The Feminisation of Business: What it Means for Leadership

Multiple factors are driving a feminisation of business, where softer, more people-centric behaviours predominate. Though increased female employment has undoubtedly contributed to this culture shift, wider social changes – coupled with the proliferation of the services industry – have played a far greater role.

Given that employees seek organisations that resonate with their values and beliefs, the feminisation of business has created a growing pressure for inspirational styles of leadership, embracing mutual trust and respect. However, those most able to demonstrate such emotional awareness in their mode of operating are generally less inclined to crave powerful, high ranking positions, being less motivated by raw ambition. So is a disjoint between leaders and their workforces inevitable in the modern corporate environment?

While feminisation is placing almost unrealistic expectations on leadership, the evolution of the transformational style is a positive step towards addressing the issues. But the supply of competent practitioners of this approach falls well short of demand and the acknowledgement, by leaders as a whole, that the style is most appropriate in the current changing business climate is not nearly as prevalent as it needs to be.

Factors impacting the workplace

The culture of a workplace is greatly influenced by the nature of the activity undertaken and the contemporary social context in which it functions. Thus employment in today’s progressive organisations is shaped by the accelerated shift from heavy industry and manual labour to a services industry, within an ever more affluent and individualistic society, characterised by high expectations.

While low-skilled occupations will always retain a significant segment of the global economy, countries and corporations seeking higher profits and market growth have turned to provision of services as a means to achieving this. Even in the public sector, a notable move is apparent from labour-intensive practices, requiring minimal training, to effective use of information and systems by professionals, to deliver efficiency and improved customer satisfaction. Such radical shifts, in the type of work undertaken by the foremost enterprises, has created a heightened call for able, talented staff. The brawn and stamina of yesteryear – the capacity to cope with monotony – have been replaced with a requirement for enhanced intellect and the ability to continually learn as technology advances and consumer demands multiply. Furthermore, service industries focus on end-user interactions, escalating the need for people skills.

The rise in power of the trade unions through the 1960’s and 70’s, championing the cause of employee rights, changed the face of employment forever in the most developed economies. Words like ‘negotiation’ and ‘consultation’ became the everyday language of the media. Within little more than a decade, the relatively passive acceptance of the boss’ authority dissolved away, supplanted by an appreciation that a united labour force carried the ability to influence and control decisions that affected it.

While through the ensuing years legislation in many countries has sought to curb trade union powers, the matter of employee rights has steadily gained ground. Little by little worker protections and benefits have become established practice. A whole spectrum of pressures has been applied: from discrete campaigns leading to agreements within the smallest companies, to changes in the law as a consequence of national lobbying. Maternity and paternity leave; redundancy rules and payments; equal pay, opportunities and conditions irrespective of gender, age and ethnicity; freedom from harassment; flexible job patterns, such as part time and remote working – these are all commonplace components of a modern employment contract in the more affluent parts of the world.

In parallel with changes in working relationships, attitudes to authority in the wider surrounding societies have become less respectful. Alongside prosperity has come a general social decline of deference. Obedience is increasingly a thing of the past. ‘People power’ is now in vogue. So it would appear that employees are maintaining the same views and mind-set both within and outside their place of labour, blurring the edges between their working existence and their broader life of leisure and family pursuits.

A further complexity has recently entered into the picture. Though trade unions and ‘people power’ trumpet the strength of a united majority, a ground swell of individualism is developing. Staff desire their own personal life plans and career paths. As confidence grows – boosted by enhanced wealth and opportunity – breaking away from collective bargaining, to fight your own corner, has the potential to provide the best outcome for the most able. Hence organisations now have to deal not just with demands from powerful unified groups but also from talented singletons, who are valuable assets to an establishment in their own right.

Into this medley has been added an unprecedented percentage of females, particularly into lower and middle management ranks where influence is strong. Thus inevitably the atmosphere of the workplace is adapting, to accommodate.

