Leadership – why the future should be more female
According to Forbes magazine research shows that companies with more women on their boards outperform those without by a significant margin, and organisations with greater gender diversity among senior leaders are more profitable.
However, despite significant progress, the proportion of women in senior management roles grew globally to 32 in 2022 – the highest percentage ever recorded.
Portugal is surprisingly one of those success stories in recent years. Surprising when you take into consideration that Portugal is a relatively young democracy and that during a fifty year dictatorship (1928-1974) women in positions of leadership, let alone working in many companies outside of factories, was not common currency.
According to Board Monitor Europe 2023 – a study from Heidrick & Struggles – the number of new inexperienced non-executive board members at companies listed on Portugal’s stock market Euronext has doubled to 80% of the total compared to a European average of 39%.
“Portugal is now the European country with the greatest number of non-executive board members”, says Stefano Salvatore, the Iberian market director for the US consultancy in an interview with the business daily Negócios.
“This shows that administrative boards are appointing new blood and that the new faces sitting on boards are increasingly from more diverse (backgrounds), not just in terms of sex, but also in terms of age, experience, nationality, and skills.
Nevertheless, a report published by McKinsey this year showed that women are still far from top corporate leadership positions. While women are well represented in Portugal’s workforce, they are still relatively scarce at the top with little sign of this “changing anytime soon given current promotion trends”.
One person who is eminently qualified to know first hand what it is like being in a position of leadership in Portugal and other countries around the world is Manuela Doutel Haghighi who opened up a debate about female leadership at an event organised by the French Chamber of Commerce (CCILF) in June which attracted several women in positions of management, either as business owners or in senior executive positions.
The Global Customer Success Account Director of Microsoft says that corporate management culture is still overwhelmingly masculine — in language, style and attitude, with masculine characteristics such as aggression, assertiveness, logic and competitiveness still being held up as a template on how to do business.
A successful businesswoman in the technology area and Co-lead at Women@Microsoft Network to ensure Women are seen as Equal players in the Business & Tech fields as well as co-chair of the UK Women’s Network, she says that whilst all human beings have masculine and feminine characteristics “unfortunately, over the past 5,000 years we only value masculine traits and to such an extent that they have become toxic”.
Manuela gives, by way of example, competition, which is considered a masculine characteristic. Competition, she says, can be good, but when competition is pursued at all and any cost it can lead to bad business, particularly in sales where the practice of giving discounts to customers for the sake of beating the competition becomes unsustainable.
“We need more diversity, because this is what clients need. The problem of competition is that it is being taken to such an extreme that we’ve having to make people redundant to contain costs because we’ve given so many discounts.”
Sexual equality — a question of quotas?
Manuela Haghighi immediately debunks the idea that the number of women in Portugal who are in executive positions is down to equal opportunities quotas or because it is “fair and obvious”.
“When it comes to leadership there are less women at the top of the pyramid and less ethnic diversity. That’s largely because in Portuguese society people of a certain class, ethnicity and sex — i.e. men — tend to be in positions of leadership, which leads to the staff in a company unable to relate to its senior management and that has become even more glaring after Covid”, she says.
The Microsoft director says that when it comes to leadership there are less women and there is less ethnic diversity and social mobility in the chain of corporate hierarchy in Portugal, with subtle but clear ‘them and us’ divisions exacerbated by the insistence of calling people ‘Mr, Doctor’ and ‘Mr. Engineer’ as a way of immediately saying: “I am more important than you”. In the US or UK, for example, the only ‘Doctors’ are the people working in hospitals or published university professors.
Manuela also notes a lack of proactivity and dynamism in Portugal where “initiative is not encouraged”. Some countries in Europe are more forward thinking in this respect. “If we had more people in positions of leadership from different countries things would start to change”.
Do women even count in product design?
But its not just within the corporate hierarchy that things need to change. It’s within teams working on projects and in the marketing of specific products. The highway of design is littered with costly and embarrassing design mistakes because in largely male-dominated companies women consumers didn’t see to count.
Companies offer innovation, ideas and bring solutions to the market. The product or service is created, produced and marketed. Then there is sales, after sales and customer management and creating a loyal clientele. And who are the buyers? It is us; society. However the question is always the same. Who is the product for?
“Very often we come across fantastic Ideas and solutions when we’ve never actually been in the situation of the end users. Sometimes we develop products that end up killing people. Up to 5 years ago more women died in cars, not because they were bad drivers, but because the seat belts had not been designed to fit women’s bodies”, she says
“Car manufacturing companies just didn’t think about design because the car industry is mostly masculine,” explains Manuela Haghighi.
It’s the same story with medicines. Until 10 years ago they weren’t adjusted for women and it’s largely because of the world of competitive women’s sport that doctors have realised that women’s bodies and hormones are different, in a world where medicines are largely produced just for adults and children. Women end up having more complications because some drugs are simply not designed for women.
Manuela asks how can we sell business to consumer (B2C) or business to business (B2B) if women are not represented in all companies and can question such matters. “These are serious commercial errors”.
Another case in point is he L’Oréal debacle. The cosmetic firm L’Oréal had the brilliant idea of launching dark face powders in China without doing the marketing beforehand which would have told them that women in Asia want to be lighter, not tanned. The product was a flop!
