Updated: Sep 22, 2020
By Pauline Holland, Principal Consultant
In a previous blog (https://www.taylorclarke.co.uk/post/problems-of-presence-for-female-leaders) I have written about ‘The Problem of Presence for Female Leaders’ where I highlight specific challenges women encounter in their leadership, specifically conveying a presence that encourages others to want to follow them.
In this blog, I want to take a slightly different tact and reframe the issue somewhat. While acknowledging that the issues which present for women leaders regarding their presence are different, and often more challenging, than men, I want to advocate the fact that, by embracing and accepting the difference that comes with being female, women will be able to create a more powerful executive presence.
At the beginning of one of our recent Women in Leadership workshops, one of the participants, speaking of her years of experience as a senior leader within a male dominated industry, commented that she had finally arrived at a point in her career where she was, to put it simply, ‘proud to be a female’! She had come to the realisation that she didn’t need to ‘one of the boys’, she didn’t need to talk about football around the leadership table to been seen to have influence or impact. The point was she didn’t need to be anything other than who she was. It sounded to me like a form of ‘coming out’ to herself, and others, as a female! Her comment resonated with me and got me thinking about the personal cost to women of having to adapt ourselves to fit in and be acceptable – to other women as well as men - as female leaders. It also got me thinking about what organisations might be missing out on if many of the women leaders are indeed having to adapt to that extent. This brought me back to thinking again about executive ‘presence’ as a female leader.
I was recently recommended to read the late John Berger’s book, ‘Ways of Seeing’ written in 1972. Berger was an art critic, novelist, painter and poet who encouraged his readers to take a more critical look at what they were seeing in art, including how women were being portrayed. I was interested to read his thoughts on the fundamental differences in how women and men are perceived and judged with respect to their ‘social presence’.
Berger states that:
“A man’s presence is dependent upon the promise of power which he embodies … the promised power may be moral, physical, temperamental, economic, social, sexual – but it’s object is always exterior to the man … [my emphasis]”
In contrasting that with how a women’s presence is perceived he goes on:
“… a woman’s presence expresses her own attitude to herself, and defines what can and cannot be done to her. Her presence is manifest in her gestures, voice, opinions, expressions, clothes, chosen surroundings, taste – indeed there is nothing she can do which does not contribute to her presence.”
In Berger’s view a woman’s presence is perceived to be intrinsic to herself. He suggests that females learn from a young age to observe themselves being noticed by others and learn to adapt according to the cues they are picking up.
Berger’s critique, in my view, goes some way to explaining the close scrutiny that women leaders feel themselves to be under in a way that is strikingly absent with regard to their male counterparts. This point is also noted by writer and leadership coach, Henna Inam, who states in her blog on the same subject that in her experience ‘it is by far women who get put in the executive presence penalty box’ for such crimes as ‘being too aggressive’ or ‘being too passive’. The ‘Panten’ shampoo advert, ‘A man’s a boss; a women’s bossy’ both captures and challenges the double standards that are in play with regard to how power is perceived between the sexes.
So back to the issue of Presence. My own thinking on presence has been influenced by fellow consultant, Susan Rosina Whittle as outlined in her book, co-authored by Karen Izod entitled: Resourceful Consulting: Working with your Presence and Identity in Consulting to Change. This is a fabulous insightful and practical resource for those in the consulting profession. In the chapter on ‘Presence’, Whittle defines presence as ‘social’, that is, created between people in their interactions with one another. She also states that we always have presence. The issue is whether it is the presence we intend or not. My interest in coaching and helping leaders to grow and develop personally and professionally, especially female leaders, is to help them explore how they can have more of the presence they intend.
A good friend and colleague of mine, John Scherer in his book, ‘Five Questions That Change Everything: Life’s lessons at work’ encourages leaders to trust that they do not have to change themselves in order to live more fulfilled and fulfilling lives. Instead, they need to come home to themselves, in short to become more of who they already are.
This ‘coming home’ to oneself seems to me to be precisely what the participant on our workshop, referred to at the beginning of this blog, was describing about herself at the point at which she realised she was proud to be a female. She ceased to be concerned with adapting herself to fit in with the dominant mental model of what it meant to be a leader in her organisation. When we are able to arrive at this place as female leaders we are able to bring more of ourselves to the work place and, arguably, to have more presence and impact in our leadership and to feel more satisfied in doing so.