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Should Your Leadership Team Be All Women?

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Sep. 18 2019, Published 5:00 a.m. ET

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I went to an all-girls school; the first time I encountered a mixed-gender classroom I was in college. After university, a woman gave me my first job and I found myself working in a small office on an all-female team. My first senior leadership position was on an all-female team. I’ve had cause to reflect on these experiences given the chatter surrounding the news that Prince Harry and Duchess Meghan have hired the first all-female senior leadership team of a Royal household. It’s only in the last decade that I’ve been working on leadership teams that consisted of both men and women. Is there a difference? What are the pros to working with only women? Do the cons outweigh the pros?

Two things to emphasize. First, I’ve been lucky.  I’ve never been singular or the “only”- as in the only Black person, the only woman, or the only Black woman on a team. Yes, there is an advantage that comes with that. Second, aside from the obvious physical differences, there are no major distinctions between men and women as it relates to personality, cognition and leadership. No stereotypes to be drawn, all women do not operate the same, just as all men do not. But there can be some characteristics, some behaviors that you encounter more than others that separate men from women. A lot of them, predicated on our socialization and upbringing, are the ones that I will be focusing on here.

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Here’s what the results of my unscientific, but deeply personal analysis has found. There are many pros.

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Women Are Less Likely To Label Each Other

Men and women are both emotional at work, yet it’s usually women who are labelled with the overly emotional tag. My experience is that this rarely happens on an all-female team. A woman can be passionate without being seen as aggressive, she can be angry, without being labelled hysterical.

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An Understanding That People Bring Their Whole Self To Work

There’s no expectation to leave your life behind when you come to work. Women have families. This often translates into being the lead parent, the primary support for aging parents and the first call when a life event affects their families. On all-female teams, there is unhindered acceptance of this as fact. Bad things happen, and you may need to juggle your schedule or re-prioritize tasks. On all-female leadership teams I’ve found support, advice and encouragement in how to get things done in these situations.

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Pregnancy Is Not A Career Breaker

Kerrie*, an insurance broker, remembers the impact of overhearing the senior leader at her previous employer looking around the office and derisively pointing out just how many women were pregnant. The clear implication being that pregnancy was not a good thing. I’ve found that all-female teams don’t assume pregnancy equals lost productivity. We understand that there are easy and difficult pregnancies. When hiring, we understand breaks in resumes to accommodate child rearing, you don’t have to justify your worth to us. Pressed for her preference, Kerrie says,“Particularly in your reproductive years, I prefer working for women. They’re more understanding and empathetic to female issues.”

Collaboration, Creativity And Higher Standards 

It wasn’t always a smooth ride, but the all-female teams I’ve worked on collaborated strongly in getting things done. We worked hard, focused on creative problem solving and out-of-the box thinking. Caroline, a senior manager at a University have found that in teams led by men, they have a tendency not to listen to feedback because they believe they have the answer. But she has noted that “men seem to be more willing to start with something even if it’s not perfect. Women tend to worry more about perfection.” This resonates with my experience in that higher standards often manifested in us being too hard on ourselves. Conversely, that allowed room for vulnerability. As Brene Brown states– there’s power in vulnerability. It allowed us to connect and build goodwill, which got us through the moments where our differences collided.

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There are cons to these teams and two prominently immediately jump out.

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Lack Of Diversity

There’s a reason you find that all-women leadership teams are unlikely to oppose to bringing men on board and into the organization. In fact, the ones I’ve worked on have actively sought to add diversity. Why? Research shows that diversity on teams directly enhances performance and improves the bottom line.  All female teams, while great, are still missing the magic that comes with varying perspectives needed to solve complex problems.

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Perception Of Cattiness

When it goes wrong, working on female-dominated teams can be filled with cattiness and a “mean girls” vibe. Lisa, a lawyer in New York, has always found this to be the case. “I simply never have good experiences with female co-workers because they are always doing some type of backstabbing.” As the only Black attorney at her firm, she’s had to deal with the latest assault– her female co-workers trying to get her fired. It has created a difficult environment for her at work.

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We cannot ignore that women have been socialized to be competitive in the workplace. After all, we often have to fight for the single spot allotted to us on senior leadership teams. But is that a gender issue? The actress Constance Wu has aptly said “If you’re at a board meeting and there’s only one seat for a woman and all the other seats are for men, it’s not about being a woman – if you think there’s only one seat, it’s going to be competitive. If it’s a board meeting of all women and there’s only one seat for a man, the men will start becoming competitive. It’s about the scarcity, not gender.” We do have a scarcity problem. In S&P 500 companies in 2019, the higher up the corporate ladder, the fewer the women. Only five percent  of women are CEOS and 26 percent executive senior managers.

Looking back, perhaps I’m romanticizing the female teams on which I’ve received great sponsorship and mentoring. I’m with Sheila, a manager for a global bank, who told me: “I’ve only had good, strong female leaders who were accommodating in my career.”

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I firmly say yes, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex have got it right. While our leadership teams don’t need to be all female, at least half of every senior leadership team should be women. We would all benefit.

[Editor’s note: *Names have been changed throughout the article to protect the privacy of individuals.]

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By: Sonia Layne-Gartside

Sonia Layne-Gartside is an accomplished Global Consultant. She works with C-Suite and senior leaders in Fortune 500 companies as a strategic partner to lead Organization Development (OD), Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) and HR strategy execution activities. Sonia holds advanced certification in change management from Prosci®, and she is certified as a Master Trainer, DEI Specialist, Case Writer, and Instructional Designer. Her undergraduate degree is in Business Management and her master’s degree is in Education. She is an International Speaker and author of the book Workplace Anxiety: How to Refuel and Re-Engage. In acknowledgement of her work and innovative practices, Sonia was recognized as the 2021 “Leader of the Year” by the Pittsburgh Human Resources Association’s (PHRA). She describes herself as a cheerleader for people and ideas.

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