The dearth of women in leadership positions is getting a lot of attention these days; the September issue of the Harvard Business Review Magazine is just one example.  Like many of us, I tend to reflect on this subject in terms of my own experience.  My education was in engineering, a field in which, according to the American Society for Engineering Education, 18.4% of bachelor’s degrees were awarded to women in 2011.  I also went to graduate school for engineering, and encouragingly, the numbers are slightly higher in these areas – 22.6% of master’s degrees and 21.8% of doctoral degrees awarded to women.  In academic leadership positions, women comprise 13.8% of tenured and tenure-track faculty in engineering.  After I graduated, I spent some time in academia, then became a consultant to the federal government in technical systems and IT/IS.  So virtually my entire educational life and a great deal of my work life has been spent in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, mathematics), where there aren’t many women in general and even fewer examples of female leaders and mentors.

These days, I work as an executive coach and leadership development consultant.  I see that the view of leadership is changing as skills such as communication, collaboration, and relationship-building are seen more and more as essential leadership capabilities.  In the past, and still frequently today, these were thought of as “soft skills” and considered less relevant than domain-specific expertise and management abilities.  In addition, these have traditionally been considered women’s strengths.  Leadership gurus Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman published a study in 2012 with data to support that women do display these leadership competencies more than men (although, notably, other competencies as well).  This has accompanied a leadership movement that looks something like this:  “Hey Women, you have all these natural leadership skills – so embrace and leverage them!  And you employers and bosses, you need to be putting more women in leadership positions because they naturally have certain leadership skills!”  These proponents mean well, and they are supporting what they see as a viable strategy for putting more women in leadership positions.  And this may be a worthwhile approach – time will tell.

But I cringe every time I hear this approach to promoting women in leadership positions, as do a lot of my female friends and colleagues in STEM fields.  I worry that in emphasizing “women’s strengths” of collaboration and communication, we risk overlooking other aptitudes and reinforcing the attitude that women aren’t cut out for scientific and technical fields.  When I was a freshman in college, I asked a question in a computer science course, one of my engineering requirements.  The instructor’s response was not to answer the question but instead to tell me, in front of the class, that women shouldn’t be engineers anyway, as evidenced by my not understanding the material.  I was stunned, but fortunately I also thought his response was ridiculous, and it didn’t deter me from studying engineering.  But several of my female classmates transferred out of the program, and I’m guessing at least part of the reason was similar treatment.

It would probably be considered shocking and unacceptable today, 25 years later, for an instructor to respond that way – I would hope so, anyway.  But a new Census Bureau report shows that women continue to be a minority in STEM fields, and a recent story from NPR illustrates how women still struggle to be accepted in the tech industry.  When we classify women first as communicators, collaborators, and relationship-builders – even if well-intentioned – I fear that the side effects of these generalizations will be to overlook the technical, scientific, and analytical aptitudes and accomplishments of women, and to affirm the belief that women don’t have the abilities needed to succeed in STEM fields.

So instead of promoting leadership qualities by gender, let’s instead focus on the set of capabilities that are required to be an effective leader, such as domain expertise, motivating and inspiring others, and thinking strategically, as well as the ability to collaborate and communicate.  Then we start to move away from generalizations and instead put the emphasis where it should be:  on evaluating each individual on the leadership abilities he/she possesses, regardless of gender.

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