – understanding that each person is different and some people don’t fall into these prototypes at all – we are able to create a work environment that leverages the strengths of both genders.
Below is a very short summary of the most generalized characteristics of each gender in an attempt to highlight our differences rather than compete as to who is better. I don’t believe either is better than the other, but we are very different.
The Typical Male Archetype
Men are physically stronger than women. They are generally more driven to go after what they want with forward-moving energy. They handle conflict by either fighting or fleeing. They can more easily suppress their emotions, thus making decisions logically with their head rather than their heart.
On average, they are more likely to take risks and tend to be more confident in their abilities than women. They have more discipline than most women and are more likely to push through when things get hard. They congratulate their opponent when defeated in a fair fight, rarely holding a grudge. Their fathers typically present them with challenges and apply pressure to push them past their comfort zone in order to make them better men.
Men are more direct than females and approach life in the same way. They go after what they want and they say what they think and feel. If they see someone in distress, they think about what they can do to alleviate the distress, often without asking.
The Typical Female Archetype
Women, on the other hand, are more receptive and soft. They find it much harder than men to suppress their emotions and are, on average, less confident in their abilities. When they see someone in distress, they want to talk about it, opposite to the doing of men.
They tend to meet their needs via a backdoor and on average find it very hard to articulate and express their needs directly. Another big difference between men and women is that women want to feel protected and cared for in a safe space, while men are perfectly happy to go out in the world as sole pioneers. They grow by having a safe space and the freedom to develop and pressure suppresses their growth.
Women, in contrast to men, handle conflict by “tending and befriending“ and they are hardwired to gather with other women.
The typical male leader exhibits the archetype of the sole pioneer. The visionary goes out into unknown territory and breaks through barriers with pure force and persistence. The typical female leadership archetype, on the other hand, is more like water. They tend to avoid barriers, rather than flowing around the obstacle. Like water, they like to gather.
As in nature where one element is not better than another, there is a place and time when each is useful. Sometimes, like starting up a new business, you require more male energy to grow it to a point where it’s sustainable. At other times, you require the softer female energy to lead, like when a startup is growing into a larger business and needs the nurturing of a mother to tend to the now-growing workforce’s needs. If you’re really honest, men don’t like doing this, while women love it. Women, on average, don’t enjoy the sales process as much as men do. Of course, there are exceptions on either side.
Let’s look at some of the most important differences in leadership from a gender perspective:
Male power is typically physically strong, domineered by the alpha male in the group. In the previous century, the most powerful would typically be the most cunning, the most clever, and the most talented warrior. The ones who could survive the longest and get people to follow their orders were the most powerful. Today, the most powerful are those with the most money. They don’t physically fight with a sword anymore, but rather find ways to make people dependent on their products or services. Facebook, for example, cleverly has algorithms to get people to spend more time on their platform, while Amazon makes it so easy and convenient and affordable to buy from them that people choose to buy from them rather than buy a book from the local bookstore or go to the shopping mall to buy other products.
Female power has a different type of strength. It is not the strong, hard power of a piece of steel that is unbreakable, but rather a bamboo that can bend in strong winds without breaking. Female power is the ability to get people to yield to you in a soft way using kindness and influence.
Neither of these power expressions is right or wrong, it is the intent behind the power that defines whether it is good or bad. No self-aware person will abuse their power for self-gain.
Female leadership use a coaching approach whereas male leadership generally has a sole decision-maker, usually the alpha male. Where the male leader usually makes decisions alone, the female leader only moves forward after consulting and getting the whole group on board.
At times, a more male decision-making model is needed, and at other times, a more female approach. When, for example, there’s a crisis with no time for lengthy discussions, you want to be able to trust the leader to make a good decision for the entire group. At other times, though, you need the more female decision-making model. When, for example, you need buy-in on an idea, using the coaching approach is a more inclusive decision-making tool.
Male leadership feel comfortable with Gantt charts and excel spreadsheets with quantifiable measures and hard deadlines. When an obstacle is encountered, the obstacle is overcome, like breaking down a wall with force.
Female leadership, on the other hand, plans in a more fluid, right-brain, intuitive way using visual roadmaps. Rather than a straight line, it is rather a set of interconnected elements that can shift around. When an obstacle is encountered, it is overcome by flowing around it. Think of water flowing down a river. It changes direction and flows around rocks and obstacles, finding the path of least resistance but always towards the bigger goal of moving towards the ocean.
Depending on the type of project, sometimes a Gantt chart with hard deadlines are more useful, while at other times, in a more complex project filled with unknowns, the more fluid approach might be better.
