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Women and Leadership

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In winter of 2005, Harvard president and former Secretary of Treasury Larry Summers hosted a discussion at the Conference on Diversifying the Science & Engineering Workforce in which he talked about why women were largely underrepresented in tenured positions at top universities and research institutions. Summers’ comments came largely under fire, due mostly to this particular statement:

So my best guess, to provoke you, of what’s behind all of this is that the largest phenomenon, by far, is the general clash between people’s legitimate family desires and employers’ current desire for high power and high intensity, that in the special case of science and engineering, there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude, and that those considerations are reinforced by what are in fact lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination. I would like nothing better than to be proved wrong, because I would like nothing better than for these problems to be addressable simply by everybody understanding what they are, and working very hard to address them.

A comment he said he intended for discussion became a comment that led to his attack. Listeners believed that Summers was claiming women were categorically less apt than their male counterparts in math and science roles; that women tend to eschew careers to stay with their families, and that employers would rather invest in individuals who were on an unwavering career path; and that stereotypes of women’s capabilities are essentially what is keeping them from the top. He argued that this was not his intention. But his remarks struck a chord.

To even begin to discuss women in leadership, one needs a jackhammer to drill through the concrete slab of stereotypes. These assumptions often echo Summers’s commentary: wanting and providing families, being less apt in math and science, being less high-power and high-intensity by nature. Women, in response, often fight against these stereotypes. But to what end? The argument becomes a circular, “yes I am” “no you’re not”-type affair, with both parties ending resentful and a clear line drawn in the sand.

As a woman leader, and in leading other women, shouldn’t it be important instead to do as Marcus Buckingham said and go put your strengths to work? For all the negative stereotypes leveraged against the female gender, women have some clear advantages. In what ways is the woman naturally a good fit for leadership? The research is surfacing, and the answer is simply “many.” (See Zenger-Folkman’s HBR article, “Are Women Better Leaders than Men?” for the definitive figures.) Even those strengths that have been historically attributed to men are surfacing as female competencies. Making assumptions based on stereotypical female competencies can still raise ire; luckily, it seems as though the conversation is changing. Those characteristics inherent of women are becoming not obstacles to their leadership ascent, but rather rungs.

The saying goes, “if you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.” Instead of focusing on negative assumptions of female competency, find what strengths you inherently possess, and capitalize on them. Women are slowly gaining recognition for their accomplishments, and highlighting these will only make the path to leadership smoother for future generations.

What advice do you have for women leaders?

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