Being a woman leader: ‘man – I feel like a woman’

In 2020, we should be creating organisations where all genders can thrive without adopting the dominant male stereotype, argues Veronica Hope Hailey

I went to university to study for my undergraduate degree in 1975, the same year in which the UK’s first Sex Discrimination Act was passed and the country’s Equality Opportunities Commission was established.

When I entered the world of business, I believed that ability, competence and hard work would get you where you wanted to go. I did not know what I wanted to do and was content that my own lack of direction might be a self-crafted obstacle. I did not believe my gender was going to be a problem. After all, we had an Act of Parliament to protect us against gender discrimination. What could possibly go wrong?

I’m sure I wasn’t conscious of it at that time, but looking back over my career I agree with Margaret Heffernan’s book, The Naked Truth, in which she says: ‘Being smart and working hard are entry-level requirements. But they won’t protect you from the weird experience of being a businesswoman in a world that remains dominated by men and their values. The companies we see today were built by men for men. Reluctantly, grudgingly, women were granted access – at first just to lowly positions but, when self-interest was served, to more powerful positions. We called this “progress”. But everything comes at a price. The price was that we had to behave in ways that men could be comfortable with: we mustn’t frighten them, threaten them, usurp them, or in any way disturb their universe.’

Maintaining perspective

As one reaches the top levels of management, these words remain true; perhaps even more so. Despite working in a seemingly more liberal non-corporate environment than most senior women, I still have the experience of walking into some meetings, dinners or board summits to find myself the only woman in the room. Or, if there are other women there, we are still a significant minority. 

‘Mansplaining’ remains rife. If you don’t know what this word means, Google the feminist author, Rebecca Solnit, who says, ‘men explain things to me, still. And no man has ever apologised for explaining, wrongly, things that I know and they don’t’. In the face of mansplaining, I find there is the risk that in sticking up for myself with evidence of greater knowledge, I will be seen as difficult, or boastful, rather than more experienced.

So what helps me persist? A sense of the absurd, a sense of perspective and a sense of humour are important qualities for any senior manager. I also have the blessing of a large family and the most unlikely feminist husband one could encounter who has been 100% supportive of me as a person, whether I want to be a mother, a rodeo rider or a vicar. He is my greatest critic and my greatest friend. 

I am very fortunate to have another life to fall back into when persisting seems too hard in a very male senior environment. This ‘other life’ has not only been a source of comfort for me, but also a rich source of leadership development. I have built the majority of my personal resilience through dealing with tragedies and challenges in my personal life. At an early age, I was forced into needed, but unexpected, leadership roles that later equipped me brilliantly, at a psychological level, with the mental strength required to be a dean. 

If I returned home stressed or moaning, my husband often asked: ‘Did anyone die, Vron?’ Of course, my answer was always ‘no’, to which he would reply, ‘well, it’s been a good day then’. Dear women readers – do not write off experiences in your personal spheres as tangential to your development and suitability for leadership.

Challenging bias

Leadership can be a lonely and exposed place for anyone, but it can be particularly so for those who find themselves in a minority. In addition, some of the pioneering women leaders of my generation have only succeeded, as Margaret Heffernan describes, by developing a Margaret Thatcher-like carapace as part of their leadership style, taking on extreme versions of the dominant male stereotype. This does not really tackle the problem and, even if women take on these extreme characteristics, they will still never gain entry to the ‘boys club’.

Instead, those of us who are even modestly senior must try to maintain a sense of our true self, use our positions to promote the cause of the next generation of women, and challenge bias (whether conscious or unconscious) when we see it. We also need to ensure that the new constellation of female stars have leadership development opportunities that enable them to achieve their full potential while maintaining an authenticity around their own set of values. 

I feel very strongly that, in 2020, we can, and should, expect our senior male colleagues to call out sexist behaviour not ‘for’ us but ‘with’ us. Men – don’t hide behind comforting words such as your ‘concern’ about the numbers of women in leadership roles. Do something about making those roles and teams healthy places for women to join.

I am hopeful that the paths taken by my five daughters and their friends will be easier than mine, and I want to support their career journeys so that they are increasingly able to develop organisations that have been created by men and women as places in which all genders can thrive. For me, ‘thriving’ would mean that my daughters and their partners could flourish in their workplaces without having to do daily combat with unconsciously held, but biased, expectations on how the two main sexes might contribute or should behave.

Veronica Hope Hailey is University Vice President for External Engagement at the University of Bath and the former Dean of the University of Bath School of Management.

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