How do you feel when you are a leader in the men’s world? What risks do women face when they hold leadership positions? And what do they do differently as leaders?
The BBC interviewed the ‘Five Finns’ alliance of women leaders in Finland on leadership, to find out how they put care in mind when making decisions and setting future goals.
Dr. Nela Smolovic-Jones says in response to a question: Would you like to be led by an all-female team? How does it feel to be a leader in the men’s world?
“There is a huge risk associated with assuming leadership positions when you are a woman, because you are judged up front because of your gender.”
Here, we’ll take a look at what it takes to become a leader. It may also have a lot of lessons for men.
The photo that made headlines around the world of the leaders of Finland’s new coalition government, was unique in terms of gender and reflected their political stances and leadership style.
The five leaders are women, and all of them were under 35 when they took office, except for one, Sanna Marin, who was 34 when she became Finland’s youngest-ever prime minister.
Finland has a leading record of women’s rights. It was the first country in the world to grant full suffrage to women, and women in this country are used to taking on leadership positions.
Women say there are downsides when the ruling team is all-female.
There were disagreements among the leaders, but Finland, like some other women-led countries, won praise for its early response to the coronavirus pandemic. The government is introducing a promising program for equality that includes more rights for transgender people, encourages fathers to share care responsibilities and closes the gender pay gap.
So, what did we learn from Experiment Finland on women’s leadership in a man’s world?
“The coalition leaders have a kind of practical understanding of exclusion, marginalization and living in hardship,” says Nela Smolovic-Jones. “And I think that also makes them understand and value care more, as well as inclusion and solidarity.”
So, do Finnish women leaders put care at the center of the decisions they make and the goals they set?
“Yes, but actually working towards that goal requires perseverance, going beyond differences and conflicts and trying to find a way around the differences, such as political affiliation, beliefs, your attitudes and so on,” says Smolovic-Jones.
“So, I think women are set up to work in this way from an early age, and they don’t give up at the first obstacle they encounter, they persevere.”
Finnish women leaders have different political stances and beliefs, so how do they resolve their differences together؟
“There is a huge risk associated with being in leadership positions when you are a woman, because you are being judged based on gender bias,” Smolovic-Jones says.
Therefore, if for some reason, for example, the alliance of the Five Finns fails, or fails to fulfill the promises it made to itself, they may be judged harsher than their male counterparts, by politicians, the media or their constituents.”
So, female leaders are judged more harshly than male leaders and face this gender bias, isn’t it fair?
“The pandemic or the financial crisis or the climate crisis, it made it clear that the country needs this kind of inclusive leadership and care in order to get through it,” Smolovic-Jones responds, adding, “I think that’s exactly why this female leadership is being pushed forward. Widespread application is possible in the future.
Therefore, the leadership qualities traditionally associated with women, such as caring for others and working together, have proven successful in addressing global crises as well.
The BBC also interviewed Meggie Palmer, who started her life as a journalist but soon realized she had a different story to tell.
Women around the world generally get paid less than men and do not hold many senior positions in companies.
Meggie decided to do something about it, creating an app called PepTalkHer that trains women on how to get fair pay and advocates for gender balance and equality in senior positions. Its goal is to end the wage gap and help women become the leaders of their dreams.
Palmer says, “I have really had some positive experiences as a woman in a leadership position, many men and women have helped me reach senior positions in the work I have done. But in return, I have also had some negative experiences in the workplace, such as inappropriate attitude and behavior with me. Talking to me differently and treating me differently, just because I’m a woman.”
Palmer says she has experienced wage inequality in her career.
“I found out that I was getting paid less than my male colleagues, and my job terms and conditions were different compared to them. It wasn’t fair to me, so I raised it with my superiors, but they simply told me if you didn’t like it, you could resign or sue us.”
“That was a few years ago, I hope things have changed somewhat now, given that this gender pay gap still exists around the world to this day.”
Meggie had her own experiences of getting paid less than her male counterparts, so she wanted to do something about it.
Palmer recounts her experience: “Being the only person anywhere makes you feel lonely, doesn’t it? If you’re the only person of color or the only woman in the workplace, it makes you feel lonely, and that’s what women leaders tell me – be lonely like me.” Now I serve on the boards of both male and female non-profit organizations, and I’ve had experiences and raised issues here as well, particularly those related to women, but I still hear about the gossip and annoyance of all the men with me, and I get very little support from a female board member. Management, our number are few. When you are not large, it is really difficult to make any change, therefore, it becomes frustrating, but it is an inevitable thing and we need to keep talking about it and amplifying the issue until the desired goal is achieved.”
All in all, Meggie knows what it means to have only one woman in a conference room, and may feel Female leaders are often lonely and isolated.
So, when we think about who is responsible for improving these attitudes? The answer is all of us.
This is not a problem that only women have to solve, and it is not just leadership that can be solved, it is a problem that we all have a responsibility to solve.
When you’re in middle management and you’re hiring, you can say, “I want to make sure I’m interviewing both male and female candidates,” and when you’re interviewing, you can actively ask, “What are the policies for this place to encourage diversity on the team?”
So, she says Maggie Change is everyone’s responsibility, and everyone at every level must ask the questions that will lead to greater equality in the workplace.
Maggie explains her point: “We know that when there are women in the leadership, companies perform better. We know that startups led by women return a higher return on investment for investors, compared to startups led only by men. We also know that when we look at Big companies run by women, their bottom line goes up, and we find that with women in the leadership, the decisions they make are more powerful and effective.”
Research shows that companies with women in leadership positions perform better. So, what have we learned about women in leadership? They face more prejudice and risks to their reputation, but they are likely to prioritize care and empathy in decision-making and can make companies and governments more effective.