Op-Ed: Staking Your Leadership Claim in a Traditionally Male Profession

female leaders

Guest Contributed by Kathleen Kuhn

It’s time to drop the “female” qualifier and see yourself just as a leader.

There’s been a huge push for gender equality in the workplace in recent decades, and no one can argue that, overall, female leaders have greater representation and visibility today than ever before. As of 2018, 40% of all businesses in the U.S. were owned by women, including 1 in 5 firms that earn over $1M in revenue. In the last 20 years, the number of women CEOs at Fortune 500 companies has risen from just two (1999) to a record-high of 33 (2019).

This is certainly positive news, but it’s only one small slice of the larger picture. Things look a bit bleaker when you zoom in on industries that are traditionally male-heavy, such as construction, trucking, and any of the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields.

According to research by Catalyst, just 6.6% of American women work full-time in occupations that have 75% or more male representation – and with so few women in these professions overall, it’s understandable that female leaders might find it challenging to command respect.

Gender as a leadership qualifier: Why do we care if a leader is female?

Much research has been done on the differences between male and female leadership styles, and the results are often complicated. The American Psychological Association says that all things being equal, men and women are equally effective as leaders, with the caveat that “all things rarely are equal.”

Contributing to this inequality are some persistent perceptions and stereotypes that make women less likely to be seen as leaders. A University of Buffalo study found that conventionally masculine traits, like confidence, assertiveness, and dominance, beat out “feminine” traits, such as cooperativeness, nurturing, sensitivity, and concern for others, in terms of who was viewed as a “leader.”

This, perhaps, explains why women leaders in male-heavy industries have felt like they needed to act like men to be successful and get ahead. Unfortunately, doing so only serves to normalize the existing gender gaps and stereotypes.

On the flip side, other women subscribe to Sheryl Sandberg’s now-famous “Lean In” mantra, which encourages women to take charge of their careers and fight gender inequality by boosting their own skills and confidence. This solution is only marginally better than “acting like a man:” As the Harvard Business Review notes, the idea of leaning in puts the onus of change entirely in the hands of women, when in reality, all genders must contribute to the systemic and societal shifts that will ultimately balance the scales.

How to stake your claim as a leader

So what’s the answer, then? We can start by not focusing so intently on a leader’s gender and instead focus on how effective they are at leading their companies.

Yes, it can be intimidating to be the only woman in a room full of men if you allow it to be. It’s not uncommon for women to think about how those men might be judging and underestimating you because of your gender. But the truth is, the gender mix in a meeting, on a team, or in an entire industry is irrelevant if not beneficial. Your gender is irrelevant; what matters is your performance and your contribution to the overall business and its culture.

As a female executive or senior leader working in a traditionally male profession, here are a few things you can do to focus on good leadership without a gender qualifier.

1. Show your people you care about them

Human beings are social creatures. We need support and recognition from our team to thrive. A report by the Society for Human Resource Management cited some of the benefits of a more caring, human-focused workplaces, including better employee performance, improved safety and health, and greater worker satisfaction and commitment. So, ask people how they’re doing. Get to know them as individuals who have personal lives outside of their jobs. While you’re in the workplace together, acknowledge their accomplishments and express your appreciation for their contributions to the company.

2. Listen to criticism (but don’t take it personally)

Being a leader means you’re going to make some difficult and unpopular decisions. It’s not possible to please everyone on your team, and at some point, you’ll be on the receiving end of negative feedback about your leadership style.

It’s important not to take these things personally, but instead, listen to the criticism and work with your team to find a solution. Research from the University of Bath and the University of Oklahoma found that leaders who respond to intense criticism with a collaborative strategy tend to retain follower support and achieve better outcomes than those who respond by avoiding the issue or diverting attention elsewhere.

3. Stop defining yourself as a female leader

There’s nothing wrong with taking pride in your femininity or celebrating your unique perspective and experiences as a woman. But calling attention to gender differences in your leadership style may ultimately perpetuate existing and perceived gaps between men and women in the workplace. Try to avoid focusing on the gender count in the meeting and simply show up as a competent executive.

The bottom line? When women confidently present themselves simply as leaders, rather than female leaders, it’s easier for everyone else to see them that way, too.

About the Author

Kathleen Kuhn is President and CEO of HouseMaster and PatchMaster, two franchise brands in the home services industry with locations across North America. As head of HouseMaster, the original home inspection franchise, Kathleen oversees an organization with more than 320 franchise locations across the U.S. and Canada. And as the CEO of PatchMaster, Kathleen leads a new, fast growing drywall repair specialty concept with 19 franchises signed in 46 territories with 10 franchises opened and operating.

The opinions and views expressed by guest contributors are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of