Anniki Sommerville
Jun 23, 2016

The challenge of leadership: What if women just don’t want it?

Maybe it's the definition of leadership that needs some work, writes Flamingo's Anniki Sommerville.

Anniki Sommerville
Anniki Sommerville

All women want to be leaders. Leaders are great aren’t they? Leaders have power and influence. They shape important stuff. They rush about with coffee sloshing all over the place—doing the stuff we can only dream about. Ultimately the whole point of work is to get to the top isn’t it? The ambition is to sit at the top table, with the top people and say top things.

But what if it isn’t? What if things have changed?

Flamingo recently spoke to women across different creative agencies as part of Omniwomen (an initiative designed to encourage and inspire female talent). Some women were just hitting their stride with three years of experience. Others had been working for six. The rest were relative ‘old hands’, with more than nine years. All were bright, talented, engaged and engaging.

All were fairly optimistic about the future.

But what was interesting was that many of them just weren’t interested in becoming leaders. They wanted other things. Things they considered to be incompatible with leadership. So they were developing vertigo. And they were considering clambering back down again. Many were thinking they might have been wrong to start climbing in the first place.

So what’s going on?

Traditionally (in the nineties and naughties) the dominant discourse was all around becoming a ‘Superwoman’. This was the woman who made perfect crème brulees for a dinner party whilst pulling together an extensive PowerPoint deck on the aesthetics of luxury cars. The ambition was to clamber to the top—whatever the cost. After all, wasn’t this what feminism was for? Our sisters burnt their bras so we could slave away in the office! Sacrifices were made. Long, long hours worked. Travel. Less time seeing children. Bad suits made of polyester (but on the plus side, shoulder pads were useful for the occasional power nap). Many fell off the ladder halfway up.

But sacrifices are okay if you’re hell-bent on getting there. So women hunkered down and got on with it. Not all of them were particularly sisterly in their attitudes to other women. Some were just grumpy because they were tired. One of the problems these early ‘leader women’ had was that they were told they could ‘have it all’. What they were experiencing was far from that promise. 

This article is part of the Cultural Radar series

Happiness is chiefly about expectations. Many were sold a narrative that was masculine and counterintuitive. It was about being brave, ‘manning up’ and stamping out those ‘wussy’ feminine qualities. It was about getting home to find that all the traditional female emotional and logistical work still had to be done. Someone has to pair up the socks at the end of a long, hard day.  

The feminists got their bras back on and thought perhaps this wasn’t really progress at all. 

The problem is that some of these stereotypes of female leadership still exist in women’s minds. The woman who runs around with a list of 70 things to do and a chip on her shoulder. The woman who has lost all her humour and shouts all day. The woman out of control and not enjoying her life. And they also prevail in the media. There are stories of women who have shut off their emotions and behaved like blokes. Stories of women who have gained material success but at the expense of everything else (children, marriage). But there aren’t many stories of women who are navigating the space in between. Of women who are thriving and struggling but aren’t one-dimensional cutouts.

Many of the women we spoke to felt that lots of progress had been made. It’s no secret that more female values—things like collaboration, empathy and flexibility—are now more appreciated. In fact they can be the thing that shapes success or failure. So it's a fertile time for women to push ahead. The problem we have is that leadership doesn’t come across as particularly appealing.

It looks scary. It looks tiring. It looks like there isn’t much fun to be had. So how do we change that?

All of the women we spoke to were looking for similar things. They wanted to feel stretched. Challenged. They wanted to feel passionate (not all the time, they’re realistic) and learn new things. So it’s not the case that women are lazier these days. Or that they’re looking for the easy option. Ideally they want a role that allows them to be authentic. One that lets them continue delivering interesting work. The fear for some was that leadership was more about ‘fire-fighting and finances’. They were worried that they would have less time to spend mentoring. Less time contributing ideas. Less time doing the stuff they were really good at—the reasons they were potentially hired in the first place.

The women we spoke to aren’t saying they don’t want to be leaders. Instead they’re saying 'I don’t want to be that kind of leader'. They want to try different hats on, take side-steps into new roles and maybe even change their minds now and then. This is annoying, as it makes managing careers more of a challenge. It means more flexibility, more empathy and more imagination in terms of what’s possible.

The old model was all about pursuing a vertical, upward trajectory. Any step to the side was a diversion and something to camouflage on your CV. Now the side step or ‘zig-zag’ path is often the more interesting journey. Certainly for many of the women we spoke to, it was more about ‘looking sideways’, spotting the opportunity and enjoying the view on the way.  They’re not willing to ‘put the hours in’ on the basis of the big promotion waiting at the end (and then what?).

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In order to make leadership more appealing a few things need to happen. We need to think about the image leaders are projecting. Is there a tendency to share the stress rather than the positives? We need to ensure there’s a diverse mix at the top so women can see people they relate to, so leadership doesn’t feel like an alien planet.

We need to humanise leaders and allow women to see the dark and the light (this isn’t about making it look easy and ignoring the challenges). And we need to make sure that leadership roles feel in tune with the values that are important to women right now.

And this isn’t just women. It’s everyone. Everyone wants a job that is interesting. One that keeps them fresh. One that doesn’t make them groan when the alarm goes off in the morning. But it’s also about acknowledging that not everyone wants to be a leader. Some people just aren’t fussed.  

In an ideal world, we retain these people too because they can help shift the internal culture. They can show a vision of success that isn’t necessarily about sitting at the ‘top table with the top people’. Maybe it means rethinking what we mean when we say ‘top’.

The workplace has become more diverse, more complex, more demanding. And it’s time for definitions of success and leadership to do the same.

Anniki Sommerville is senior director at Flamingo London

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