By Elda Choucair, CEO of PHD MENA.
If it seems as though women are in the spotlight more than ever before, then a quick online search will confirm why this is the case. Far from underlining successes and triumphs, there is quiet discontent rising about gender inequality, pay gaps and, of course, the ongoing fall-out from the #MeToo movement. It’s certainly timely.
This year also marks 100 years since women were granted the right to vote, and yet it’s clear there is some way to go before segregation by gender becomes obsolete. While it is right to celebrate and acknowledge these extraordinary women, we must look ahead to what the next century will bring, changing our habits and mindset accordingly.
If we continue to highlight success based on gender or give weight to each other’s differing leadership styles, traits and qualities, then the gap between us and our respective counterparts will only keep getting wider. We should actively embrace a culture of diversity and talent, encouraging collaboration through shared values, as opposed to gender stereotypes.
Who do deserve celebrating today are effective leaders, specifically for the common traits that make them great and the structure of environments that nurture them. What also needs applauding is the vision to recognise talent wherever it resides, and the wisdom to support its full expression.
Showing promise is one thing, fulfilling it is another. Determination is key, second only to ambition and a willingness to explore beyond the confines of your comfort zone. In my experience, working hard is only half of the equation; the rest must stem from an environment that can both challenge and foster development.
It is this thinking, along with strong core values, that nurtures a leadership style focused on individual skills and attributes to drive employee success and fuel long-term growth ambitions. Merit, ability and attitude should form the basis for leadership development, promoting an honest and open culture, where accomplishments are not used ‘as a stat’ to demonstrate conformity.
I am not going to step into the debate of gender diversity versus gender neutrality. Playing with words takes the attention away from what truly matters: recognising talent where it exists and enhancing its inherent qualities, like cutting a diamond.
Once we recognise the value of diversity beyond gender, including – but not limited to – education, life experience, career path, age and other physical and mental attributes, we can start looking for alignment with the organisation’s own values. This is an essential dimension that will drive the long-term fit between the individual and the company.
Strong leaders play to their strengths, of course, but they also learn to deal with their weaknesses. An enlightened employer will do the same, supporting the individual with relevant training, coaching and mentoring. It’s also about surrounding yourself with people who know what you don’t, and can do what you can’t. Objectivity about yourself and others is invaluable. This means no bias, prejudice or preconceived ideas.
We have been conditioned to think in a certain way, to actively make allowances for differences in gender, reinforcing a misdirection in what we need to do for female leaders to thrive. Automatically we think about the physical attributes when, instead, we should strive for gender neutrality. We need to recognise needs based on roles, backgrounds, personality, and characteristics, fostering a culture of flexibility that allows everyone to succeed.
Being a supportive employer means providing your team’s equal opportunity and the means by which to learn, lead and grow. Everyone follows the same rules, must meet the same expectations and is measured by the same criteria.
As we seek to align with the pace of change and our own rigid beliefs of what is expected, it remains clear that we need to fundamentally alter our cognitive gender biases. We need to level the playing field, not look to isolate one another further. Ignoring the importance of diversity on account of stereotypes or dated misconceptions at such a transformative time certainly appears short-sighted and unnecessarily limits you. The argument for gender equality is irrelevant today; embracing gender neutrality is the only way to succeed, both in leadership and in life.