How to Go from Being a Great “Female Leader” to Just a Great Leader

In our society, we are very quick to label any trait or behaviour as strictly belonging to either men or women, especially in the workplace. The problem is that when we use gender as the only way to judge someone’s skills or ability to lead, we completely overlook the rich diversity in people.

If organisations genuinely care about creating a space that empowers emerging leaders to reach their fullest potential, they should reassess what defines exceptional leadership beyond gender stereotypes. It shouldn’t be considered revolutionary that anyone, regardless of gender, has the potential to develop and improve their leadership abilities over time.

Have we really “come a long way”?

In many ways, we have made some pretty significant strides as a society towards achieving gender equality in the workplace. There’s no denying that. Just look at all the companies today that have special leadership programmes to help drive a more equitable outcome for the women that work within their businesses. In the past year alone, 60% of companies have increased their investments in DEI initiatives, according to Mckinsey’s Women in the Workplace 2023 report.

Considering all this progress we’ve made, why, in the general vernacular of the business world, is there still this invisible divide between “a leader” and a “female leader”? Why is it that when we praise a woman for doing a good job in a leadership role, we’ll say something like, “what a great female leader” instead of simply saying, “what a great leader”? I’m sure you’ve caught yourself doing this at least once in your life. I know I most probably have.

Many people don’t think it’s that deep. After all, it’s still meant to be a compliment, isn’t it? But it does matter. Language matters. And it matters because it influences how we view men and women in leadership roles. When someone points out a person’s gender, it implies that they’re being seen as “special”, not the standard, almost like their career achievements and skills are overlooked just because they’re female.

We never feel the need to refer to a man’s gender when we talk about him being a leader, so why do we bring gender into the conversation when it’s about women? It’s our unconscious bias coming to the surface. And it’s not just in business – this unconscious bias seems to pop up everywhere, even in sports.

Take Serena Williams, the only tennis player in history to achieve a career Golden Slam in both singles and doubles. She is always labelled as “one of the greatest female athletes of all time”. Once, a reporter asked her, “There will be talk about you going down as one of the greatest female athletes of all time. What do you think when you hear someone talk like that?” Serena replied, “I prefer the word ‘one of the greatest athletes of all time.” In that short response, she gracefully pointed out the problem with how the question was phrased.

We’d rarely hear someone say, “Roger Federer is the best male tennis player of all time” or “Michael Phelps was one of the best male swimmers in history”, yet when it comes to athletes who happen to be female, people will make that distinction without hesitation. The only other time I’ve seen someone call out that kind of bias right in front of everyone, besides Serena, was Andy Murray. Andy’s always been vocal about women’s issues and when he called out casual sexism in 2017 during a post-match Wimbledon press conference, it went viral.

The journalist started off saying, “Sam is the first US player to reach a major semi-final since 2009.” Before he could even finish his question, Andy jumped in and pointed out that Querrey was the first male US player to reach a major semi-final in eight years, not the first US player. That same year, Venus Williams made it to the Wimbledon final.

While I don’t believe the reporter meant to be intentionally sexist, Andy’s response was spot on. That’s the best way someone could’ve shown their support for women while keeping the conversation respectful, and I think we can learn a lot from how Andy Murray handled that situation. He handed us the playbook, and now the ball is in our court in the business world to handle moments like these just as thoughtfully.

What actually makes a good leader?

Within each of us, there exists what Carl Jung termed as anima and animus – the feminine and masculine elements, which can be either active or dormant. The “masculine” elements typically include traits such as strength, competitiveness, logical thinking, assertiveness, and a tendency to take risks, while the “feminine” elements typically include traits like humility, teamwork, nurturing others, attention to detail, patience, and intuition.

As we grow up, we tend to form our gender identity and roles, either consciously or unconsciously, by amplifying the traits that align with our gender while suppressing those that don’t. Does this mean those suppressed traits will eventually disappear? Not at all. They very much remain within us – the softer, feminine qualities in men and the assertive, masculine traits in women.

All these qualities demand to be expressed through each human being. This also means that if we want to become a more balanced, versatile, harmonious, and authentic leader, we need to acknowledge that both these masculine and feminine sides are present within us. And then, more importantly, actively work on integrating them.

If you’re a man looking to integrate your anima, you can start by finding ways to get in touch with your emotions, nurture your creative side, and practise expressing yourself more openly and honestly. Similarly, if you’re a woman who wants to integrate your animus, you’d want to focus on strengthening your assertiveness by speaking up for yourself and your ideas confidently, sharpening your logical thinking by critically analysing situations and making decisions based on reason, and embracing your independence.

At the end of the day, what defines an effective or a “good” leader boils down to how well your skills align with the situation you’re in. Sometimes, a situation might demand traditionally masculine traits, like in a competitive sales call where you need to be assertive and confident to successfully close a deal.

On the other hand, in scenarios involving conflict between employees, a leader would benefit from employing more feminine qualities. In this case, you’d need to be able to act as a mediator and effectively listen to each party’s side of the story, empathise with their perspectives, and work toward finding common ground or mutually agreeable solutions.

Simply put, a good leader must be able to adapt. That’s why we need to work on integrating our anima and animus.

The bottom line: We need to get rid of the invisible divide

At the end of the day, genuine leadership demands adaptability and versatility. We need to embrace both masculine and feminine traits within ourselves to enhance our leadership capabilities and set an example for others to do the same. In essence, we need diverse leadership. When we focus on finding out what drives a person – what makes them them – and we capitalise on their potential, all those silly stereotypes take a back seat and gender becomes completely irrelevant.

And then, on a final note – we’ve got to choose our words carefully. Language does matter. Sometimes, our language indirectly downplays what women can do compared to men. Even harmless phrases like “female leader” might unintentionally undermine women’s achievements. Centuries of bias still hold women back from getting equal pay and opportunities in business. To change this, we need to start seeing everyone as equals.