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Women are not the same as men

blog: The plight and might of female leaders

Author: Nicola Siddall

“Be tenacious and daring when creating your path because no one else will do it for you”

A colleague from our parent company, Royal HaskoningDHV, recently wrote this in an article about women in engineering.

It is one of my most memorable quotes of the year and I find it incredibly relatable; never was a truer word spoken about the journey to leadership as a female. But also, never was there a starker reminder of the challenges we face to get there.

This blog is about what it means to be a (budding!) young female leader in the world of work, and specifically in transport and engineering consultancy. I’ve many examples of the plight to get to this point – both spoken and unspoken, implicit and explicit – “can you come to take notes for us?”, “are you the chauffeur for your manager today?”, “let’s ask the highwayman for her opinions!”. I’m not here to bang that drum though, not on this occasion. I’m choosing to write about other, perhaps similarly contentious, things…

So, my unpopular opinion: women are not the same as men, and that’s ok.

In some respects, of course, we are completely equal. But when it comes to how we operate in the workplace, I’m pretty comfortable with some of the differences, the assumptions, even the stereotypes that exist. As a woman, I’m apparently:

Female adjective word cloud

Ok, great! Most of these sound like awesome qualities to make a leader. I can do it all and still be approachable. I understand the motivations of my colleagues. I address problems from a human perspective. I will let my work speak for itself; I don’t need to shout about it. I can adapt, be flexible, break away from the plan. I have the power to pleasantly surprise. I will let drama and competition wash over me, quietly plotting my rise to the top…

Coming back to the quote at the beginning of this piece, though, there isn’t much room for tenacity or audacity here. It doesn’t really fit in with who I am, nor, in some respects, my identity as a woman. Do women really need to be more tenacious, more driven and more aggressive? Should we have to be these things, as that is the only road to success?

Arguably and unfortunately, and just like the quote suggests, a lot of the time the answer to that is still ‘yes’. A friend of mine recently took a personality quiz at the final stage of a lengthy interview process. She was the only candidate remaining. The results of the quiz? She does not have a ‘strong’ enough personality to be in a management position. No job offer, and in fact they were left with nobody to fill the position. The same thing happened to me not too long ago as well – the results said I don’t share the same traits as the archetypal leader, some of those being confidence, need for achievement, power and structure. I was nearly ruled out. How then have I got to where I am today?

It was this experience that lit the fire in my belly and made me question our conventions. I’ve looked around and delved deep and I’ve not found the evidence that these traits equate to greatness. They might perpetuate the norm when it comes to business leaders, but in modern history we’ve not yet tested the result of having 50% of those leaders identifying as women. We've not even scraped the surface.

As a result, I’ve now come to the realisation that we ought to celebrate difference. We have to celebrate difference. We quite possibly need to be different to continue to genuinely thrive. We don’t need to be equal at everything; sometimes we are better, sometimes we are actually worse. I’m not afraid of some stereotypes, and I don’t need to change myself to conform to a different – perhaps more masculine, but maybe simply outdated – set of qualities.

Ultimately, my favourite leaders are those who have made the time to understand me and mentor me, who kept level-headed when times got tough, who remained modest when they owned the situation. The irony, as it turns out, is that they were all men – unsurprisingly I’ve never had the benefit of working for a woman in power. But the takeaway has to be that they too didn’t feel the need to shape themselves into the ‘leader’ mould if they didn’t fit. I’ve no doubt they will continue to lead the way in embracing difference and the might of femininity just as much as I plan to.

Hopefully I can keep driving and aspiring to change in this regard, and maybe I’ll empower and inspire others to do the same. Luckily Integrated Transport Planning is rooting for me too in all of this, because of rather than in spite of my strongest traits.

And as for my future as a leader? Watch this space…

Plight and might women no words


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