Building trust in female leaders: Takeaways & next steps

By Heather Granato, WIN President

They say, ‘trust must be earned,’ but there is also a question of how to build a culture that values honesty and vulnerability, where trust is an outcome. In an environment where people have the right mindset and desire to keep their promises, then develop the products and services that fulfill those concepts, and ultimately deliver, trust is the valued outcome.

Unfortunately, there are issues of unconscious—and conscious—bias that are continuing to hold back trust in female leaders. In our January webinar, ‘Building Trust in Female Leaders,’ we explored the topic through data and personal experiences.

Recent research from Kantar Public spurred the exploration of the topic. Since 2018, the Reykajavik Index has measured perceptions of quality for men and women in leadership; a score of 100 indicates that men and women are seen as equally suited to lead. The average across the G7 was a 73, and in the G20 a 68. The most progressive country was Iceland, with a score of 92; the Kantar Public team noted equality is part of the constitution, enforcing equal pay, parental leave and childcare.

These are critical considerations to changing workplace values and personal attitudes, according to panelist Caitlyn Vanderhaeghe, president and CEO of Kidstar Nutrients. “Leaders need to realise that we have children and family responsibilities, and we need to be flexible,” she commented. “Everyone is needed in raising the next generation.” She noted that her organization has been committed to providing that flexibility and has modeled the behavior herself, demonstrating to others the value Kidstar Nutrients places on equal treatment.

The Kantar data also illustrated the challenges around getting more women into the C-suite. When queried about having a woman as CEO of a major company in their country, 54% of respondents across the G7 and 48% across the G20 were ‘very comfortable.’ There have been various questions about why the pipeline of women becoming CEOs remains thin. As Rena Cohen-First, vice president of sales at Cepham, pointed out: “The majority of Fortune 500 CEO’s have risen up through sales yet overwhelmingly women are avoiding sales careers. In addition to which statistics show that women need 100% confidence before taking a risk vs. men who need about 60%, leaving a big gap in career that largely encourages risk-taking.”

Further, there is a concern around role congruity—whether in the C-suite or simply in a leadership position with a team. The theory holds that the greater the overlap with a person’s perceived skills, traits and behaviors, and a job role, the greater the perceived confidence in that role. So, if the attributes of a strong leader are seen as incongruous with the traditional gender role of a woman, her leadership ability and skills are brought into question. One possible solution is to address team composition, seeking greater gender balance to positively impact perception of women as effective leaders.

“As human beings, we are naturally attracted to people and things that are like us,” said Mark Walsh, CEO of MeriCal. “As leaders when we have somebody lead an initiative, we should work to ensure diversity instead of going to the same people over and over. We need to challenge ourselves to about of our comfort zone and be a little bit uncomfortable. Find commonalities to make a connection but also get comfortable with those who might not share the same interests as you.”

The panel also explored the topic of transactional versus transformational leadership. Transactional leadership has a strong focus on goals and tends to be reactive in nature. Followers complete the roles as assigned by leaders in a quest to receive rewards and avoid punishments. Transformational leadership is a proactive approach focused on a shared vision. The leader moves followers to awareness of the team accomplishments rather than self-interests.

Findings from a recent meta-analysis by the University of Colombo found that male managers are more represented than women in transactional leadership styles, placing value on order and structure, while female managers displayed more transformational leadership qualities. But they also noted: “Both male and female leaders belong in the workplace. So do non-binary leaders, and leaders who identify outside these constructs. Leadership and work cultures are only strengthened by diversity. It is the very fact that leadership styles, qualities and motivations of men and women leaders differ (and can be celebrated) that enriches the culture of workplaces.”

Indeed, we all have the capabilities to lead and build trust among our teams and within our industry. Leaders who are consistent and transparent in their communications and goals; who model the behavior they seek, building in accountability; and who actively demonstrate appreciation, empathy and honesty are in a strong position to reach the goals they set, with a collaborative team that sees the benefits of diversity in thought and practice.

Did you miss the live webinar? Click here to access it On Demand. 

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