While many organizations are working hard to open new opportunities to women and remove barriers to advancement, their efforts can get derailed by lingering bias in the workplace and society at large. That context can make it more difficult for women to see themselves as leaders. While we continue to push for more equitable organizations that value diverse skill sets, internalizing your own leadership identity and a strong sense of purpose are critical steps women can take to remind themselves — and others — that they are indeed leadership material.
Becoming a leader takes more than skill building and dressing the part — it requires an identity shift, according to Herminia Ibarra, Ph.D., author of Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader
and professor of organizational behavior at London Business School. But the learning process that helps people see themselves as leaders is often disrupted for women by persistent, subtle gender bias.
It is not enough to equip women with hard skills and leadership competencies because she will not exercise them in a vacuum. The context
in which women lead must also recognize and encourage their efforts, even if they differ from the current generation of mostly male senior leaders.
Internalizing a leadership identity
The process of taking action and seeing how others respond helps people, over time, develop a sense of themselves as leaders. It also communicates that sense to others. That could be as simple as calling a meeting and having others attend and contribute. When colleagues respond with support and cooperation, the initiator experiences a certain degree of power and respect. She can then build on that experience to exercise greater leadership behaviors.
However, if the response from others is resistance, questioning or avoidance, the lack of affirmation is likely to diminish self-confidence and discourage the initiator from seeking out greater development and more significant challenges and authority.
“Integrating leadership into one’s core identity is particularly challenging for women, who must establish credibility in a culture that is deeply conflicted about whether, when and how they should exercise authority,” Ibarra says writing in Harvard Business Review. Often, more typically male behaviors become synonymous with leadership. The subtle message sent to women is that they don’t act like or look like leaders.
Change the game
Ibarra’s research reveals key steps organizations can take to create environments that better support women in developing their identities as leaders.
Inform and educate around second-generation gender bias.
With far less overt gender bias in most workplaces today, research shows that many women are unaware of having personally experienced gender discrimination, even when there is objective proof. Or they see that women in general experience bias but don’t see it affecting them.
“Second-generation bias does not require an intent to exclude; nor does it necessarily produce direct, immediate harm to any individual,” Ibarra says. “Rather, it creates a context – akin to ‘something in the water’ in which women fail to thrive or reach their full potential.”
Feeling marginalized at a team-building outing, being overlooked for overseas assignments as a mother of young children or consistently passed over for P&L roles and similar experiences can all subtly signal to women that they are not considered serious leaders.
When women and men learn about the existence of second-generation bias, Ibarra says women feel less victimized and more empowered to act. Both women and men then see possibilities for meaningful change.
Create safe “identity workspaces”
As women rise in their careers, they become increasingly scarce and thus highly visible and, often, highly scrutinized. McKinsey & Company has documented this effect in what they call the “only experience.” Being the only woman in a department or at a certain organizational level increases the likelihood she will experience microaggressions, have her abilities challenged and consider leaving her job. The isolation can be even greater for women of color.
Creating safe spaces for learning, experimentation and community is critical in leadership development for women. Like Ibarra, McKinsey advises clustering women together on teams and providing networking groups where women can find support, discuss sensitive topics and share leadership challenges.
Organizations such as WFF expand such opportunities for women and can fill the void for those without such networks in their workplaces. The 2020 WFF virtual Leadership Development Workshops, Thriving Now
feature new Leader Exchanges where women executives from Sysco, PepsiCo, Focus Brands and Darden will host a Q&A with workshop participants and provide candid insights into their career journeys.
Cultivate leadership purpose
Ambitious women have long been advised to act more like men to get ahead; told how to dress, stand, wear their hair, become more likeable or be more hard hitting. And these activities take a toll, Ibarra says. They steal emotional and motivational resources away from larger purposes. Focusing on how others perceive you also makes it more difficult to learn from failure and be clear about your own goals.
Ibarra urges women to focus on their purpose instead. “Anchoring in purpose enables women to redirect their attention toward shared goals and to consider who they need to be and what they need to learn in order to achieve those goals,” she says. Being purpose-focused can also lead women to pursue career development and networking activities likely to enhance their success.
Advancing into leadership is a transformative process that requires expanded skills and
a fundamental identity shift. Understanding how subtle bias still presents barriers, embracing your own leadership identity and driving purpose, and connecting with other women on the journey can help open your eyes to your own potential.