Individuals are now seeking to apply their skills and efforts to a firm that aligns with their beliefs and values. At the same time they have built up the self-assurance to move between organisations until they achieve this aim. Faced with a need to retain good staff, employers have no option but to address the plethora of issues impacting their business. The result is a greater willingness to allow the workforce to determine the nature of the workplace. So what is the outcome?

What feminisation means

As a consequence of evolving environments both within and beyond the employment market, an increasingly feminised culture is developing in flourishing modern businesses. The established dominance of stereotypically masculine behaviours – characterised by competitiveness, territorialism and the acquisition of status symbols – is being challenged and unseated, replaced by softer styles of operating. Networks and relationships, teams and shared goals provide the means of attaining success in the newly fashioned enterprises, supplanting the traditional ‘reward and punishment’ systems of previous eras.

Feminisation is by no means solely about the upsurge of females in the workplace, though this has undoubtedly had an effect. Rather it describes a climate that is pleasant, positive and less stressful – somewhere that many would describe as an enjoyable and satisfying place to work. A whole variety of factors, shaped largely by particular styles of management, combine to form a supportive, collegiate environment. Aggression and raw ambition are exchanged for team-play, common aims and collaboration. Appreciation of people’s needs, understanding when things go wrong and offers of mentoring provide a substitute for the ‘bawling out’ of harsher approaches. But the empathy and apparent gentleness of newer cultures should not be mistaken for lack of commitment and drive. A united and happy workforce can, through heightened motivation, achieve far more than a tense and disjointed set of individuals.

The focus in today’s up to date organisations is on building good relationships – with colleagues, with clients and with suppliers. The value of devoting time and effort to the creation of personal networks is now recognised, resulting in functional structures that resemble webs rather than the pyramid hierarchies of the past. Successful selling has become less about deals and more about forming long term associations. Wanting to do a good job, to generate customer satisfaction through quality delivery, has provided an alternative to chasing raw profits. This change of emphasis, from immediate returns to investment for lasting gain, characterises a feminised environment.

So also does respect for diversity. With greater use of teams, wider opportunities exist for matching skills and experience to roles. Different approaches, job patterns and personalities can be accommodated in a broader group, where it is the sum of the whole that counts. Regard for overall success in such situations is valued every bit as highly as personal achievement, and for good reason, as personal strengths and weaknesses can prove complimentary, enhancing the collective outcome.

The openness and honesty of modern cultures can at times appear confusing to those familiar with conventional workplaces, being as it is a ‘two way street’. While sharing of information, for example, is a fundamental procedure between peers, equally the same degree of cooperation and communication is required from those of higher rank. Staff assume that their bosses will keep them informed, whether news is good or bad, and that questioning in any context, on any subject, is fully sanctioned. Equally, honesty stretches into the provinces of fairness and respect. Everyone is expected to pull their own weight; exploitation of any employees or customers is unacceptable. So for all, respect is not a right but something that has to be earned through appropriate behaviours. Automatic following of leaders by virtue of their status – obedient execution of manager’s orders – such actions are inconsistent with contemporary ways of operating. Trust in shared values and goals have to be built up first, to underpin a relationship.

While much of what defines a feminised business is intangible, what does stand out is the decline of conventional masculine attributes and drivers: big egos; corporate politics; competitive thirst for power and status symbols; protectiveness of territory and information; direct rewards. Instead today’s motivators are more likely to be self development, personal fulfilment, recognition, realizing potential, achieving work-life balance. These are more appropriate in a society that increasingly sees the acquisition and use of broader life skills as an essential contributor to good performance in the workplace.

The growth of feminisation has established a recognition that every business carries within it a corporate culture and that, wherever people have a choice, they will elect to provide their services to an organisation in which they feel comfortable.  That is, one that aligns with their ethical standards and convictions, placing worth on the same outcomes. Thus, not only are companies tangibly evolving as a result of external pressures, through such progressive measures as the introduction of flexible job packages. Subtle changes are also afoot, moulding environments to attract the types of workers, in the right volumes needed, to bring about sustainable success in present day marketplaces.

