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5 Ways to Support Females in Leadership Positions

This past Sunday (March 8, 2020) was International Women’s Day, and I was PUMPED.

But, with 24 hours #IWD passing, I wanted to write on this day in a different way than most people probably did. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love the inspirational slogans and the female empowerment quotes as much as any other strong feminist. But sometimes I feel that real, tangible instructions are the best way to get people (uhm, ok, men) to understand a bit of the female perspective. And that’s the stuff that we need to focus on all year round.

To all the cool, hip, kind-hearted males out there: read this, absorb it, implement it if you like. I’m not here to force practices on anybody. I just wanted to share some perspective that could be of value to good people who are keen on supporting the females in their lives.

At this point in this article, you may be wondering why I am even qualified to write this. Here’s a three-second background: throughout my university career, I’ve held my fair share of leadership positions in my academics, extracurriculars, and workplaces. This year, I am the President of a large club on campus and have the honour of working with a 38-person executive team. This article is dedicated to the males on my club who have done many of the things below to support me as a young female leader.

Ok, now that we’re caught up, here are five ways to support females in leadership positions:

1. Recognize a difference in the ethics of care and the ethics of justice.

Whoa, big words, I know. Before you panic, allow me to explain: these terms come from a study conducted by psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg called the “Heinz Dilemma.” In this made-up dilemma, young boys and girls were given a fake scenario and surveyed for their responses. Essentially, they were asked whether a man named Heinz should steal a life-saving drug for his sick wife, which he could not otherwise afford.

Many of the male children responded yes, because “right to life is more important than the right to property” ( Contrastingly, many of the female children argued that Heinz should not steal the medicine because “it could land him in jail for stealing, leaving his wife alone” when she needed him most.

Now, stay with me here. Female psychologist Carol Gilligan then came along and interpreted these results, sorting them into what we know now as the ethics of care and the ethics of justice. From Kohlberg's’ Heinz Dilemma, she concluded that men and women think about morality in very different ways. Men tend to look at the world through a lens of black and white laws, rights, and universally applied principles. On the other hand, women are socialized to see morality through the ethics of care, where they understand situations through more ‘grey’ areas: interconnected relationships, intangible feelings, compassion, and responsibility to others.

Since men have traditionally run many of the realms we are used to existing in, there is an overarching ‘ethics of justice’ style to leadership as we know it. Men typically tend to make swift, effective decisions, whereas women see nuances to consider all parties, feelings, and consequences involved.

If you see a woman ‘doing things differently’ in a position of power, and you find yourself questioning why the first step would be to come back to this concept. Chances are, the female leader you know is running things with fresh attention to the grey areas. This is not bad, it is just new to you. Let her do her job.

2. Credit women for the invisible work that they do.

By the same token, women have been socialized to do intangible, invisible work that is quite often gendered. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, just think about the things that get done without anybody assigning them or taking actual credit for them. This could be anything from cleaning up a meeting room to shifting an organization’s schedules to make sure all parties involved can join in on a discussion. Often, female leaders are more considerate of the details involved in their work and will go out of their way to put effort into those details.

Imagine, for example, a team meeting about a project. There is a heated debate, where two people 'lost' their side to three others. The female leader dismisses everybody once the conversation is professionally wrapped up. What she also does, without anybody knowing, is make sure to informally check up on the two dejected teammates later that day. She reassures them that their ideas are valid, and they are valued members of the organization. Next time they come to a meeting, they are not left with resentment from the last disagreement.

This is invisible work, and it is exhausting. Next time you see a female leader doing it, pull her aside to acknowledge efforts that she puts into the intangibles.

3. Support women when their voices are drowned out in conversation.

Women get talked over. It’s not new and it’s not surprising. If you haven’t seen this happen yet, you probably just haven’t been paying close enough attention. Sometimes this means interruptions when women are speaking, and other times it involves another person (usually male) taking credit for something a woman initially said or did.

So, next time you catch it, do your best to back the woman whose voice just got drowned out. Forbes says, “an effective response is to simply say something like, ‘I believe Jane said that moments ago. Jane, would you elaborate on that idea?’ This acknowledges that she’s been heard and invites her back into the conversation” (Forbes). All you have to do, as a supportive male, is redirect the conversation back to that female leader.

4. Ask how you can help (rather than assuming what will be useful to her).

The initiative is excellent, it really is. But sometimes, asking is even better. If you are working with a female leader, she is probably used to many people simply 'going ahead' and doing what they believe is right, necessary, or of most value to the organization.

Don’t get me wrong; this effort is appreciated. But I can guarantee you that if you ask, she will appreciate it exponentially more than if you went ahead and did the thing you were originally going to do. As a different form of initiative, try asking questions like, 'What can I do this week that would be of most value to you?' or 'How can my resources be of greatest help to this project?',

Sometimes, whatever you end up doing will be what you originally planned to do. But many other times, you might be given a task that is drastically different than what you imagined. Instead of assuming you know where you can help, just ask.

5. Push the women you know through “imposter syndrome”.

Regardless of how competent, tenacious, or respected female leaders are, they frequently experience imposter syndrome behind closed doors.

Imposter syndrome is essentially the feeling that you have succeeded only due to luck, or ‘faking it’ until you got to where you wanted to be. It means that you don’t feel like you deserve whatever position you are in, despite the fact that you usually do. This condition was “was first identified in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes,” and these women found that females were “uniquely affected by imposter syndrome” (Time). Women are socialized to doubt themselves and be doubted by others, and to be seen as weak, unqualified, or incompetent at disproportionately higher rates than men.

If you are genuinely interested in supporting the female leaders around you, take the time to make sure that the women you know feel valued. Recognize each woman for her accomplishments, and applaud her for relevant academic, extracurricular, or workplace success. She will likely have moments of doubt that you’ll never see. Assume that this is the case and put in every effort you can to minimize those doubts.

Those are five ways to support females in leadership positions. Quite honestly, step zero is just to listen to female leaders, and you’ve done that just by getting through this blog post. Thank you so much for reading. Happy #IWD, and let’s keep that spirit alive throughout this year!