Why female role models of success are broken and need to be fixed



The female economy and the female workforce enjoy increased media attention lately. Business cases prove that balanced male to female teams have a positive financial impact on the organization. In 2009, McKinsey conducted a survey of about 800 business leaders worldwide which confirmed that certain leadership behaviours typically adopted by women are critical to perform well in the post-crisis world.

Today’s scream for innovation in society is loud, and we know that diversity is a key aspect of innovation. And yet we’re still not at a point where we decided to let more  women attain top positions in society. What usually happens is this:

  • We’ll debate about how to get gender balance at the top – ONE DAY. But at today’s speed it, not even your kids will see this happen: it will still take a few decades to have an equal number of women at the top.
  • We will debate about whether to impose gender quota – or not.
  • We will talk about the bias in the portrayal of leaders in politics, business and experts in the media.
  • And then someone will come up with this trusted old one-liner again: ‘You know, we are looking hard for more women to help them reach the top! But can’t FIND them’….

Well, maybe you’re not looking in the right place, and maybe you’re not looking in the right way: what about buying a new radar and setting new search criteria?

We have this tendency to look for more of the same. When we see successful women in the media, they’re often a few highly successful women, often portrayed and described as super women, who managed to get it all in the corporate world and at home.

Many of those women were groomed for the top within Anglo-American organisations. Unfortunately, many talented women across Europe who are not yet at the top, just can’t relate to this type of ‘success’. And they certainly don’t aspire to become this type of woman, which leads to self doubt and thoughts like:

Am I ever going to be good enough to reach that level? And do I ever want to become like that?”.

After which a lot of these talented women compose a new version of the L’Oréal baseline that becomes: “Am I worth it? …Is all that worth it? What we need, I think, is not more women who are morphed into this stereotype of the successful women. What we need is a different role model for women.

Of peacocks and penguins

‘The Peacock in the land of Penguins’ is a corporate fable written in 1995 by Hateley & Schmidt. It’s about Perry the Peacock who is recruited in the land of Penguins for his distinctive flair and creativity. In other words: for being different.

But once he arrives, Perry makes the penguins uneasy, because his new ideas upset the status quo. Upsetting the status quo is a really bad idea if you want to move up in the penguin world, so the penguins train Perry to try to walk, talk and dress like a penguin to fit in and get better chances to move up.

Perry is a woman. I meet many women who worked hard to climb the corporate ladder. And while these women work so hard, they lose their original colours. They also lose the advantage of being birds of different feathers. They stop tapping into their mix of both feminine and masculine qualities, toughen up and blend in perfectly in the land of corporate penguins.

At some point, some of them become especially tough for younger women falling in behind. We call these women ‘Queen Bees’ or machas and their thinking goes somewhat like this:

“It wasn’t easy for me to get here, so I’ll make sure that you won’t have it any easier.”

So much for offering an inspiring role model for other, younger women, and cue the L’Oreal question for the younger woman working for this Queen Bee: is all this worth it? To these Queen Bees I want to say this: Unilever and Dove mapped the self image of mothers and daughters and discovered that two thirds of young girls, aged 12-15, look up to their mothers as role models and examples. What kind of picture of the future are you projecting for your own daughters?

A look long in the mirror

Many male and female top leaders say they regret seeing female executives become penguins. They know – or they say they know – how important it is to have blend of different approaches to business. But they also know they operate in a world that values comfort, safety and the predictability of conformity. So I invite themselves to ask themselves: which behaviours do I recruit, reward, promote? Are you talking about peacocks, but only rewarding penguins? Because you wouldn’t be the only one.

Let’s face it, more penguins – even if the penguins represent a better balance of women and men- is not how you get original thinking and the change needed for 21st century business. I invite men and women active in the corporate world, in media, panels, conferences, seminars and expert forums to recruit, promote and portray more peacocks (female or male).

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About the author

Liesbeth Dillen

Left the C-suite at IKEA after 20 years and started SHEworkswithwomen, active in Europe. Inspires,confronts and helps companies find the triggers to get the best out of top management teams and female talents. Loves life, love and laughter and believes life is too short to be somebody else. Likes the quote "Work hard, have fun, make history"(Jeff Bezos, Amazon). Motivated to get the best out of men and women through gender diverse teams and top management. Connect with Liesbeth via Twitter, LinkedIn, e-mail, website or Skype: liesbethdillenshe.

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