Changes in employee expectations

Feminisation of the workplace creates a tide of change in employee expectations. No longer content with periodic quantitative rewards, people are now seeking less clearly definable, life-enhancing benefits from their daily toils: to be challenged and appreciated; to gain fulfilment and a respected position in society through their role at work. A paradigm shift in relationships is occurring, with employees perceiving themselves as being in partnership with their employers, rather than dependent. As a result enlightened workers expect to be appreciated and listened to, led by role models of high integrity.

Any progressive venture understands the important stakeholder position held by the labour force, involving active consultation. Staff want to participate in all manner of decision taking, so modern leadership needs to be highly inclusive. In affecting the corporate agenda, people see themselves as shaping their own prospects. Hence they wish to be communicated with as early as possible in the strategic planning process. At the very least, present day workers demand to understand the direction of travel and how they, separately and within the teams to which they contribute, can influence company success.

Clearly cross-ranking partnerships are only achievable through access to, and engagement with, leaders who are approachable, friendly and empathic – reflecting the feminised characteristics of the workforce. Indeed, replacing the too-frequent blame and anger of earlier eras with a little humility, can go a long way to cementing follower support today. This means professionalism in all circumstances, allowing everyone to be offered the level of stretching targets they crave, without fear of negative repercussions. Thus a place is provided where employees can admit mistakes but, more importantly, so can leaders.

As feminisation places so much emphasis on trust, respect and appreciation, it is expected that leaders will reciprocate by demonstrating these qualities too. People want to be associated with an organisation of which they feel proud – one operating within a suitably ethical and moral framework. The resultant open, trusting environment gives workers assurance that leaders can be held in high regard and relied upon to act as their representatives. This means functioning for the wider collective good, without hypocrisy. Hence common practices of the past – such as ambitious bosses wasting energy on internal politics or awarding excessive pay rises and bonuses to themselves – now find little tolerance. Dishonesty and lack of trust are resented with a passion. Leaders are required to model desired behaviours, engendering a culture that is a reflection of the values and style of those they lead.

Employees nowadays want to enjoy work, to be motivated and inspired. They want: opportunities – corporately, within teams and individually for self development; choices; fairness not favouritism; the satisfaction of win-win situations. They seek to be empowered and accept accountability, just as leaders are expected to take personal responsibility and to be held accountable.

So the led place significant pressure on their leaders to achieve the difficult balance of high concern for both people and production – enabling employees to feel they occupy an important, constructive role within a supportive company.

Adapting leadership styles

Effective leadership depends on applying an appropriate style for the prevailing situation. In a feminised business this means showing behaviours and values that resonate with the workforce: high emotional intelligence; purposeful and committed; challenging yet accommodating and helpful. The chains of command and contractual-based relationships of the past do not drive success in newer business climates. Transformational leadership – with its inspirational shared visions and goals – provides the vehicle for high corporate achievement in the evolving culture of non-hierarchical partnerships and mutual respect.

A softer atmosphere requires leaders to possess high self, and social, awareness – to be conscious of their strengths and weaknesses, and sufficiently mature to make best use of both. With such a positive emotional quotient at the helm, reflecting corresponding advances in the workforce, employees can be confident that they will be offered understanding and empathy.

Feminisation equally calls for fairness. So, a leader is expected to live up to his enhanced salary, by developing a winning strategy. Assigned a powerful role, based on superior skills and experience, he must deliver on an implied promise of taking a business to heightened success. This means formulating a vision, underpinned by a coherent and cohesive strategic plan, to fulfil the workforce’s desire for clear direction, steeped in reality. And the expectations don’t stop there. The nature of the corporate vision is vitally important. It has to be congruent with the values of those being guided by it – deemed of appropriate moral correctness, yet maximising the probability of achieving a beneficial corporate outcome.

Modern leadership has to embrace all manner of employee needs. To be delegated to and offered opportunities for growth and building long term capabilities. To be treated sensitively and with integrity. To be led by someone visible and accessible, who is attuned to the same code of principles and beliefs.

Leaders with charisma hold some of the important characteristics now being sought, with their natural ability to display conviction. However, charisma alone is not sufficient and, where little else of substance exists, a narcissistic style of leadership often surfaces, characterised by big ego and emotional isolation – quite at odds with a feminised culture.

