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For the Greater Good

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When my colleague asked if I could write something about women in leadership based on my experience, my stomach gave a familiar jolt - excitement mixed with utter terror.

As a child I wanted to be a journalist. My hero was April from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (that yellow jumpsuit!) and at any opportunity I’d leap into writing or telling stories.

The dream didn’t come true. Something happened along the way. A few too many people told me you have to be ‘very thick-skinned’ and ‘ruthless’ to work as a journalist, and the fear of not being able to make it in a ‘cut-throat’ world, or a competitive environment, got the better of me. Thus, my ‘imposter syndrome’ was born and the feeling that I was the one holding myself back from achieving my full potential, became a permanent part of my self-talk.

This little anecdote brings me quite nicely to the topic of women in leadership and my observations around why we continue to struggle to achieve gender equity in many instances.

When I was considering what to write, I started thinking, “you know what, we are doing OK… There are more women leading, we are seeing more women in positions of influence and power, and that is great. We know women-led countries fared statistically better through the pandemic, we know factually that women-led organisations are more profitable, sustainable, and inclusive. Things are changing.”

But then I dug deeper into the data and uncovered a less encouraging truth. Yes, there has been progress, but by and large, challenges remain. In some measures (thanks COVID), the gap has been exacerbated by the fact that during the pandemic, women have been proportionally more impacted by redundancies, have been more likely to take on home-schooling, and are more likely to be experiencing burn-out.


Mind the gender gap

A quick scour of recent articles on the topic, including the most recent McKinsey report Women in the Workplace and the Reykjavik Index for Leadership also reveal that despite a slow increase in women representing in the top levels, there is still a significant lack of trust in women as leaders, and women are still starkly missing in middle management – a gap that gets even bigger for women of colour.

But why? Despite gender parity seemingly being at the top of everyone’s agenda, why do we continue to see women not putting their hands up? Not progressing through their careers in the same way their male counterparts do? Not applying for roles unless they meet all the criteria, and doubting themselves and their ability?

For me, the answer came when listening to a recent Brene Brown podcast featuring Jodi-Ann Burey and Ruchika Tulshysn on Imposter Syndrome. It’s a fantastic episode that I would highly recommend listening to in its entirety, but the sentence that stuck me like my head hitting the glass ceiling was: The system isn’t broken, it’s working exactly as it was designed.


This system is not built for me

How many times have I said to myself and others that the system is broken, when what I meant was: this system is not built for me? The leadership model being driven by status, power and individualism is fundamentally at odds with how I see myself. And by the way, it’s not just a gender thing. The incumbent model of leadership doesn’t suit a lot of people – specifically, those who would never have achieved leadership status once upon a time. Women, people of colour, people living with a disability, people from all sides of the gender spectrum. And because we weren’t a part of it, our voices are not included in its design.

What I have come to realise is that we cannot expect to see truly inclusive leadership, where everyone is seen, heard, and valued until we all agree that the incumbent model is no longer working and needs re-building for the 21st century.

This realisation helps me look back at that 10-year-old wannabe April through a different lens. Making the decision not to pursue journalism was not a failing on my part, and not necessarily solely me doubting myself or my ability. It was more likely a healthy realisation that my leadership qualities did not, and still often do not, fit within a model of leadership that has been designed to promote individualism, competitiveness, and power.

So, what is the answer? Instigating a world-wide decision to forget everything that we have ever learnt about how leaders should behave? Building an entirely different leadership paradigm overnight (which sadly I think might be slightly too ambitious for a rainy Tuesday afternoon)?

Big change, little by little

Like all big change, the best and most sustainable way to get there, is little by little. I offer these practical, small steps, that we can make to shift the paradigm of leadership.

  • Stop, challenge, choose: don’t let behaviour that doesn’t promote inclusion slide
  • At every meeting you attend, for every recruitment drive, in every conversation about your customers, ask yourself: who’s voice are we not hearing?
  • Listen to understand, don’t listen to respond
  • If you identify as a woman, stop telling yourself you have imposter syndrome
  • Join a program, like Compass, that explores these topics, helps you unlock your courage, and shift the dial on leadership models.

Everyone, across the gender spectrum experiences self-doubt to some degree. If you feel it flaring up, chances are you know yourself well and are either experiencing a healthy apprehension about a new role project, OR you are facing an organisational culture that has not been designed to bring out the best in you.

The biggest lesson that I have learnt through this is whatever the story I am telling myself, there is always an opportunity to take a step back, and view things from another perspective. Looking through a different lens could just unlock something that you had never considered.


Emily Markwell
Program Manager, Compass


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