Sandra Sieb

The Lab: ‘Do women really want the top Leadership roles?’ Posts from The Lab

A couple weeks ago, Leadership Partners held its first ‘Lab’ event at the Workclub, our beautiful offices overseeing Hyde Park. Our intent with The Lab is to create a community of inquiry – a place where we come together to exchange perspectives, share stories and think critically.

As a collective we can co-create a bigger, and better, understanding of the world we live in and enrich our own stories along the way. We want The Lab to be a place where conversations go beyond the generic tone and political correctness that too often prevent us from talking about the real issues at stake. We want it to be a place where we can leave our titles (and our egos!) at the door and simply be ourselves in real conversations.

For our very first event, we chose to explore the topic of women’s aspirations towards leadership. “Do women really want the top leadership positions?”, we asked. It seems to us that the debate around this topic is typically dominated by the ‘glass ceiling’ effect, or by discussions about supposedly ‘female’ traits such as a lack of assertiveness and lower self-confidence.

Indeed, Sheryl Sandberg, the well known Facebook COO, told us that we had to lean in to get these top jobs, and leadership expert Rebecca Shambaughthat the problem wasn’t so much the glass ceiling effect as the 'sticky floor' challenges, as she calls them; that is, all women’s self-inflicted arguments around lack of self-confidence, difference in behavioural approaches, etc. These are certainly important issues in need of our attention. If women want the top job, they should be able to get it indiscriminately of their gender – and as a society, we certainly have a moral obligation to work towards this. 

But what we’ve always wondered is – has anybody bothered to ask women if they even want these jobs??? Because when trying to solve any complex challenge, – and with less than 5% of the Fortune 1000 index CEOs being female in 2014, despite the fact that women are now on equal footing with men in terms of education, and represent almost half the workforce population, it seems this is a complex challenge! – we need to make sure we ask the right questions to fully capture the complexity of problem!

So, what did we take away from this conversation?

  • The female aspiration question is a hard nut to crack – we found that the sticky floor challenges tended to monopolise the conversation since they’re still so very present for many of us! The children vs. work dilemma is a hard one to get around – to the point where it poses the challenge of skewing the conversation about women in leadership to one that is, at times, too mother-centric.
  • Interestingly, the men present that night made loud and clear that they don’t think the children vs. work is any easier for them!
  • Our aspirations towards leadership are anchored in our deep-seated assumptions, including those around what is involved in holding top positions – these are well worth challenging and confronting with real life situations. For instance, many women present that night expressed fears about having to work longer hours if they took on top jobs. And yet, some of the other women already in top jobs disputed this assumption. Hearing each other’s stories and dilemmas is a great way to shake our beliefs.
  • A lot of our assumptions – whether around leadership, ambition or power –come from the way we’ve been socialised as we were growing up. It’s important to pause and reflect on the assumptions we’ve unconsciously taken on, and to decide which are working for us, and which ones aren’t. 

Our first ‘Lab’ session was a beautiful night. There’s nothing more inspiring than a vibrant audience, all thinking together, sharing their own individual journey and challenging one another’s perspectives. It seemed we only scratched the surface and could have talked for another two hours at least! The ‘confrontation’ of stories and ideas stirred up some interesting reflections. This is an important conversation to be had. Not just for the benefits of women but for the benefits of us all. To be continued…!

So let’s keep thinking together…

The Lab is an invitation only event. If you want to join the conversation, drop us a line at [email protected]

Sandra Sieb is a leadership advisor and co-founder of Leadership Partners. More articles on adult development, complexity theory, leadership and system thinking can be found here

This blog is edited by Talia Gill, our brilliant communications specialist :-)

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