Leadership & Productivity

Being a female CEO in a male-dominated company

6 min read

06 March 2019

Despite the depressing statistics, being a successful female CEO in a male-dominated company is absolutely achievable.

The latest female FTSE benchmarking report reveals that the number of women in top boardroom positions fell in 2018, with just 30 women in full-time executive roles at FTSE 250 firms. This gender bias is apparent from the moment women start work, according to the most recent Women in the Workplace study. Their 2018 survey found that women make up 31% of employees at graduate level, 27% of managers, 26% of senior managers or directors, 24% of VPs and only 19% of senior vice presidents or the c-suite.

Those who do reach the top find that challenging perceptions is a fact of life. Rather than being judged on merit, female CEOs are routinely expected to display contradicting traits, and recent academic research identified the paradox women leaders face: they are expected to be demanding but caring, authoritative yet participative, self-advocating while at the same time other-serving, and distant but also approachable.

Women leaders face a dichotomy – if they display authority they are described as aggressive if they show compassion they are seen as weak and emotional.

But despite the depressing statistics, being a successful female CEO in a male-dominated company is absolutely achievable.

With the right tools and techniques, it is possible to achieve a balance. And, despite the disadvantages faced by women who reach the top, it is possible to turn these supposedly “negative” traits into a positive leadership style that will benefit the whole organisation.

Be demanding and caring

There’s a big difference between being unrealistically demanding, and stretching people to achieve their – and your – goals. The key is to help people focus on self-development, rather than giving them punishing schedules that are impossible to achieve. Ruling with a rod of iron may achieve short-term gains, but the result will be poor morale, high turnover of staff and the associated costs of recruitment.

While large multi-nationals may be able to absorb these costs, in an SME they can quickly sink a struggling organisation. Giving people clear objectives, but also ensuring they have the tools, resources and support they need to achieve them, will result in a team that is stretched and fulfilled, not pushed to the limit.

Be authoritative yet participative

It’s never a good idea to try and be everyone’s best friend when you’re a leader, but neither is it effective to be cold and distant. Authority is about setting vision and clarity – where are we going and how will we get there? Giving your team precise objectives to focus on and ensuring that you include their views and ideas about how you achieve those goals creates strong and impactful leadership.

Effective leaders don’t dictate – they ask, they listen and then they make informed decisions. The people who are delivering results are often those with the most insight into what works and what doesn’t in practice. Giving them a voice and listening to their opinions fosters healthy relationships with a team that respect your position as CEO.

Advocate for yourself while serving others

When you’re a CEO in an SME, the buck stops with you. But we all need to develop personally – otherwise, we become stale and stuck in our ways. It’s not self-serving to have personal aspirations, and it’s important to seek out someone who you can discuss your own successes and shortcomings with.

A trusted mentor or coach can help you to recognise where you need to improve and congratulate you on your achievements – and don’t be afraid to shout about the latter. If you share your successes with your team, thank them for their support and make it clear you are there to help them achieve their own goals, your successes become their successes.

Maintain a distance but be approachable

The ability to communicate effectively at all levels is the most important skill for any leader. An elusive CEO who’s rarely seen outside the boardroom will struggle to gain the respect of their team – an ‘us and them’ mentality is not an effective way to build a strong culture. Leading by example, setting clear objectives and encouraging feedback will ensure you are a strong influencer with integrity.

Pay it forward

Finally, if you’ve broken the glass ceiling and got to the pinnacle of your career, the best way to ensure that others can do the same is by sharing your experiences.

Demonstrating competence isn’t bragging – it’s simply sharing your successes and giving other women a role model. Take it one step further and identify more junior women who show promise and offer to mentor them. It will help them to see that it is possible to overcome their own personal barriers and go a long way in helping to address the imbalance in the boardroom.