Male leaders typically give periodic, quantitative checklists with expectations, pushing individuals slightly out of their comfort zones to get the most out of the person. Typically, the male leader will sit down once or twice a year with an excel spreadsheet that focuses on measurable outcomes, like KPIs. The manager decides on the company objectives and this is translated into tangible outcomes per department and per person into a waterfall, top-down approach.
Female leadership, on the other hand, has a more fluid approach to performance management. They focus on the emotional aspects of career development such as dealing with conflict, feeling more supported, etc. The female leader typically will rather have shorter, more regular coaching conversations to guide the relationship than longer, more infrequent meetings. The coachee typically drives the agenda with the coach as a facilitator to uncover obstacles and identify possibilities to help the person reach their goals by asking guiding questions.
In an ideal workplace, both these approaches are valuable and complement each other.
Male leadership typically deals with conflict in a strength-based approach following a hierarchy of power. The strongest (or alpha male) has the most power and typically wins the conflict by virtue of his or her position. Think of a scrum in a rugby match.
On the other hand, female leadership deals with conflict by gathering all the different perspectives and talking things over to find a mutually beneficial solution. There’s no win if everyone doesn’t win. Think of Aikido or Tai Chi where you don’t try to stop the force coming towards you, but rather go with it and thus throw the opponent off balance to break the force of the attack.
Strong female leaders will often receive an attack without reciprocating, always attempting to find resolve and harmony within the group.
The typical male leader likes to own a product or service in a more centralized way. Decisions are made by the owner. While others might give input into information, ultimately, it is owned by the leader and others mostly accept it without question.
The typical female leader, on the other hand, doesn’t like to be the sole owner of anything. They want to include everyone and like to collaborate to get as much involvement as possible. Information ownership is more decentralized and ownership distributed. Decisions are co-created and thus don’t need to be broadcasted or communicated for buy-in later in the process.
The typical male leader builds community by gathering everyone and having the more powerful team members share their ideas and successes with the group. Think of the typical conference where there are talks, followed by casual drinks. The speaker owns the process as well as the contents. There is generally little interaction with these speakers and feedback is often one-directional.
The typical female leader builds community by sharing a purpose and inviting participation. Think of a collaborative workshop as a cooking class. The facilitator guides the session but each participant is asked to actively express their individuality by making something their own. The facilitator owns the process, but the participants own the contents, making it a co-creation. Feedback is usually more like a chat room or Facebook group where comments and perspectives are the norms.
A good example to explain the difference between the male and female perspectives when it comes to physical (and digital) spaces can be demonstrated with a male customer interaction with a female lead office. The customer, connecting remotely via video conferencing, continuously complained about the bad sound quality of the calls. The female office manager, however, rejected his solution to the problem of pasting empty egg containers on the ceiling to reduce the echo. The aesthetics were too important to her and she wasn’t willing to change the beautifully designed boardroom, even though it wasn’t very practical.
The masculine workspace is functional before everything else. It has what you need in order to be productive at work and nothing, or little, more. A good quality chair, a high-spec computer, and coffee or beer are important. Functionality is more important than comfort.
The feminine workspace, however, needs the softness that turns functional into welcoming. Aesthetics and comfort are often more important than functionality. I’ve seen the most beautiful chairs that are extremely uncomfortable to sit in. Or plug points are hidden from sight, requiring you to crawl under a table to plug in your device. There needs to be art on the walls, a nook where you can just dream or read a book, and an area where you can gather with your co-workers and talk.
In a remote setting, the differences are similar. The male leader will choose tools based on their functionality, even though they might not be intuitive or easy to use. The female leader tends to choose tools based on their usability and interface.
But what if you could have both? Functional, and beautifully comfortable?
A Whole Workplace
Taking these differences into consideration, there is value in both. Sometimes you need strong, dominant male leadership to drive a project forward. At other times, you need the softer nurturing coaching style of female leadership.
What if you could have an equitable workspace where there is the male strength that can break through barriers as well as the female strength that can withstand emotional challenges without breaking?
Imagine a world where there is space for femininity in the workplace. A place where women can be soft and feminine, and still respected and taken seriously. Are you brave enough to include feminine energy in your business?
With more than 20 years experience in the software development industry, Kate specializes in helping teams get unstuck, communicate better and ultimately be more productive. She believes in efficiency through fun implementing lean, agile and playful design as tools for process improvement and organizational change. Her goal is to create more happy, healthy and whole workplaces where each person thrives and productivity soars.