What is female leadership to you? Women in management or C-level positions, sure. However, what does the term mean, really? To me it highlights that female leaders are still unusual enough that we feel the need to label them differently. This is especially apparent, as the counterpart is not male leadership but simply leadership. The fact that we can talk about semantics like this, of course, means that progress has been made. Female leadership does exist, it has become more accepted and, in some cases and places, even sought after. I think it’s important to recognise the way we’ve come here. That doesn’t mean, however, that we are where we want and should be.
In the EU, the percentage of women in higher management positions is between 30 % to 40 % on average. Not as disastrous as it used to be but far from fine considering women make up around 50 % of the population. As a female COO I am part of that statistic and proud of it. It is also one of the things I am most often asked about. This, again, is mostly due to the fact that I am still sort of a rarity in this kind of position. What’s important to know and to understand, though, is this: Women like me are not in their positions despite or because they are women but because they have earned their spot. A quota doesn’t change this.
Why leading is not male
When I took on my first management position at BMW Bank, I was 24. Luckily, I received a lot of support here but, of course, I had to man up and stand my ground time and time again. I think, one reason women in business are perceived this way is that we still equate good, strong leadership with supposedly masculine traits such as determination, ambition and assertiveness (I just said “man up”, didn’t I). In this logic, a woman either can’t be a good leader by default or if she does possess these traits, is less feminine. Enter the stereotype of the tough (cold) businesswoman. We have to stop this narrative for good. Today we know that skills like ambiguity, empathy and resilience – typically feminine strengths – are just as important and valuable as dominance.
Good leadership in my eyes draws from both ends of this spectrum. Over time, I learned that my balanced “female” management style and willingness to leave the beaten track this way was what actually made me stand out and succeed. Of course, I also felt like a wrong-way driver more than once, but success ultimately proves you right and gives you self-confidence.
New work needs diversity
Today, I have the privilege but also the obligation to share the experience I’ve gained over the years to clear the way for female talents. Fortunately, Alphabet is a great place to realise this. In our management board, I work with people of different nationalities and ethnicities, different genders and religions. Some people would consider this an explosive mixture when in fact the only things it’s overflowing with are drive and creativity.
Studies show that a diverse management is not just economically strong. It also sends important signals within the company. To attract talents of different genders or origins is much more likely if they feel represented by the board. What’s more, companies that take equal opportunities seriously and exclude discrimination inspire and motivate their employees to contribute all of their skills, says Isabell Welpe, Chair of Strategy and Organisation at the Technical University of Munich.
Thanks’ god – The world is changing and with it, the society in which we live and work. The reasons for this are as diverse as the people themselves. In the course of globalisation, different cultures come together in the world of work, demographic change ensures intergenerational cooperation and women are increasingly entering the professional life and the role of leaders. The resulting increasing heterogeneity of employees leads to an intensive discussion of the topic of diversity.
Are we fast enough? From my point of view – no, but we are on the right track. The UN Women Initiative points out: It is a waste of resources and education to exclude women from contributing throughout all company levels. We have missed enough opportunities already.
The way forward
So, how do we do this? I can’t say that I have the ultimate answer to this, and Germany might not be the perfect role model in this respect just yet, but we are willing to move forward. We know that diversity in any form only truly works if it is a) heartfelt and b) actively pushed to reach the critical mass. Only then real change can take place. We thus strive to create an atmosphere of female empowerment and support within our ranks that proves all the faulty clichés surrounding women wrong by giving chances. Maybe we don’t have to shatter the infamous glass ceiling-holding women back but change the game by opening the door for a new form of leadership: The one that does not adhere to gender but to human qualities and talent.
Again, the world is changing, and it will change if all of us are part of the transition team.
In this respect, giving up is not – is never – an option. Let’s roll up our sleeves and give drive to our own support. I am convinced that we are shaping the future today. And at the end of the day, it is only the result that counts.
That is how I lead. That is how I live.