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Lean in? MAYbe...

19-August-2016
19-August-2016 10:18
in Leadership
by Sophie Coates

The dust is finally starting to settle on what has been a hectic few months surrounding Brexit. As Jon Cowell (CEO of Edgecumbe) previously wrote in his ‘Reflections on Brexit’ in June, the UK finds itself in desperate need of a shared identity and a leader who is able to represent us all.

Enter Theresa May. Notoriously ambitious, driven and not afraid of a scrap, evident by a long history of clashes with Gove and more recently with Osbourne regarding immigration. Matthew d’Anacana posed the question in the Guardian on Sunday last week “remind you of anyone?”. Already nicknamed the “Ice Maiden” and cast as the “New Thatcher”, May is predicted to be someone not to be messed with.

In his article, D’Anacana speculates that it is almost as though the Conservative party actively encourages the promotion of women with this type of personality – “perceiving the ideal woman as either a passive creature or a terrifying domanatrix”. Maybe you do need to be doubly tough to survive and prosper in a political party where out of 330 MPs, only 68 are women; and from 22 cabinet posts, only 8 are filled by women.

But these statistics are nothing new and reflect what we see in industry; still, less women make it to leadership positions in every type of organisation. And it doesn’t seem to be getting any better. In fact in the UK there has been a marginal decline in the last year, with 21% of senior roles now held by women (down from 22% in 2015) (Forbes, March 2016).

So do women have to be a “terrifying domanatrix” to make it to the top? Well, our research says “No”. Differences in personality between males and females in senior leader positions suggest that female senior leaders not only show higher levels of agreeableness (showing more altruistic, compassionate and compliant personality traits) than male senior leaders, but also higher than the general population.

This evidence goes against theories such as the “Think Manager, Think Male” and “Lean In” perspectives which argue that in order to get ahead and get promoted, women need to act like men. Our results also reflect academic research which documents a shift from more transactional and forceful styles of leading towards more enabling and transformational – with the personality trait of agreeableness being the key differentiator.

Although not reflective of female senior leaders in our research, it will be interesting to see how May’s “don’t mess with me” style plays out in her new role as PM.