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Female leaders: Twice the patience, twice the chutzpa, twice the stamina

Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella recently caused controversy with his suggestion that women should not ask for pay raises. Despite him quickly apologising it showed there still are major issues for women in business. Fact is that female executives are still faced with huge pay gaps with many earning only three-quarters of what their male colleagues make.


Picture: Angela Heise

And the pay gap widens for middle-aged women. On company boards there are still many more men than women despite a recent report from Credit Suisse that offered new evidence that a better gender mix among senior managers is linked with better returns for the company. MBA Channel spoke to international executive coach Angela Heise who has worked with female as well as male leaders for the past 18 years.

How do you perceive the current situation for women as corporate leaders?

Angela Heise: In one word: sad. The world average of female top executives is 8 per cent, and female board members are still a minority. As long as the expectation persists that women fit themselves into a system that supports “traditional” male needs, where child rearing and managing the household are still considered a female duty and priority, female participation as corporate leaders will be limited.


But it seems it is not limited everywhere… There are countries that are exceptional in supporting women on company boards or at the helm of a company?

Angela Heise: Yes, true – the Scandinavian countries. Norway, for example, introduced a quota of 40 per cent female participation on boards in 2006, and has one of the most progressive parental and not just maternal leave policies on the planet. Swedish parents have a total of 480 days of leave per child, 390 days of which is paid at 80 per cent of salary. Of this, two months are reserved for the father. In many countries paid leave after birth is still a dream. 

So in some ways men miss out as well…

Angela Heise: When I ask my clients how they have organised themselves, they unequivocally say that they organise their home life so that it supports their work but they are far more ambiguous when the question is whether they have organised their work to support the home life. This is becoming a serious issue for men who want to play an active part in raising their children and participate in their lives. Just recently, Mohamed El-Erian, who ran a $2 trillion investment fund resigned from his job in California, when his ten-year-old daughter presented him with a list of 22 milestones in her life he had missed, to spend more time with his family. I personally hope that he not only bowed out of a system that clearly works less and less for most people, but that he uses his influence to help change it. 

How helpful is an official business degree like an MBA for women to get into executive levels?

Angela Heise: As helpful as it is for a man. While getting an MBA is useful, it doesn't guarantee business success. You can have all the skills, if you don’t use them, it’s just theory. Women need to learn to stand up for themselves. Learning how to please yourself instead of vying for people's approval is far more important than following the rules that often see women hit their head hard against the glass ceiling. It’s a cliche that unfortunately still holds true. Where women ask for permission, men ask for forgiveness. 

So if you compare men and women what does a woman need to be successful in a leadership position? 

Angela Heise: I like to joke and whenever asked, answer this question with: Twice the patience, twice the chutzpa, twice the stamina. But in the end, it’s not really a joke, there’s a lot of truth in it. Women have the ability to think far more ecologically than men, yet when it comes to taking care of themselves, they often neglect their own well-being. Women need to start trusting their abilities. My male clients often design their CV around their perceived abilities and potential, while women don’t apply for jobs because they feel that they lack the experience, no matter how skilled they are in other, comparative areas. 

One of the issues is how female executives are perceived by their employees… 

Angela Heise: Yes, this is one of the biggest challenges for women – managing the precious balance between being perceived as powerful and as a bitch. Women want to be liked, so they are likely to forgo their impact in order to find acceptance. When I ask my female clients whether they want to be respected or liked, they naturally opt for respect. In real life scenarios, however, they often make choices that are based on the need to be liked. 

With what topics do your female corporate clients in executive roles struggle most?

Angela Heise: Even when female executives have negotiated a three or four day working week to raise their families and achieve the elusive work-life balance, which is really a theoretical concept rather than an achievable goal, many end up working five days a week - and not getting paid for it. Many of my female clients feel guilty when they have to say no, putting their own needs behind those of others. Healthy boundaries are highly underrated.

Which female CEO manages the balance at the top well in your opinion?

Angela Heise: At the moment, I really like Sophia Amoruso, the 30-year-old CEO of Nasty Gal, an online fashion company, which has seen explosive growth since its foundation in 2006. Amoruso effectively designed her job and organisation to suit her personality and style, maximising the benefits of modern technology. At the same time, she was able to recognise that a business functions best when it operates from tried and tested principles, which she elegantly adopted and updated in order to ensure her success without compromising her values. Her book #GirlBoss is a witty and inspiring piece of writing that would appeal to any woman or man, who finds that they have interest in being in business but are not comfortable with traditional corporate ladder climbing. I admire Amoruso's go-get attitude and her passion for excellence, which, coupled with a joie de vivre and a sense of authenticity, I find very refreshing.

About Angela Heise:

Angela Heise is an executive coach, corporate trainer and facilitator with an international portfolio of clients spanning a diverse range of industries. She is the developer of a Performance Excellence programme which has helped many people deal effectively with stage fright. Her Global Village Skills programme supports people who live in culturally diverse and fast changing environments and her Balcony Success Clubs programme enables people to build constructive and  emotionally intelligent work cultures.

More articles about the topic:

The diversity benchmark: gender equality

Business schools change their way for female MBA students

Applying to business school: What’s the right approach for women?

How to get rid of the glass ceiling


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