Then there was the case of Google and Apple that didn’t have black facial recognition, or asiatic facial recognition in the case of Apple.
The result is a scandal and people ask how these large corporations could have been so neglectful not to think of it. It was the same when Apple launched an app to measure various health parameters and forgot to include women’s periods! The hotel chain Marriott installed automatic soap dispensers which didn’t work for black people because it didn’t recognise the colour of the skin …. And so the list goes on.
The issue of bias
One of the concerns that large companies should have, she says, when working on AI is bias. An example is using AI to help court judges decide sentences based on previous cases for similar crimes.
Manuela points out: “AI now gives us the possibility of reading hundreds of documents and based on previous sentences for certain crimes, distill the information to help judges come up with a sentence.
But because the justice system is mainly white and male, and sentences handed down to black people are often stiffer, technology such as ChatGTP runs the risk of coming up with higher sentences which is a serious bias”.
In Sweden here was an uproar after a spate of broken angles during icy weather brought mostly women into hospital A&E departments. The municipal council had forgotten that women often take their kids to school on foot, so while the roads were cleared and de-iced, the pavements were not.
Says Manuela: “We all have this bias. The whole chain of our societies, companies and cities has to be thought out in a different way. In business too we have to look at the whole chain from start to finish to see how we can better reach or clients, sell more, and have better products so that we can stand out from the competition, so as not to have post sale problems. We need more diversity, because this is what clients need.
“Yes, we have to listen attentively to he customer, with empathy, awareness and interest; but I don’t think the current buzz word of ‘aggressively’ is the right one.
This kind of language is being used in American companies, but now also on TV and it’s very aggressive language. You see this style on Shark Tank kind of programmes which Manuela says is tantamount to “bullying live”.
Changing the rules of the game
The kind of alpha, impossible to please and passive aggressive management style epitomised by the character of Miranda Priestly in the film Devil Wears Prada is not acceptable for men or women to hold up as a way to behave. Yet intuition, often a seen as a female trait — but not exclusively — is often given short shrift by male colleagues in management.
Opinions couched in phrases such as “This doesn’t feel right” or “I don’t feel we’ll make the numbers this month” are scoffed at as logical or tantamount to magical thinking.
“My male colleagues turn to me and say: “What’d you mean doesn’t feel right, are you a witch? So often I have to start speaking using a more masculine language in order to justify my intuition”, says Manuela.
“Very often when referring to women’s leadership I’ve heard over the past 20 years: “These are the rules of the game”. We have to talk assertively, aggressively, logically, without emotions and put women though coaching to learn this.
“But should’t we also be teaching men to be more intuitive and vulnerable, and not feel that they are less than men by doing so? This is good for everyone in leadership and team management, when talking to clients to show more empathy, everyone likes this. We have lot of alpha men but also alpha females”, she points out.
As to these men who adopt a management style and vocabulary which is competitive, aggressive, arrogant, dominating, and rigid, Manuela Haghighi believes this style of leadership has to change because it isn’t working for anyone; neither in business nor the economy. “Aggressive competition is not necessarily always good for innovation — creative qualities are. People who have ideas and think in different ways”.
Manuela believes that feminine leadership means union instead of competition. “We need to talk more about genuine change rather than just as a lip service or marketing spin.”
The executive says that too many companies opt for “patching” instead of root cause analysis, think more short term instead of long term, and fail to ask the opinion of everyone instead of deciding ‘this is what we’re going to do”.
Change management — a systematic approach to dealing with the transition or transformation of an organisation’s goals, processes or technologies, the purpose of which is to implement strategies for effecting change, controlling change and helping people to adapt to change — is not just about ideas but processes, but above all changing mentalities. “Humans resist change. You need to get everyone on board. When you have a very ego-centric upper management who don’t consult widely, this can actually lead to businesses failing because they are not connected with their ground roots”, she explains.
Instead there needs to be a focus on a growth mind set instead of a fixed mind set. “When someone at the top thinks they know better than those further down the chain and treat them like children then for me it’s already so fixed that I’ve had enough”. Manuela says there should be better communication and explanation. “We should trust them when there are changes to the organisation and strategy”.
Feminine leadership, she says, is about using intuition, listening, and discussing. It comprises the three levels of listening: listening to respond, listening and taking notes, and listening to what is actually being said and to what isn’t being said bit is inferred between the lines. “We need to lean how to talk to one another, people don’t seem to do that these days. More different people are required to build bridges in negotiations”.
And then comes the problem of how to explain that you’re doing a good job without appearing vain and not be swept under the carpet by men who say condescendingly: “We’ve been doing this for 20 years and know how things work.”
Manuela Haghighi says she encountered this kind of patronising posture in South Africa where it was particularly pronounced. However, working in the UK she hardly encountered it at all. But at Microsoft, even though it has an international management, as the only woman in her team she still finds such attitudes a daily struggle.
“We should be giving a voice to those working in companies on a daily basis and divulge success stories showing what the problems were and how they were solved and certainly technology will be a part this.”
Text and photos: Chris Graeme