Women's Leadership - From Competence to Confidence - PwC

By the start of the 1990s, it was commonly assumed that any woman who aspired to a high position would need to adopt traditional male behaviors and style. Corporate training programs for women — admittedly rare in that era — reinforced this advice.


The counter-narrative that emerged throughout the 1990s redefined excellence in leadership in a way that aligned with many of the skills women brought into the workplace. As technology undermined industrial structures throughout the 1990s, prophets of a more balanced and humane leadership style created a counterpoint to the popular narrative of the top-down boss who drives his resistant people to outsized success. As a result, it no longer made sense to encourage women seeking to move into senior roles to imitate a top-down leadership style. Such a style, though still highly visible, seemed out of sync with a networked economy based on knowledge. Women were getting the message that they had something distinctive and timely to offer as leaders, and that their organizations stood to benefit as a result.

From competence to confidence

Although the experience of the 1990s provided evidence that women had the skills and competence required to lead, many continued to lack the kind of confidence so freely exhibited by successful men. Business scholar Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic demonstrated that women’s confidence almost always aligned with their level of competence — or below it — which is not usually the case with men, especially at leadership levels.


This “confidence gap” has remained problematic for women. Yet we have witnessed a distinctive increase in women’s confidence over the past decades. High-profile corporate scandals that unfolded at the start of the new century began to persuade many women that they had underestimated their own capacity for strategic insight and vision.


Competence, which is actually the chief factor in determining how successful a leader will be, tends to get swept aside when hiring managers are dazzled by a candidate’s self-assurance. This penalizes competent men and women alike, but is especially punishing for women when it comes to being considered for top jobs, because they are less likely to radiate unwavering self-belief and so are more likely to be assessed as “merely” competent.


Some women seemed to anticipate these findings. They saw through the dazzle of wildly confident and charismatic leaders who insisted that they knew what they were doing. And they recognized that these same leaders had exposed their organizations, and indeed the entire financial system, to an unacceptable degree of risk. This spurred women’s growing confidence in their own competence and suggested to them that they could offer insights of inestimable value.


Overconfidence was increasingly seen as a warning sign that someone will turn out to be a poor leader: immune to feedback, resistant to change, and unlikely to consult others when making key decisions.

Power in numbers

As growing confidence based on demonstrated competence has increased women’s determination to reach their full potential, so has greater solidarity among them.


Increasing solidarity among women, a growing role for male allies, and vastly improved organizational engagement have combined to create an infrastructure of support for women almost entirely missing in previous decades.


Growing solidarity has helped address the isolation that made pursuing a career in the 1990s feel unrewarding for many women and that could make the route to the top almost insurmountable. Solidarity has also flourished because organizations over the past decade have gotten serious about identifying and developing talented women and instituted robust leadership development to support this effort. Well into the early 2000s, companies tended to view women’s advancement primarily as a women’s issue, rather than a leadership, business, or strategic concern. Initiatives aimed at helping women advance were therefore regarded as a nice thing to have or an easy way to position a company as a desirable place to work, but were rarely considered intrinsic to the cultivation of talent.


However, as many women who currently hold senior positions have themselves benefited from their organization’s women’s programs, they are committed to “paying it forward” by actively helping younger women coming up.


Women who aspire to leadership also now view supporting other women as a way to distinguish themselves and enhance their visibility, reputation, and networks. The upshot is that women have become openly and enthusiastically helpful to one another and are often highly invested in promoting one another’s careers. This mutual support has received a boost from @MeToo. And many men, astonished to learn how pervasive the harassment of female colleagues was and how much repeat offenders had gotten away with, made them eager to help change the culture.


The emphasis on men as allies has led to a substantial increase in male participation in programs aimed at developing women leaders. Asking why had they signed up for these programs, many male participants share comments like “A lot of the best talent these days is female, and our company can’t survive without talent,” “So if we don’t get better at engaging and retaining women, our businesses won’t survive. So please don’t waste our time telling us why supporting women is important. Just help us get better at doing it.”

Leading through (and after) crisis

The signs for women leaders were unprecedentedly positive heading into 2020. A strong economy, global competition for talent, highly visible women leaders in the public and private sectors, well-developed women’s leadership initiatives, increasing confidence and solidarity among women, and greater engagement from male allies combined to signal a strong path forward.


But as winter turned to spring, all expectations were upended. With the coronavirus pandemic still unfolding, it’s difficult to hazard predictions. Yet because the impact has been so immediate and far reaching, it can be helpful to note a few fragmentary signposts of how the crisis may lead to the next turning point in our story.


First, highly visible female leaders such as Angela Merkel of Germany, Tsai Ing-Wen of Taiwan, Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, and Mette Frederiksen of Denmark have offered strong examples of leadership during crisis. Of course, the physical, cultural, and political circumstances of each country, state, city, or territory have played a role in shaping their crisis response, and every leader has critics. The big takeaway is that although surveys have for more than a decade shown that people in general view women as more trustworthy than men, men have continued to rank higher on having the strength to lead in times of crisis. But what we are now witnessing suggests that this perception may be about to shift.


In addition, the definition of first responders has become inclusive of women in an unprecedented way, thanks primarily to the prevalence of women in healthcare and social services. Seeing large numbers of women on the front lines in a time of extreme risk erodes the distinction between male protection and female nurturance that has been embedded in the human story from its earliest days, while also casting women in the role of heroes willing to put their lives at risk to protect the larger public.


Another shift that may have powerful effects has to do with how the pandemic is dissolving the industrial-era divide between work and home. This barrier has remained in place even as the conditions that created it — the centralization of work mandated by expensive and immobile industrial equipment — has been undermined by increasingly cheap and easily portable technologies. Despite being outdated, the rigid boundary between the physical workplace and the home has persisted as a matter of policy, adding a layer of complexity to the lives of many women as they entered a workplace designed with the assumption that someone else would be at home taking care of the family.


Facts suggests that many people will not be returning to their physical workplaces when the crisis runs its course, or at least not on a regular basis. This situation of course creates problems as well as opportunities, as we’ve seen in the last few months. Women caring for and even homeschooling children while participating in corporate Zoom meetings or managing customer accounts are finding the double load a recipe for burnout. The challenge is especially acute for single parents, shift workers, and women whose partners do not normally participate in day-to-day childcare. Of course, telework in the pandemic is nothing like telework in normal circumstances, when children attend school and family members or other caregivers help working parents manage. But it will be illuminating to watch the structural changes that evolve as the old divide between work and home erodes. It is bound to deepen male involvement in raising children, something 85 percent of men in a range of countries report they would prefer.


Before the pandemic, the fact that work-from-home options were typically targeted to women made many men reluctant to participate, and men who did so were often stigmatized. Yet as the practice becomes more widespread, this stigma will begin to vanish. In addition, more communal domestic arrangements — in particular, the spread of multigenerational households that is already underway in Western countries and that has always been common in Eastern cultures — will begin to influence the design of neighborhoods and communities. The nuclear family as we have known it, always a challenge for working women, will come under further pressure worldwide.


As more paid employment moves into the home, both men and women will find themselves working on traditionally female turf for the first time since the start of the industrial era. This will further serve to break down boundaries between men and women, giving them a greater commonality of day-to-day experience.


As current trends coalesce, and as companies engage with governments and civil society in rethinking the rules that determine opportunity and success, the notions of who and what makes a leader must continue to expand. And with that expansion of influence and power, we can expect — and should demand — the next turning point in our story to have a broader reach.


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