Four Traits That Women Bring to the C-Suite

By Catherine Connors

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Photo by CoWomen on Unsplash

Last week, Harvard Business Review published an article with the title, “4 Traits That Keep Women from the C-Suite.” It was, as one might expect from the title, very bad. Harvard Business Review has since removed the article, but only did so after posting a series of editors’ notes asserting that they were attentive to the avalanche of reader criticisms, that they had only been trying to offer a ‘global’ perspective (the author is Chinese) and were changing the title to reflect that, and, finally, that they were conceding defeat and removing the article entirely. The page itself, with the altered title and the editors’ notes, remains live; the URL remains the same, unapologetically asserting that there are, indeed, 4 feminine traits that are holding women back from their c-suite ambitions.

The four lamentable ‘traits’? Lack of ambition, excessive perfectionism, conflict avoidance, and a tendency to take on emotional labor. These are, of course, a pretty straightforward rehash of standard sexist talking points on why women aren’t suited for leadership. It’s the kind of reductionist nonsense that you expect your drunk Republican uncle to cite over Thanksgiving dinner as reasons why he would never vote for a female presidential candidate; that it was validated and amplified by Harvard Business Review was discouraging to say the least.

It provoked a lively discussion in the League’s private community, with all of the outrage and active deconstruction that one might expect. But the substance of the article was low-hanging fruit: knocking the cited traits from the article was every bit as easy (and no less gratifying) than rejecting your drunk Republican uncle’s anti-Hillary talking points. Where the conversation got interesting was when we began to explore how equally easy it was to simply flip the narrative on those traits. Joanna Bloor suggested, for example, that we could simply retitle the piece to something like “4 Modern Traits That Mean Women Should Be Leading The C-Suite;” Jennifer Rice proposed that we just take those traits as the starting point for framing our preferred system. Lack of ambition, excessive perfectionism, conflict avoidance, and tendency to take on emotional labor, after all, can very easily be reframed as healthy humility and willingness to collaborate, ability to focus on details, ability to build consensus, and high emotional intelligence. If we want to push the reframing further, we can assert that the latter aren’t ‘traits’ (natural tendencies or inclinations) but rather practices: things that any good leader, female or male, should be doing as a matter of ongoing practice, and ideally cultivated into active leadership habits.

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There are, of course, many other feminine-coded ‘traits’ that we can and should add to any list of positive leadership practices: empathy, cooperation, nurture, social accountability, and other exercises of our fundamental humanity. These are not female traits: they’re modes of human engagement that have often been coded as feminine, but that can be practiced by any human being, regardless of sex or gender identity. And these have been practiced, across cultures and throughout history, by leaders from or within marginalized communities who have had to hack the dominant structures of power in order to work for change — to fight for the right to vote, for example, or to fight for freedom.

Women and other underestimated leaders have long had to exercise compassion and cultivate social accountability, because they tend to rely upon the support of their immediate communities. They have to be cooperative, because they need the contributions of those communities. They have to practice empathy, because they rely upon social connection rather than domination as their most effective tool of influence. Women and other underestimated leaders have long had to exercise compassion and cultivate social accountability, because they’ve usually had to rely upon the support of their immediate communities. They’ve had to be cooperative, because they’ve needed the contributions of those communities. They’ve had to practice empathy, because they’ve had to rely upon social connection rather than domination as their most effective tool of influence. These aren’t matters of biology or identity; they’re simply what works when you don’t have access to mainstream tools of power (and, perhaps, even if you do have that access.)

And they’re what we need more of. This is a topic that we keep coming back to in the League’s PowerUp sessions: one of the most wished-for blue sky goals that we discuss in those sessions is a culture of more humane leadership. Sometimes we use the language of feminism or the feminine, when we discuss that alternative view of leadership, in part because we’re all still part of a culture that produces those Harvard Business Review articles; it’s hard for us to think outside of the gender binaries that put things like ‘dominance’ in the masculine column and ‘compassion’ in the feminine column. But we know, always, that the real-and-achievable blue sky goal is a reframing of leadership that doesn’t have gendered qualifiers: a future in which Harvard Business Review is publishing articles about the “4 Practices That Keep Anyone from the C-Suite” and citing excessive ambition, ignorance of nuance, conflict-seeking, and refusal to do emotional labor as the things that every aspiring leader must avoid.

That’s the future that we’re working for. If you’re into that, you should join us.

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