Success and the System: Brave Female CEOs Wanted for Systemic Change Gig

Nicki HeadshotBy Nicki Gilmour, Founder and CEO of The Glass Hammer and Evolved Employer

Apparently, Marissa Mayer, the new pregnant female CEO of Yahoo, dislikes feminism and taking maternity leave. Should we feel betrayed by her attitudes? Or should we rejoice that a woman gets a coveted spot as a CEO of a Fortune 500 company?

I believe that everyone, including Marissa Mayer, is entitled to her opinion around feminism (however much I personally disagree with her) and around her own boundaries for returning from maternity leave as much as the next person. Nitpicking about her choices would be a distraction from the real issue: why systemic bias in most workplace cultures results in protectionist behaviors from female executives that make them look more like their fathers than their daughters.

However, what Marissa Mayer may not fully realize is that with great power of being a CEO comes great responsibility.

All leaders need to be conscious that their actions and words heavily influence company culture. Behaviors shape the system and the system dictates workplace culture, often invisible to the naked eye, but can be simply defined as “how we do things around here.” The workplace culture in which you operate dictates whether you are running with a weight around your ankle on a potholed road or running on the latest Olympic track with the wind at your back.

Between a rock and a hard place

Women in leadership positions, like Marissa Mayer, have to make some decisions around their behavior – which can very much become two separate paths. The well worn path to the corner office is to assimilate to the dominant culture in your firm – this goes for men too. However, as a female leader, the “system” will demand control and command type actions or you will be seen as “weak” or (maybe even worse!) “difficult.”

Most workplaces are set up in a more traditional manner, in the sense that they are based around assumptions that the best work is done by people who can do facetime, never take time off, and are available for travel at all times. Hence Mayer’s professed choice of skipping maternity leave to concentrate on big boy stuff, liking saving Yahoo (aside – can anyone do that?). It is worth noting that she came from a technology background, which is well documented for creating cultures where masculine stereotypes are prevalent around who is qualified as a “expert” technologist.

There is no denying it that often assimilation is the easiest, fastest way to the top and we have witnessed many women who live by the “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” motto. This leaves other women wondering why the ladder has been pulled up behind some successful women, who are hiring men in droves. “Why don’t women help us once they make it?” is probably the most frequently asked question I get asked as CEO of The Glass Hammer.

Women leaders and the glass cliff

Minimization of gender differences will only feed into the meritocracy myth. One woman at the helm does not mean that your company is free of gender based issues.

Studies around the “glass cliff” suggest that there are gendered dimensions to who gets chosen to lead change when organizational performance is on a downward trend. Sound familiar?

Even Jack Welch has commented on how some of the toughest turnaround jobs in the Fortune 500 have been in the hands of women these past twenty years and these are classic examples of “turnaround jobs.” And, when the job proves un-surmountable, these women’s fall from grace and straight off the cliff is well documented.

All have some commonalities around not fully owning their social identity and insisting that playing the game would be enough – Erin Callan and Zoe Cruz, for example.

How you can be a better leader and avoid the glass cliff?

Are you starting to align your behavior with a traditionally male “command-and-control” leadership style, whilst wearing your Louboutin heels? Do you claim to work in a meritocracy, and yet hire only men as your direct reports? Do you have a compulsion to talk on behalf of all women everywhere, informing them they need only to work harder and “double down” to succeed? Meanwhile, back at HQ, your own company adds one lone women (yourself) to the board under serious media scrutiny.

If any of these descriptions apply to you, you may be caught in status quo protectionist behavioral vortex, and one that could be your downfall.

The good news is that there is a better path that female leaders can take to break the glass ceiling, stay in a senior job, and create the systemic change that is needed to help other women in their careers.

The first step is to acknowledge that you are in fact a woman (or a person of color, or LGBT, or even a left-hander). The second step is to understand that that brain science shows that humans like to categorize each other – and social identity is one of our brains’ favorite boxes to tick. We draw instant connotations of what we think people are capable of and since patriarchy has been the historical construct for western society so far, we are quick to think of stereotypically male characteristics as leadership characteristics.

This is where tough choices have to be made by minority leaders in organizational life (which is just an extension of society when it comes to power and authority dynamics) on whether to go with the flow and protect the status quo in the name of getting business done, or to challenge how everything has been done to date.

People don’t like change. So, its not a big surprise that women who make it don’t want to use their position to lead dramatic change that goes to the core of every man and woman in the team. Even if they do recognize the reach of their choices, what is in it for them? What is in it for the female leader? Very little. They are often damned if they do and damned if they don’t!

This is why we need to know how to navigate our careers as change agents and not as assimilators in our workplaces. That is why we need men (or Caucasians, or LGBT allies) to help with the change so the onus isn’t on the only women/person of color/gay person on the team to “fix” the diversity issues along with their day job.

I would advise Mayer and any other female leader reading this to stop assimilating. It clearly only works for a time. Think about who else you need to help you create this change. Equip yourself with negotiation and coalition building skills so that the change is behavioral and everyone benefits from having a good working environment years from now.

Be Brave. Ask yourself, “Are you a game changer?”

If you are interested in conducting culture audits at your firm or becoming a change leader, please contact us as we run a number of training and networking sessions to empower you!