Speaking Out

Why Do We Expect Women To Be Exceptional Leaders?

. 5 min read . Written by Vanshika Goenka
Why Do We Expect Women To Be Exceptional Leaders?

I have a mixed bag of experiences working for female leaders. 

As a fresher, being exposed to women in leadership positions instilled in me the idea that I, too, could lead someday; that all I needed to do was excel at my craft.

And then, I got older and wiser. 

As an experienced professional, I’ve had the chance to work with great women leaders and absolutely terrible ones, but the story is the same ﹘ there aren’t enough of them. Working in a corporate environment taught me that while women can be leaders, there aren’t many to begin with. And for those who exist, the path is far from rosy.

The pandemic brought this discrepancy out like a sore thumb.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, became the star of the show. Lauded for the way in which she curtailed the spread of the virus in the country, she became the press’ new favourite. 

Following the scrutiny of her methods, many female leaders across the world were put in the spotlight. A study, for instance, analysed their response to the pandemic and concluded that countries with women leaders had far fewer deaths, and that they were better at managing situations of crisis.

It stated that women leaders employed agile policy measures that helped save lives, even if it was at the risk of disturbing the economy.

Newspapers, magazines, and social media couldn’t stop raving about #womanpower and #thefutureisfemale, indicating that we need more women in leadership roles.

But do we need them because we believe they’re incapable of making mistakes?

Watch Kool Kanya’s video that busts the myth that women are too emotional to lead.

Women Are Expected To Be Exceptional Because They Are Considered Bad Leaders

Gender bias seeps into every aspect of our lives. Girls, considered to be more emotional and gentle, are conditioned to enjoy the softer side of things ﹘ domestic activities, caregiving, and nurturing. Boys, on the other hand, are encouraged to love the rough, unforgiving outdoors ﹘ sport, rough and tumble play, breaking rules, and expressing themselves viscerally.

Our upbringing teaches us that we’re inherently different from each other, and that these differences are what make us good or bad at something.

Thus, girls grow up to believe they’re just not meant to thrive outside the home ﹘  riding motorcycles, travelling solo, holding jobs that require extensive travelling, or being in the front and center of a boardroom. 

Boys grow up not only sure that they cannot be tied down to the home ﹘ rife with domestic chores and child rearing ﹘  but also well-trained to deal with any trouble they may encounter outside.

This bias makes its way into the formal workforce, and how. In a 2020 report by Catalyst, it was found that women make for less than a quarter (23%) of the formal Indian workforce, with one of the reasons being the social and cultural expectations that push them into the confines of their homes. 

Women who make it into the workforce, then, have to work much harder to prove that they are capable leaders; many of them struggle to make their way to the top, owing to the dreaded glass ceiling. This leaves no room for them to make mistakes or be imperfect, lest it be considered a natural occurrence.

For women leaders, it’s either be exceptional and perfect or be gone

Women Leaders Handled The Pandemic Well. Why Are We Surprised?

Read any piece of news published during exam season and you’ll find the same thing written every year: Girls outperform boys in school. More girls have made their way into the classroom now than ever before, and it’s absolutely wonderful to watch them thrive and grow. 

But what goes grossly unnoticed is the narrative that this news creates: Girls deserve equal access to education because they will never fail and will make their families proud. 

Think about the last time a Saina Nehwal, a PV Sindhu, or a Dipa Karmarkar won a medal. The narrative is identical: Let your girls play sports, for they will one day win a medal for the country. Not because sports is a lucrative career option; not because it’s not a boys’ club, but because they will never disappoint.

The narrative around the pandemic seems to have followed suit.

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It was seen the world over that countries with women leaders were better off during the pandemic than those led by men. But is this the only reason why we should have more women leaders?

What if a woman leader didn’t do a great job? Does she not deserve equal access to a leadership role? Can a woman be a bad leader and still be allowed to lead?

Narratives like these put immense pressure on women to be the best and always accommodate the perceptions of the people around them. This is why women leaders often have to mute their bodies and sexuality and even alter their appearance to appeal to the people they are leading. 

The pandemic showed us that women leaders are just as capable as male leaders to take on difficult tasks and step up during times of crisis, which should be enough. Implying that women leaders are somehow better because they are capable of taking countries out of a giant mess only puts more pressure on them to either be exceptional leaders or be nothing at all.

Interestingly enough, we don’t see headlines about men not being naturally able to lead because they couldn’t handle the pandemic as well as women.

More than the fact that it was women leaders who curbed the effects of the pandemic, it was their adopted models of leadership that should be scrutinised.

Feminist leadership ﹘ which stresses on putting people above profits among other things ﹘  is what has helped many countries manage the pandemic.

Being sensitive to inequalities, distributing resources equally, putting the poor and marginalised above the rich and privileged ﹘  all these factors contribute to effective feminist leadership. And who said that this model of leadership was meant for women alone?

Leadership looks different on different people, and it’s time for us to look at it more holistically and critically. Women should have equal access to leadership positions regardless of how good or bad they are as leaders; the focus should be on how to get them to improve.

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