The Power of Female Leaders in the Agile Enterprise

Did you know that while women account for 53% of new hires, only 3% of CEOs are women? In 2018, among the Fortune 500 companies, only 24 had women in the position of. 24 out of 500! These were just a couple of the shocking statistics on the dire state of diversity in leadership that Fabiola Eyholzer shared in her keynote at the Women in Agile session, which preceded the Business Agility Conference earlier this month in New York City.

Diversity seems to be on everyone’s mind these days. For some, the need is obvious, but others have different concerns. For example, if we move more females into leadership positions, doesn’t that mean we are taking power away from men? According to Eyholzer, the answer is a resounding no. Creating better companies through diversity is not about taking or releasing power, it’s about leveling the playing field. “We all agree that we want to have the best leaders in our organization, and gender should not affect how we make that decision.” It’s about embracing diversity of thought, because it should not matter whether you’re a man or a woman or what your race, nationality, sexual orientation, age or religion is. What does matter is what you bring to the table.

We all agree that we want to have the best leaders in our organization, and gender should not affect how we make that decision.

What Do Women Bring to the (Boardroom) Table?

Stereotypical male leadership characteristics are often described as competitiveness, assertiveness, and aggressiveness. Female leadership traits, on the other hand, are typically known to be soft skills like collaboration, communication and inclusiveness.

Since men hold 97% of the top leadership positions, does that then mean that in order for women to rise into the highest leadership positions, they should emulate the behaviors typical for their male counterparts? Unfortunately, that approach has proven to have negative consequences.

Women can’t win. If they conform to the feminine stereotype of nurture and care for others, they tend to be liked but not respected.

Iris Bohnet, a professor at Harvard, writes in her 2016 book What Works: Gender Equality by Design: “Women can’t win. If they conform to the feminine stereotype of nurture and care for others, they tend to be liked but not respected. Dozens of studies have now demonstrated that women face a trade-off between competence and likability.” At the WIA session, people even mentioned how a male leader would be described as “assertive” – which seems related to competence – while the same trait on a female would be labeled “bossy” – which comes across as a ding against likability.

Crucially, characteristics typically associated with females are also core to successful Agile leadership: collaboration, communication and nurturing of relationships. Women make great leaders because they have high emotional intelligence: they listen, and they check their egos at the door. They make it about the success of the team, not the individual.

According to Eyholzer, “Agile organizations have built the breeding ground for diverse leadership because we thrive on diversity, collaboration, and we need people who are nurturing and great at communicating.” In today’s fast-moving marketplace, we need to be more innovative and creative, but you can only be innovative if you allow different ideas to emerge.

If your company has 30% women in your leadership, your profit margin is shown to increase by 1%.

And the numbers prove the case for promoting more women. If your company has 30% women in your leadership, your profit margin is shown to increase by 1%. Put into perspective, a typical net profit margin is 6.4%, so 1% increase represents a huge boost in profitability. But it’s not just because you have more females, it’s because the company has embraced diversity, and thus allowed for diversity of thought.

If you want an innovative company, you need different points of view. To ensure you get real diversity of thought, you need to look at your hiring process.

Reversing Institutional Bias

So much of how organizations operate today are reinforced by the way they look for new hires and the hiring process. In other words, business isn’t how it is on accident: unconscious bias contributes to the shape of the culture and the resulting innovative capability – or lack thereof. Eyholzer shared with us many examples of unconscious bias and the science behind it, including the following:

  • Many job descriptions are geared toward extroverts, so think about how to change that narrative.
  • Because of confirmation bias, most hiring decisions are made in the first 90 seconds of an interview. The first 4 seconds is enough time for your brain to answer these questions: Do I like you? Do I trust you? Are you safe? And who do you remind me of? Shortly thereafter you make your hiring decision and spend the rest of the time confirming that decision.

To begin breaking down gender biases specifically in your organization, Eyholzer suggests a 4-step process for changing how you hire people:

  1. Write gender-neutral job ads. For example, avoid using terms associated with men, such as “ninja.” Only use must-haves on job description and ditch the nice-haves because women typically only apply if they check all the boxes; men will if they check 60% of them.
  2. Overcome the confirmation bias. One trick you can use to overcome confirmation bias is to rate the interviewee on a scale every 5 minutes, and then average out the score at the end. Also ask yourself, “Why did they excel in that section, and why didn’t they in that section?” Finally, compare your assessment with other people and be open to their own impressions.
  3. Use a gender-reversal exercise. Consider how you would react if a male had made the same statement as a female did. Would we feel the same way?
  4. Deploy a team-based hiring decision. Use hiring hackatons where you can observe people solving a problem and hire based on performance.

Climbing the Ladder, in Heels

Something else that holds women back is – well, women themselves. Women are often hesitant to tout their own strengths while they enthusiastically support others in their personal or career growth. Eyholzer recommends four ways for women to help themselves and those around them grow and “flex their muscles”:

  1. Reach up. The first ways Eyholzer recommends women can grow in their position is to ask their manager to take on a task or a project they’ve always wanted to take on. This lightens the manager’s load and stretches the individual’s own capabilities.
  2. Reach out. Next, you can ask your colleagues to teach you a skill they’re an expert in and you want to learn.
  3. Reach down. This means delegating a responsibility you need to move off your plate to one of your colleagues or reports, at the same time providing for them a learning opportunity.
  4. Reach sideways. This is the inversion of reaching out, where you offer to teach and mentor a colleague on a skill you have.

If you yourself are a woman and a hiring manager, you may need help trying to level the playing field from your position. You may want to experiment by doing what Eyholzer calls “try before you buy”. If you have a leadership position you’re hiring for, you can put someone in that position on a trial-basis. Ask questions like “If you had two weeks to do this, what would you like to do?” Figure out how to open up those opportunities through cross-training, sabbaticals, job rotations, and vacation or absence coverage.

Embracing Feminine Traits

Mary Beard, a professor at the University of Cambridge, wrote in her 2017 book Women & Power: A Manifesto: “We have no template for what a powerful woman looks like, except that she looks rather like a man.” We have numerous examples of women in leadership positions emulating their male counterparts. Margaret Thatcher took voice lessons specifically to lower her voice, to add the tone of authority that her advisers thought her pitch lacked. Hillary Clinton is known for her pantsuits, not dresses. And the now nefarious Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes adopted the black turtleneck look (and a deeper voice) from her idol, Steve Jobs.

Beard also wrote: “You cannot easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure.” Agile organizational values of transparency, creation of safe work environment, and empathy also happen to be traits female leaders are typically ranked better at than men. It’s time for us women to embrace our feminine leadership qualities, and for organizations to seek us out for them.

We interviewed Fabiola Eyholzer for the Agile Amped podcast Women in Agile series about her keynote topic, listen to the full episode here: