AJS South Africa



The playground can be a tough place. “Out of the mouth of babes” is an analogy often used to describe how children speak the truth. No matter how hard it is. And kids can be cruel. 

On the playground, there is seemingly no gender bias. Not yet anyway. Little girls are bullied and beaten up just as much as little boys are (sadly). And then, somewhere along the line (seemingly out of nowhere) as children start to grow up, a new insult pops up – “You fight like a girl”. Just like that. And the start of gender bias, the beginning of the inequality amongst the sexes begins.

“You fight like a girl” is always said with a sneer, a dismissive laugh and a kind of disapproval – surmising that the person being “beaten up” and trying to fight back (whether a boy or a girl) is weak and unimportant. Not worth the bullies time or effort.

Out of the mouth of babes ey? Weakness is construed as a female trait (or so it would seem). But that could not be further from the truth.

Fight like a girl” is not an insult.  Just ask the suffragettes

Are women underdogs? Not at all. Why should they be?

Are they weaker? Ummmm have you met Laila Ali?

Sure, women may be smaller (in stature – sometimes). Sure, women may seem to come off the backfoot (not by choice), but women have something that men don’t. And it’s not just “something to prove”. It’s the ability to get up when pushed down, it’s the ability to speak up for those who are being mistreated (because they can relate), it’s the ability to stand up for people’s rights (again because they can relate) and it’s the ability to treat everyone fairly and equally (because that’s what they are fighting for – equality).

The “wars” waged by women are not on the battlefields. But they are ongoing. They are fought in the workplace, they are fought within their own societies and sadly, they are fought in their own homes. Different wars on different battlefields but all fought with one purpose – fairness and equality.

And it’s this ability to fight hard but fair, to feel things but not be weak, to get knocked down but get back up again, its these abilities, these strengths that not only make good leaders but are key attributes when motivating others. Regardless of gender.   

To back up this up, we will be taking a closer look at a number of topics – 

March is Women’s History Month

Did you know that?

Women’s History Month was initially just International Women’s Day, a day that commemorated the Feb. 28 meeting of socialists and suffragists in Manhattan in 1909.

One year later, on March 8, 1910, according to BBC, a German activist named Clara Zetkin suggested that they recognize International Women’s Day at an International Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen. With 17 countries in attendance at the conference, they all agreed.

On March 8, 1911, the first International Women’s Day was celebrated in Austria, Switzerland, Germany and Denmark, though the holiday wasn’t widely celebrated in the United States until the United Nations began sponsoring it in 1975”. 

International Women’s Day is also celebrated on the 8th of March. 

This year, the focus of International Women’s Day was on Breaking the Bias, where we were all challenged to “imagine a gender equal world. A world free of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination. A world that’s diverse, equitable, and inclusive. A world where difference is valued and celebrated”.

UN Women have also focused their celebration of International Women’s Day on “Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow” “recognizing the contribution of women and girls around the world, who are leading the charge on climate change adaptation, mitigation, and response, to build a more sustainable future for all.

March is therefore (amongst other things) a celebration of the “accomplishments and contributions women have made to history, culture and society”. It is a recognition of all the good women do on a day-to-day basis that may, often times, be overlooked. 

And from this, some resounding topics immediately came to mind – 

1.     Gender bias in the workplace (remember that #breakingthebias is an action that needs to be repeated over and over); 

2.     Is there a difference between men and women in leadership roles? and finally

3.     How can female leaders motivate others?

To begin with, we would be remiss if we did not point out that men and women are different. Obviously. The book “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” would not have been written otherwise. 

Side note: the fact that the book creates a “translation guide” that can help men, “Martians,” and women, “Venusians,” to understand each other better speaks volumes.

While we are not on a quest to build “intimacy” (as the now ‘classic” book aims to achieve), the point we are making is that leadership can be different when it is a male leader vs when it is a female leader. We speak different languages. You can ask any married couple and they will confirm this as fact. 

With this in mind, we would venture to say that because we speak different languages (and perhaps because we come from different planets altogether), there will inherently be different leadership styles for each gender. Or is there?

But let’s be clear from the outset, the point of this article is not to discriminate between the genders. It is to be inclusive of them. 

As Angelica Fuentes, president of the Angelica Fuentes Foundation wisely said – 

“Gender parity is not just good for women – it’s good for societies”.

And it is this parity in the workplace (and specifically in leadership roles) and it is this equality (especially in our societies) that will make all the difference – leading to a sustainable future for all. 

Ø  Disclaimer – Before we continue, let us emphasise this extremely important fact- we are not saying that a female leader is better than a male leader (or vice versa). We believe that any good leader (whether man or women) will take key aspects of what works and implement them in their leadership roles whether the pointers come from a man or from a woman. Whatever works, works. It should not be about the gender of the person. 

Gender Bias in the workplace

With International Women’s Day being all about Breaking the Bias (and in that same vein discussions around equality, diversity and sustainability for all), we thought we would take a look at the existing gender biases in the workplace. Because pretending they are not happening does not make it true.

According to the World Economic Forum – 

“Women at all stages of employment experience workplace bias – from job applicants to presidents.

Women have made considerable strides in the labour force over the past few decades. They are working more hours, pursuing higher education in greater numbers, while also holding more prominent positions than before.

Despite these advances, however, inequities between men and women in the workforce remain pronounced. For the second year in a row, the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report 2021 indicates a reversal in a global movement towards gender equality – future generations will absorb these imbalanced gender perceptions”.

It is evident that there is still an unconscious bias that exists within the workplace, placing a major obstacle in the way of a woman achieving her full potential. As the World Economic Forum put it, it is “these gender biases that will continue into the future because they will be absorbed by future generations”. A vicious cycle that can only be broken by constant corrective action. 

In a recent study Women are “hardworking”, men are “brilliant”: Economics job market, it was discovered that even those who consider themselves “gender champions” seemingly sway in their enthusiasm and ultimately succumb (in one way or another) to an unconscious bias as the year progresses (and as external influences takes hold). Which is such a shame. 

You see, in this study it showed that in the analysis of 9,000 reference/recommendation letters written to promote students’ achievements (between 2017 and 2020), the letters were undoubtedly found to have “value characteristics along distinctly gendered lines in their descriptions of intelligence and capacities. The analysis found that women are more likely to be praised for being hardworking rather than for their abilities”

And that is only one example. Because “bias negatively impacts even those at the highest levels of power”.

In the Global Gender Gap Report 2021 the evolution of gender-based gaps among four key dimensions (Economic Participation and Opportunity, Educational Attainment, Health and Survival, and Political Empowerment) were tracked with the aim of closing these gaps over time. These findings were also benchmarked. 

In the 15th edition, released in 2021, the following was set out – 

“Preliminary evidence suggested that the health emergency and the related economic downturn impacted women more severely than men, partially re-opening gaps that had already been closed…. the average distance completed to parity is at 68%, a step back compared to 2020 (-0.6 percentage points). These figures are mainly driven by a decline in the performance of large countries. On its current trajectory, it will now take 135.6 years to close the gender gap worldwide”.

Let’s repeat that for a second – it will take 135.6 years to close the gender gap worldwide. Meaning, women alive today, working hard in the workplace doing whatever they can to get ahead, will never know gender equality. And that is absolutely frightening. 

In the article Gender inequality in the workplace: The fight against bias, the discussion centres around how gender inequality (especially in the workplace) can take many forms –

“like unequal pay (in 2020, women earned 84% of what men earned for the same job. Black and Latina women earned even less. This gender pay gap has persisted over the past years, shrinking by just 8 cents in 25 years), disparity in promotions, incidents of sexual harassment and racism. Often, gender bias and inequality presents itself in more nuanced ways, like fewer opportunities for women who are mothers and a higher incidence of burnout in women”

In a further article How unconscious gender bias affects all women across the workplace, it was said that – 

“unconscious gender bias can exist at every level of an organization. Not just at the office level, or in middle-management. This ‘multi-level’ discrimination hurts organisations by denying women a voice in key decision-making processes. Research published in the European Journal of Finance has shown that professional financial advisors with millionaire clients consider female investors to be less knowledgeable about investments than men and to have less control over their investment portfolios”.

Based on all the information above (which is a great deal), we think it is safe to say that gender bias (unconscious or not) is most definitely alive, well and rife in the workplace. Even in 2022. So much so that since the start of the pandemic, gender equality – whether it be economic participation (and opportunity), access to higher education, access to health services as well as political empowerment – have actually gone backwards (if the stats are anything to go by).

And it is at this point that we believe it pertinent to quote from the UN Women’s website – 

“With the latest data, we now understand the vital link between gender, social equity and climate change, and recognize that without gender equality today, a sustainable future, an equal future, remains out of reach”. 

Because it is the sentence “a sustainable future, an equal future, remains out of reach” that really grabbed our attention. 

And it should grab yours as well. 

Is there a difference between men and women in leadership roles?

To begin, let’s start off with a quote by former U.S. President Barack Obama. 

Speaking at a private event on leadership in Singapore, he said –  

“I’m absolutely confident that for two years if every nation on earth was run by women, you would see a significant improvement across the board on just about everything… living standards and outcomes.”

And that is certainly saying something…

The question then undoubtedly becomes – are men and women really that different when it comes to leadership?

While some readers may think “obviously” (understandably after the amount of bias shown above), research has shown quite the contrary (in most respects).

In an article Why Women Are Better Leaders,  it was discovered that upon examining “gender differences in leadership effectiveness based on data from thousands of leaders” (summarised across 99 samples of leadership studies), and when looking at the data from all sources (a combination of self and other ratings), it seems that that there were “no gender differences in leadership effectiveness”.

And considering the topic of this particular discussion, the results are somewhat surprising….

But the studies did find that – 

when it comes to self-rated leadership effectiveness, male managers tend to give themselves higher leadership effectiveness ratings than female managers do. Meanwhile, if we only look at ratings from other sources (i.e., supervisors and subordinates), female managers receive higher leadership effectiveness ratings than their male counterparts”.

And whilst this is not surprising, it is interesting. 

The study goes on to define what leadership is – 

“Leadership is one’s ability to influence others to achieve common goals. To accomplish this, a leader needs to possess skills that can effectively communicate goals, motivate others, help others improve, give support when needed and ensure the well-being of their subordinates”.

Why is this important you may be thinking?

Well according to the study – 

1.     “results from both supervisors and subordinates showed that people believe female leaders are better at both communicating with others and showing consideration;

2.     compared to male leaders, female leaders use more transformational leadership (inspiring, caring and encouraging) and also engage in more of the contingent reward behaviors (this for that in a consistent manner). Meanwhile, male leaders tend to adopt manage by exception style (only intervene when problems become severe) along with the lassiez-faire leadership style (absent when needed);

3.     female leaders are more likely to attend to followers’ personal needs, be open to new ideas and others’ opinions, and reward the satisfactory performance of followers in a consistent manner. On the other hand, male leaders are statistically more likely to only stress meeting the standards, wait until problems become severe before attending to them, and/or withdraw or be absent during critical junctures…. 

4.     female leaders are also less narcissistic and tend to adopt a more democratic or participative style, being less autocratic or directive (as opposed to male leaders)”. 

From the above, the natural question then inevitably evolves into “if women are such great leaders, why are there still fewer female leaders?”

Good question. 

The study sets out that female leaders have a tendency to underestimate their leadership abilities. The result? Confidence issues. And lacking confidence in themselves and their abilities makes it less likely for women to push themselves for a salary increase or promotion. Believing they are lucky to have what they have.  As set out in the article Female Leaders in the Workplace – Why are we so few? – 

“women have been socially conditioned to feel less deserving of men. Especially with regards to things such as pay rises, promotions or more suitable conditions (even when you know you deserve it). A phenomenon they term ‘the unentitled mindset’ or the “entitlement gap”.

And that explains a great deal. 

Whilst female leaders may have more of the “soft skills” required to lead a company and/or team (seemingly making them more likable and more approachable), there really is no significant difference between female and male leaders. 

For further discussions on women in the workplace read here and here

How can female leaders motivate others?

With reference to the article 7 Leadership Lessons Men Can Learn from Women, the following are ways that a female leader can motivate others – 

1.     Encourage self-awareness – whilst we need to have a certain level of self-belief in order to move forward in life (the seemingly elusive “confidence” ingredient), it is also vital to encourage self-awareness. We all need to learn our limitations in order to encourage improved performance thereby ensuring competency and helping one to “spot the gaps between where they want to be and where they actually are”;

2.     Promote transformation – as we have set out above, “women are more likely to lead through inspiration, transforming people’s attitudes and beliefs, and aligning people with meaning and purpose. Since transformational leadership is linked to higher levels of team engagement, performance, and productivity, it is a critical path to improving leaders’ performance”;

3.     Encourage empathy – there is a notion that being kind and caring are not traits of a “good leader”. Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, has this to say about the notion of compassion being a sign of weakness “One of the criticisms I’ve faced over the years is that I’m not aggressive enough or assertive enough, or maybe somehow, because I’m empathetic, it means I’m weak. I totally rebel against that. I refuse to believe that you cannot be both compassionate and strong”. We stand by that. The very suggestion that someone who is kind and caring is a weak and an “ineffectual leader” is completely at odds with reality. We are not machines. As human beings, we crave validation, appreciation, and empathy. Its only natural. And its therefore clear that the modern workplace demands leaders to establish an emotional connection with their staff/employees and both exercise and show empathy, kindness and care towards them;

4.     Elevate others – as we have already set out, women leaders are more likely to coach, mentor, and develop their direct reports using constructive feedback and direction to help, support and guide others. By behaving in this way, women leaders are able to unlock other people’s potential and promote effective cooperation in their teams. As Lauren Fleshman said “By lifting each other up, we lift ourselves up”. And what could be wrong with that?

5.     Be yourself – just because “society” has historically expected a leader to be assertive, bold and overly confident, you do not need to practice these traits to prove competency. Especially when that is not who you are. Be true to yourself, your own values, morals and ethics. Play to your strengths. There is more to being a good leader then being overly confident and assertive, and

6.     Stay humble– remaining humble is essential to being a great leader. Without humility, being able to acknowledge the mistakes you have made and learning from them in order to effect change (whilst taking into account your team members and colleagues’ perspectives), becomes impossible. By staying humble (no matter your position in life) you ensure that you will always be willing to grow and change in your role. Again, that is vital to any successful team and important for any good leader to exercise.  

In closing

While we, once again, emphasise that a female leader is not better than a male leader (and vice versa) – remembering the need to be inclusive of both genders – there is a lot that can (and should) be learned from female leaders (especially keeping in mind a woman’s daily wars fought on different battlefields with one purpose – fairness and equality).

We believe that it is clear that the leaders of tomorrow (and those of today) will need to empower others, they will need to pull others up, leaning into the soft skills that have, for so long, been avoided like the plague. 

Because by empowering others and by lifting others up we ensure an equal and sustainable future for all of us. And that’s really the goal, isn’t it?

To close off this article, we want to say how much we appreciate the female leaders within our AJS team. Our female colleagues, heads of department and directors who have shaped AJS, who have changed the way we operate so that we are not just paying lip-service to gender equality and diversity.  But are actually doing it. 

We actively support #breakingthebias.

How about you? 

– Written by Alicia Koch on behalf of AJS

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