Despite our collective yearning for leaders who exhibit traditionally feminine traits — chief among them, empathy — the majority of leaders globally are men.
This paradox becomes even more glaring when we consider the evidence: studies and experience alike show a strong preference for these so-called “feminine” leadership characteristics. The peer-reviewed article “Women Doing Leadership” underscores this disconnect by demonstrating that organizational culture often defines acceptable leadership behaviors in gendered terms, leading to the under recognition of women as leaders in traditionally masculine settings.
Yet, as we reflect on the recent celebration of Women’s Equality Day, it’s time to dig deep and examine the ways in which empathy can bridge the gap between what we desire in our leaders and who these leaders actually are.
Empathy can be learned and cultivated.
Firstly, let’s tackle a common misconception: women are not inherently more empathetic than men. Instead, socialization tends to foster higher levels of empathy among women. This distinction is crucial because it means that empathy can be learned and cultivated by anyone, irrespective of gender. As someone who has spent over a decade as an empathy engineer and leadership development practitioner, I can affirm that empathy can be taught, nurtured, and integrated into one’s leadership style.
What does this mean for leadership? For starters, leaders — regardless of gender — should focus on developing and integrating empathy into their leadership skill set. An empathetic leader fosters open communication, encourages a culture of mutual respect and facilitates an environment in which team members feel valued. These are not just “nice-to-haves”; they are essential components of effective leadership and are critical to organizational success.
Incorporating empathy into leadership, however, isn’t just the responsibility of individuals. Organizations must also take the lead in promoting empathetic leadership. This includes offering training programs that focus on empathy and emotional intelligence, actively challenging traditional gendered expectations of leadership, and promoting diversity and inclusion at all levels. Additionally, leaders can:
- Champion empathy as a core value. Actively encourage empathy within teams and throughout the organization. Leaders should model empathetic behavior and recognize it in others. Empathetic leaders avoid hypocrisy and promote leaders equitably. If you value feminine traits, avoid penalizing women for having those qualities.
- Dismantle gendered leadership stereotypes. Question and challenge traditional gender roles in leadership. Create spaces where both men and women can exhibit a balanced set of leadership traits.
- Counteract biases. Provide resources and training to address and combat biases that hinder gender diversity in leadership roles. This includes understanding manifestations of bias like tokenism, strategic distancing, and the loyalty tax, which all contribute to the leadership gender gap.
- Encourage sponsorship and support. Create networks and resources that facilitate sponsorship and support for women, and indeed all leaders. Women need people who will speak up on their behalf when they are not in the rooms where decisions are made.
While these steps can help us inch toward gender parity in leadership, it’s essential to underscore what true parity means. Gender parity in leadership doesn’t mean a token placement of women in visible roles; it means that the gender diversity in leadership should mirror the gender diversity in the general population. Until we achieve that, our work is far from done.
It’s time to recognize that the incongruity between our preference for empathetic leadership and the preponderance of male leaders is not just a “women’s issue.” It’s an issue of wasted potential, of untapped talent, and yes, of unrealized empathy. Let’s remember that true equality will only be achieved when the people we prefer to lead us actually reflect us — in gender and in values, including empathy.
By embracing empathy as a universal trait that can be learned and nurtured in all of us, we can bridge the gap between the leaders we have and the leaders we want. Moreover, by striving for genuine gender parity in leadership roles, we not only enhance the quality of our leadership but also bring ourselves closer to an equitable and just society.