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Monday, December 20, 2010

Young Women in Leadership

Young women may face unique challenges in asserting and developing a leadership style. Some struggle with managing others while maintaining a “good girl” image. They don’t want to be ignored, but they don’t want to be seen as too pushy, either. It’s a delicate balance to find a style that’s effective and feels like a good fit.

Women leaders must navigate a “double-bind”: If they assert themselves forcefully, people may perceive them as not acting feminine enough, triggering a backlash. But if they act in a stereotypically feminine way, they aren’t seen as strong leaders.

One major problem is a shortage of female role models. People often learn leadership styles by observing others; but there are often few female executives to observe. Women can watch male leaders too, of course, but men can’t illustrate how to navigate female stereotypes.

Here are several strategies to deal with the challenge. If there are few female leaders at their employer, young women should join professional associations or community organisations to find role models. These non-work settings also offer young women a chance to try out new leadership styles outside the office.

At work, young women should enlist mentors and solicit feedback on leadership techniques. After a meeting, ask a trusted superior what behaviours worked and what didn’t. Asking subordinates for feedback, however, is usually a mistake because it can indicate the leader is unsure of herself — a perception young female managers particularly want to avoid. In theory, these mentors could be either men or women, but young women should realise that male mentors may not be as aware of the unique challenges young women face in asserting leadership.

Leadership coaches encourage women to take charge of their office image by showcasing their workplace activities in thoughtful ways, such as leading presentations at meetings. They shouldn’t be content simply that their name is on an important report. Instead, they should actively engage colleagues and superiors, and talk frequently about their ideas and research.

Self-promotion may feel unnatural. Young women may worry that they’re setting expectations too high or drawing too much attention. But there are ways to feel more comfortable doing this. First, they should evaluate their work to pinpoint what differentiates them from other colleagues. Then, start small. One tactic? Exude enthusiasm about a company’s new project. The delight will translate to others as confidence. When the company has new projects in the works, women should suggest how their research and skills could contribute.

It’s also important for young female managers to ask superiors to back them up when others second-guess them. Women should ask their bosses to be ready to explain why they were chosen and what skills they bring to the position. Many women don’t ask for this support.