Job Advice: Establishing Leadership in a Male-Dominated Environment
When it comes to female leadership development, we are making strides, but we aren’t there yet. As you develop your leadership style, learn about what to consider as a women in a male-dominated space.
By: Allie Butler
Leadership skills often take years to develop and grow. In healthcare, the emphasis on leadership development is sometimes lacking. Most professional health programs barely touch on the topic. They encourage participation in organizations and leadership roles. But what do those activities and roles really teach you about how to lead a team or organization? The lessons learned are minimal, but the learning curve in the real world is steep. It can be a difficult journey to gain these skills and many fall short due to a lack of programs to help their development and no real mentorship or guidance.
And when it comes to female leadership development, we are making strides, but we aren’t there yet.
I started my career out in a male-dominated environment. I took 4 years of leadership training and commissioned into the Air Force where I was, quickly, placed in charge of a team of 25 people, mostly men, ranging in age from 18-50 years. I was 23. I thought I was prepared to lead this group, because, after all, I had studied for years to prepare for this type of role.
Shortly after I stepped into role, a peer from another team reached out to me. He relayed concern to me that I was intimidating the team and that they were unable to read me. He suggested I smile more. I am sure I looked at him dumbfounded. I conducted myself in the same manner as the rest of the leadership group. Why should I have to adjust my demeanor and approach things differently than my male counterparts? I was using the same style they were and I shouldn’t have to change to accommodate the team.
Fast forward a few years and I had an Airman come into my office, clearly frazzled, and asked whether he could bring his baby to the office for 30 minutes until his wife could come get him. Daycare called and he was running a fever. To set the scene, we had a closed-door office with no real foot traffic and no current operations we were supporting. We were essentially tending to emails and doing nothing of importance that day. I said no and made him take a day of vacation.
I cringe when I think back to that moment. Having gained many more years of experience, I realized that what I thought was a show of strength and standard holding was actually an overcompensation. I did not want to appear to be a weak leader. I overcompensated many times in my earlier years, because I “knew” as a female, I needed to convey an image of strength to be effective at my job.
What I’ve learned: a strong leader comes in many forms and leadership training needs to be tailored to account for personality type. One leadership style does not fit everyone. While there are certain tenets of leadership that remain the same regardless of who you are or your experience level, you must account for the beautiful differences that often exist from person to person. From man to woman.
I know this thought may be taboo with some, but it’s not a blanket statement. It’s more a thought-provoking question. What if you used your strengths to develop your leadership skills? Compassion? Empathy? Ability to multi-task? Ability to place others needs above your own?
These attributes are found amongst many women. And it’s these attributes that can empower us to be better leaders. We don’t have to lead like the men. In fact, that approach may make us come across as “intimidating and unreadable.” Are you surprised that I am acknowledging that moment from years ago as a potential learning lesson? While I don’t agree with the delivery of the message from my colleague and I don’t believe that a smile solves all problems, it can solve some problems. A scraped knee or a really busy day at work? A smile can “lead” in either scenario. It does not discredit or make a person appear weak. For years, women have been led to believe that we had to be like the boys to get where they are, but that simply isn’t true.
As you continue to develop your leadership style, consider these things.
Learn How to Be Gracefully Assertive: For some reason, certain types of assertiveness can rub people the wrong way. If we don’t acknowledge culture in our plight to improve, then we are only doing ourselves a disservice. Many women struggle with being overly assertive and overcompensating as they try to establish themselves. I’ve seen it happen over and over again. Standing firm with tact and grace will help you build that reputation you are seeking as you lead your team.
Get a Female Mentor: This seems obvious but is something so many women in leadership roles are missing. There will be times in which you need advice from a female perspective. Is there a female leader you admire? Someone you model yourself after? Reach out!
Use Your Empathy and Compassion: Being a caregiver is a gift! These same skills you use to make your own children feel important and valuable can be used to make your team members feel taken care of as well. People work harder when they feel supported.
Don’t Pretend - Be Yourself: Don’t bend your personality to fit a mold. People appreciate honesty and would prefer to work with someone who is genuine. There is more than one style of leadership and many molds can effectively lead.
Have Confidence: If you have the experience and knowledge, then don’t let fear of leading “your way” hold you back. Be confident in your approach. As long as you are in it for the right reasons, the rest will fall into place.
If these things make sense to you and align with your thought process, look for professional development on servant leadership. This style of leadership will likely resonate and help you grow as a leader.