Equally unsuitable are the strong commanding practices that dominated in the past, typified by tight control and presumed compliance, producing an intimidating atmosphere. Transactional leadership, though less domineering, also falls short of adequately addressing modern workers’ requirements. This method is based too much on the traditional premise that the greatest motivator is visible reward.

By contrast a number of gentler forms of directing have developed. Democratic leadership is collaborative, appreciating people’s input. Coaching and affiliative styles speak for themselves. But though such approaches are softer, and go a good way to addressing present-day needs, they can be construed as overly weak. Followers may become frustrated by a leader who appears not to lead or an impression can be created that doubts exist, regarding the workforce’s ability to meet performance expectations.

So feminisation of business has generated demand for a more sophisticated style at the helm. Much has changed, even over the last decade, and is still evolving. What people look for in their leaders now is very subtle, with influence, persuasion and negotiation supplying the most respected and effective techniques in today’s environments. But these are not the tools for the faint-hearted or non-empathic. It takes a strong individual, with excellent people skills, to exercise such methods. High levels of confidence and self-awareness, coupled with real belief in the power of shared goals, are required to unleash the considerable power of these psychological devices.

Is there then an approach that delivers the fine balance required? Can leaders demonstrate their respect for staff in suitably varying ways, dependent on the abilities and assurance of each group or individual? Some – where aptly skilled and experienced – want challenging, pace-setting goals. Others – less able – look to have lower expectations placed on them, coupled with guidance, support and coaching.

Transformational leadership holds the answer. Underpinned by principles which closely align with those of a feminised business culture, this style is defined as engaging leaders and followers together to “raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality”. The four dimensions comprising the method encapsulate much of what is demanded by a modern workforce: charisma, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation and individualised attention.

The transforming process involved starts with development of a vision to excite and capture followers. The next step is selling this vision – continually and at every opportunity. A compelling picture of the future is painted, forming a shared goal that everyone identifies with and strives to achieve. Leadership passion and clear unswerving commitment then build energy and drive, with personal integrity offering a moral basis for mutual trust.

Transformational leaders inspire. They communicate optimism, inject enthusiasm and provide a strong sense of purpose – never forgetting the value of each person’s contribution. Thus, in parallel with taking centre stage to persuade and motivate the wider audience, time and effort is also given to listen to, sooth and enthuse those less easily converted. This awareness of people’s depth of belief and commitment, coupled with an ability to adapt behaviours accordingly, is what makes the transformational style so effective – offering encouragement and boosting morale for everyone. Most importantly, and uniquely, transformational leaders understand the need to connect with employees in a way that realises their high-order needs. In so doing, the fullest loyalty and success is attained.

The paradox

Leadership skill requirements have changed significantly from the traditions of the past – and continue to evolve. Employee expectations of the person they look to follow have become almost unrealistic, calling for an uncommonly talented individual. And, with employees themselves increasingly capable and confident, there is a real risk that a leader, deemed unsatisfactory, is rejected and ignored, with the result that the workforce steers its own course.

Feminisation of business produces a growing pressure to adopt people-centric, inspirational leadership styles, yet the characteristics behind the faces at the top too often remain the same. Board rooms are still predominately – indeed nearly exclusively – populated with ambitious men, who retain long-established views and behaviours.

While it could be argued that board members promote contenders from their own mould, something more subtle may well be afoot. The spread of feminisation necessitates a matching escalation in the number of leaders competently practising the transformational style. And the fundamentals for successfully operating this way are superior emotional intelligence and deep seated belief in personal relationships.

So, paradoxically, those best suited to leading today’s workforces are the very same individuals who attach importance to work-life balance, placing comparatively less value on the status of a director’s title and associated rewards. Hence these ideal candidates may step back from assuming the principal, and most demanding, leadership roles – finding fulfilment through other channels. As a consequence the people least able to adapt to using a contemporary softer style can too frequently hold the highest leadership positions – creating a disjoint between leaders and workforces that business can ill afford.