Sally Helgesen has been identified in Forbes as the world’s foremost expert on women’s leadership. Her latest book How Women Rise, co-authored with Marshall Goldsmith,became an international bestseller in 2018. Her experience in women’s leadership is unrivaled, and she’s dedicated her career to empowering women in the corporate and non-profit sectors, while offering knowledge and concepts that can be easily applied throughout every aspect of life. We had a chance to catch up with her a little before the launch of her new course in Methods to ask a few questions.
1. So, we know that men and women are different. Why is it that we still expect them to operate the same as leaders?
Helgesen: Men and women often have quite different experiences, especially in the workplace, and they bring those experiences with them into leadership positions. This can present roadblocks because the template people use when thinking about leadership has mostly been shaped by men. These templates are changing slowly, yet the change has been remarkable over the last 30 years. For example, we now expect good leaders to have empathy, to listen and to engage with people broadly. Those characteristics were still considered soft skills rather than leadership skills back in the 1990s.
2. What part do Hollywood and the entertainment industry play in either reinforcing or redefining these female leadership templates?
Helgesen: I think there have definitely been efforts in Hollywood to address women in power at some periods. You know, I remember in the seventies there was a movie, Romancing the Stone, where, for the first time, a woman actually rescued a man from danger instead of the man rescuing the woman. That had never happened in a Hollywood movie before. So, there are some advances, but I’d say what Hollywood has been most effective at is confirming stereotypes and cliches. Even when they show a female boss, it’s often the ‘nightmare version’; the type of horrible boss we all hear stories about. They tend to tease those stereotypes and extreme examples out for the storytelling value. Despite good intentions by many people in the industry, I don’t see Hollywood as a whole helping redefine or create new “templates” for women’s leadership.
3. So how do you see those templates affecting the pressure that women put themselves through or the pressure that that template puts them through. Which is stronger?
Helgesen: I think it affects women in that they’re not as likely, early in their career, to think through and articulate to themselves in a way that can be translated what their aspirations are as a leader, what it is they want to contribute to the world in general from a position of leadership (not just being a wonderful person etc.), how their skills support that, what they see as their contribution. In my experience, women often get to this later in life. And that’s one of the ways it inhibits them. The other way is by always bringing ‘ambition’ under a cloud of suspicion as it relates to women. I think women internalize that deeply. And we still ask the stereotypical question, “is she too ambitious?”
“One of the things I’ve become aware of, is that women waste a lot of energy trying to manage other people’s perceptions of them. And that managing perceptions then becomes more important than acting on what they’re actually trying to contribute.”
The New York psychiatrist Anna’s Fels noted in her wonderful book that most of the women who come into her office start off by saying something along the lines of, “you need to know that I’m not ambitious.” Now, many of these women are senior partners in major law firms or financial institutions, so you know they had to be ambitious to get where they are. Yet, they are frightened of being seen that way. One of the things I’ve become aware of, is that women waste a lot of energy trying to manage other people’s perceptions of them. And that managing perceptions then becomes more important than acting on what they’re actually trying to contribute.
4. One thing I love about your book How Women Rise and your teachings is that you also focus on teaching men how to lead women. It seems like it’s becoming more popular for men who are leaders, to try and understand how to elevate the women they work with.
Helgesen: It’s become much more important. Men have become more sensitized to wanting to be effective partners with women who they identify as talented. You know, I did a program on women’s leadership for a building and construction conference in Las Vegas, and about 65% of those who showed up were men. So I asked them, “What made you come here?” And one guy stood up and said, “You know, you don’t have to explain to us why it’s important that we do a better job of attracting, retaining, engaging and promoting women. We are here because we want to know how to do it.”
One of the reasons I believe How Women Rise was a breakthrough book is that it’s action oriented; it gives men specific ways of serving as more effective allies, champions, supporters, mentors and sponsors for women. For example, the book explores why many women are reluctant to claim their achievements, which is helpful for men to recognize. For years, I’ve heard men say, “if she can’t talk about what she’s doing, how does she expect anybody else to do it?” Understanding where some of that comes from and how it manifests is can be very helpful. For example, when a woman’s comments get ignored in a meeting, a man can speak up and offer his support. This might seem like a small thing, but small acts can have outsized impact.”
There are many ways men can take effective action to help women but it’s really helpful if they first get a sense of what often holds women back from acting on their full potential.
5. What do you see as the different workplace challenges that men and women are facing due to COVID?
Helgesen: Well, I think visibility is being challenged in new ways by so many of us being in a virtual workplace. When we’re not together, and we don’t have the capacity for the little informal interchanges, everything is mediated through technology. Because of this, we don’t have those little spontaneous exchanges where you get to know each other better. And I think that those who struggle to represent their achievements and to gain visibility, have an extra layer to negotiate. I think that’s something we’re going to be looking at for a while. How do women thrive in this environment?
On the other hand, what I notice from having now done a lot of work on virtual platforms, is that it’s a very intimate medium. And as an intimate medium, it seems to reward a certain degree of authenticity. And so some of the posturing behavior that may have traditionally served men well in terms of positioning themselves as ‘high-potential’, or ‘on the way up’—some of that falls flat in such a virtual environment. I think how we communicate in business is changing, and working virtually will speed it along. I think that there are ways in which these types of digital mediators could also be helpful to women.
6. Is COVID making it hard for both men and women leaders to connect with their staffs?
Helgesen: Yes, I think that that challenge of communication is quite evident and that it is harder for people to get face-time. That makes it a little tougher to be able to break through and position ourselves. So that’s going to be something that we’re going to have to have to deal with. It’s easier to display some degree of vulnerability and authenticity, but we don’t really have as many tools to develop real relationships when we’re not physically together. So that can be problematic. Do I believe that how organizations and people operate will change dramatically as a result of this shift? Yes, definitely.
I was reading an interview with the chair of Tata corporation, one of the most influential and significant companies in the world. He noted that Tata had always been ahead of the curve in terms of working from home, with about 20% of people doing so. But he estimated that by the end of this decade, 70% of Tata’s employees would be working from home. That’s quite a shift! I believe that COVID will have long term effects, but those effects will be distinctive from the crisis that we’re living through now, where we really can’t be together and where nobody’s taking care of the kids. That’s a big issue. So I think it’s important to separate those two, that there is a crisis, but also that crisis is leading to some major changes in how we work, communicate, and how developed organizations do business.
7. What’s the one thing, right now, that leaders need to stop doing, and the one thing they need to start doing?
Helgesen: I would say, in this time, stop expecting that everything’s going to be done the way that it was done before. This is a real, real change. Also, leaders can benefit by being clear about what impact this is having upon them and their families, as well as their companies and staff. I see too many leaders conveying the idea that “this is something you’re having to deal with, but I’m a leader, so I don’t.” This is a confusing time for everyone, so it’s okay for leaders to take the opportunity that they share that confusion. In fact, it’s an opportunity to display a little vulnerability.