15/10/2015 8:19 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Why The Feminisation Of The Workplace Is Good News For Everyone

weighing team and leader but leader is more powerful vector
designaart via Getty Images
weighing team and leader but leader is more powerful vector

There's something happening at our workplaces. There's more democracy, more participation within the organisation, more engagement with clients and vendors, less aggression... together, these trends point at a gradual "feminisation" of offices.

The world has become more sensitive to workplace issues -- from meeting the need for ergonomic chairs and better lighting to the formulation of policies to promote gender equality to organising "off-sites" and leadership-building exercises. And, alongside, the character of the workplace has changed. There's an acknowledgement that there's a greater participation in decision-making, for flexibility in roles, and the importance of the personal in the public or organisational structure.

All these are related to characteristics that have long been identified as "feminine" by psychologists, by human resource management professionals and sociologists. Perhaps the most remarkable "feminine" development at workplaces is the increased -- and increasing -- flexibility allowed in work arrangements, involving a range of offsite and part-time modalities for employees. There's sensitivity to personal needs in this approach to flexibility. It has allowed women with family demands, young mothers and people with various physical handicaps into the workforce, helped bring their talents and creativity into play and into the marketplace. There are more women at the workplace, tending towards 50% in many of the service industries, even in some manufacturing units.

"Many experts (and, surely, staffers) have remarked upon these different leadership styles of men and women. But not many have commented on the fact that the differences are narrowing."

In an article on women in the workplace,The Atlantic sums the matter up nicely: "Half a dozen global studies, conducted by the likes of Goldman Sachs and Columbia University, have found that companies employing women in large numbers outperform their competitors on every measure of profitability."

With these developments, it would seem natural that there should be more women in leadership positions, but the fact remains that less than 5% of corporate heads are women, though about 30% of senior leadership positions are now occupied by women. A survey by leadership consulting firm Zenger Folkman (covering 45,000 women and men leaders, rated by more than 450,000 people, over 2011 and 2012) found that 51.8% of the men and 54.5% of the women were rated to be "effective overall" as leaders. It was also found that women's effectiveness as leaders improved with age --young women actually were perceived as less effective than their male counterparts, but more effective after the age of 40!

Yet, while the number of women at the less senior levels of leadership compare well with men, at the highest level, the numbers are very skewed in favour of men.

For every Indra Nooyi at the top of the ladder, there are over 95 men crowding the top echelons; but, let's not forget, there are an equal number of men and women in their 30s and 40s waiting to climb that ladder.

Women leaders are universally accepted as being more "cooperative" than their male counterparts. She can be demanding and understanding at the same time -- in a way that he cannot. He is seen to be aggressive; she is assertive. She persuades and encourages; he gives orders.

But the Zenger Folkman survey found some other interesting comparisons: while women are much more driven, engage in more "self-development" courses and encourage others to do the same, men are almost equally communicative (and, in fact, connect better to the outside world). They also do not perform too differently on problem-solving, innovation and technological expertise; in strategic thinking, men were found to be somewhat better than women.

Most people who've had women and men seniors have probably experienced all this first-hand. Many experts (and, surely, staffers) have remarked upon these different leadership styles of men and women. But not many have commented on the fact that the differences are narrowing.

Where once the political leader and intellectual Adlai Stevenson II saw leadership as a "cavalry charge," Nelson Mandela saw the leader as a "shepherd [who] stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead." Margaret Thatcher saw " of the great problems of our age is that we are governed by people who care more about feelings than they do about thoughts and ideas." But Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook sees leadership as being "...about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure that impact lasts in your absence" And Irene Rosenfeld, CEO of Mondelēz International says categorically: "Our emerging workforce is not interested in command-and-control leadership."

Earlier, women in leadership roles, like Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi, took positions associated with the male persona -- aggressive, unemotional, controlled and controlling. Today, male leaders are accepting the more "feminine" approach -- participative, communicative, flexible....

The changing approaches are almost surely to do with more women in the workforce as well as the increasing number of women taking on leadership positions.

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