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Why powerful leadership depends on a genderless approach

When I started my career in the corporate world, I absorbed, by osmosis, the way that I thought leadership was. I worked in a male-dominated environment, in that most of the senior leadership was male, and the women that had risen to the top tended to have more stereotypical “masculine” traits.

I left the corporate world and later founded a tech startup. Again, I was back in a male-dominated industry, and I led my team in a way that I thought I should. I was authoritative, controlling, and prone to losing my temper. Was the frustration justified? Yes, in some cases. Could I have handled it better? Absolutely. Acting like this left me exhausted and did not lead to the quality of the team’s work improving significantly. I knew that there had to be a better way.

By labeling traits as gender-specific, we are confirming our limited programming that men are better leaders, so the typically masculine qualities must be better than feminine qualities. This bias was summarized by researcher Virginia E. Schein, who in 1973 found that when people “think manager,”  they “think male.” This means that, by virtue of their gender, women are perceived as less competent than their male coworkers. In a study conducted in 2015, the researchers found “very clear gender-stereotyping effects.” Both men and women tended to believe that women lacked the emotional qualities considered essential for good leadership.

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