Both as a process and a state of affairs, leadership has been a major challenge to countries worldwide: everyone is looking for the next best pioneer in changing the way citizens perceive concepts such as development and consensus. Leaders are wanted to introduce change in the way we seize partnership and identity or strive for economic growth and make Europe appealing to the skeptical. To be a leader seems to be a “ job” of the highest demand. Yet, the politics of leadership organization and distribution have failed to develop a next generation of pioneers that will envision a more encompassing, a less segregated world. That has largely happened due to the fact that leaders are highly portrayed in gender-specific ways, following the leadership categorization theory that strictly defines how a leader should act and be. That means that more often than not we get off to a bad start when we think of leadership in terms of set characteristics and not character - gradually creating a frame of mind, establishing a culture of motivated individuals: a process that is multidimensional, diverse and always focusing on the larger picture.
There have been newspaper articles and dramatic headlines that claim that we have entered the Age of Women (sic) as far as leadership is concerned. But what does this mean? Can considering women for positions of power be something of a trend? Gender is often used as a marketing tool by organizations, political parties or campaign managers who wish to boost their groups’ appeal: women are met in manifestos but they are nowhere to be seen inside party structures. Although statistics show an increase in the way they proceed to advanced positions, women still suffer because of preconceptions and they struggle to make themselves visible in the managerial arena. We have no schemata of female leadership. Can a woman ever be a first choice? Would we easily vote for one? These issues have never been properly evaluated by the groups that channel activity and set the framework for leadership candidacy.
Of course the arguments cannot boil down to a battle of the sexes but should be seen as the effort of people to be acknowledged as individuals of their own accord. We should bear in mind the stereotypes surrounding female participation for the office only to point out the fact that men and women do not set off to an equal start.
There are three major roadblocks on the way to women assuming leadership: cultural expectations, stereotypes concerning candidacy and limited support.
The mainstream idea around leadership emergence is the one that insists that leaders are born into the role and that leadership traits are basically genetic. To that respect, leadership has been associated with the biology of masculinity and is considered innate to the male species because of traits such as assertiveness in the board room or power play. That means that there are very specific characteristics associated with leadership adding up to one style truly mastered by men. In recent years the closest we have been to considering women for a position is the introduction of the leading/facilitating dichotomy according to which women can indeed play a role by acting as mediators, lower-key enablers and empathy masters. Still, different styles continue to be viewed as an absence. If a woman does not follow the masculine culture inside an organization then she is regarded weak or inefficient.
There are very distinct societal attitudes concerning women and leadership which can be summarized in the following words: ambition is treated as a chronic disease – always striving to regulate it. For women, the female sex role and the leadership role are kept separate along the way and often seem incompatible. Women run the risk of being labeled as bossy or highflying in their communities and are accused of breaking family ties because they are the ones that are solely held responsible for keeping a family together. Rarely are they encouraged to speak up, assert themselves or challenge traditional roles inside their community. The question of finding a good man to marry pops up the moment a young lady finishes college. From then on, it is downward spiraling: while male candidates spend hours at the office, lobbying, campaigning and building a reputation for themselves, their spouses are expected to take care of everything domestic, thus suffering the stress of balancing multiple roles.
What about support? There are less female groups standing by each other on the way to a career. But if there is less peer support or advocates of women issues, if there is no lobbying among women and no socialization that can give them the chance to connect and share, to unite and collectively raise their voices in order to be heard, then there will also be a lack of resources, of financial and moral support for each and every member. After all, the story that goes about saying that women feel envious of other women and tend to see each other as a threat, is half true.
Leadership should be kept a choice and not a uniform someone can just put on. And choice means reconsidering the nature and dynamics of it, welcoming possibilities, becoming multilingual, both literally and metaphorically: speaking the language of different groups, encouraging growth and diversity, training young people of all sexes to thrive. More centers for leadership preparation are needed and more support and encouragement for our children means that we can create the generation of forerunners we are dreaming of. Equality of opportunities should be reflected in policies, reform efforts but most importantly in the way we behave towards each other.
*Despoina Limniotaki, Social Psychologist MSc, Founder of the social,
co-operative business The Healing Tree addressing the need to end the stigma against mental health problems