Thoughts About Women Leaders

An article in today’s HBR Blog Network naturally caught my eye: Why Women Leaders Need Self-Confidence.  Leslie Pratch,the author, references an article in the New York Times about Virginia Rometty, who will be IBM’s first female CEO.

Early in her career, Virginia M. Rometty, I.B.M.’s next chief executive, was offered a big job, but she felt she did not have enough experience.  So she told the recruiter she needed time to think about it.

That night, her husband asked her, “Do you think a man would have ever answered that questions that way?”

“What it taught me was you have to be very confident, even though you’re so self-critical inside about what it is you may or may not know,” she said at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit this month.

I don’t know how many times I have posed the same question to women I have mentored. Perhaps it’s because my leadership training was in the military.  A military woman would never question herself publicly.

Applied to leadership, gender role stereotypes suggest that female-stereotypical forms of leadership are interpersonally oriented and collaborative, whereas male-stereotypical forms of leadership are task oriented and dominating.

In my experience in the 1970s through 1990s, women who displayed self-confidence in leadership positions in the civilian sector were not “respected” by either their male or female subordinates.  Unfortunately, they were referred to by derogatory, sexist terms.  This may continue to be generally true since the author notes that “[t]o the extent that women who are leaders exhibit a masculine style, they amplify their role conflict and increase the chances of receiving unfairly negative evaluations.”

The author notes that for women, the “[c]orrelation between self-confidence and leadership effectiveness was also overwhelmingly statistically significant.”  To me this doesn’t mean that female leaders should consistently exhibit male-stereotypical leadership behaviors of being task-oriented and dominating.  What seems most appropriate to me is to be a situational leader, to apply the leadership style most appropriate to the situation.

Self-confidence is an important attribute in a leader, regardless of leadership style and gender.  I’m sure that you have felt it easier to have confidence in the leader’s vision if the leader is self-confident.

However, self-confidence in female leaders is a broader issue than just leadership. We have to look at developing self-confidence in women in all roles.


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