We need CEO to stand for Chief Empathy Officers
If every company had Chief Empathy Officers, we would finally be cracking away at gender coded expectations, instead of endorsing them.
It was my pleasure to be on a peopleHum Dream Team panel with Chester Elton, Adrian Gostick and Debra Ruh last week. My question from Aishwarya Jain, the moderator, was a discussion centred around Barak Obama’s suggestion that women make better leaders than men.
I struggled with this a little, because who wants to contradict President Obama on a global podcast. Not me. However, what I did want to do was to re-frame it a little.
Now we all know women who have been and are terrible leaders, and men who have been great. But now the global pandemic is bringing to the forefront women leaders who have stepped up during the crisis. In many cases they have actually been more successful in stemming the ravages of the disease than their male counterparts. These include internationally renowned leaders such as Angela Merkel (Germany,) Sanna Marin (Finland) and Jacinda Ardern (New Zealand). We now also know women leaders who are perhaps lower profile. Haliah Yakob (Singapore), Sahle-Work Zewde (Ethiopia) and the Health Minister for Kerala, K. K. Shailaja. In other situations, they seem to have been able to gain the trust of their communities and bring them together, such as Sophie Wilmès in Belgium.
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Power skills lead
We are witnessing the notable success of a particular leadership style that has been traditionally associated with women. Until recently we called these attributes “soft skills” and even “female skills.” They have now become the new, must-have, power or effective skills, identified by the World Economic Forum for 2025.
Gender expectations and hierarchy
There is no reason why men can’t exhibit these new power skills. Our organisations traditionally assigned higher importance to traditional male coded skills to give a gender hierarchy. So called male-skills are more highly regarded, and therefore better rewarded, than the soft skills associated with women. Gender bias and sexism, embedded in our cultures and organisations, ensure that everyone toes the line to maintain and protect the male-dominated status quo.
Men who exhibit “softer” behaviour, and behave outside gender expectations, frequently experience a back-lash (“pussy”, “grow a pair”, “man-up” etc.), and are penalised for being weak. That is why so many fail to take parenting leave. Women are also penalised for behaving outside female gender stereotypes. They are labelled aggressive if they are assertive, emotional if they are passionate, and strident when they are articulate.
These skills are associated with an inclusive leadership style and workplace culture. In their essence they are gender neutral, but we have grown so used to stereotypes, we assume they relate specifically to one gender. I am so inspired by Jacinda Arden that I found myself watching the New Zealand budget the other day. But then I also follow the governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo. In response to the protests around George Floyd’s murder we see empathetic responses from women and men leaders alike.
What we need is to lose our associations with gender stereotypes for everyone, not just leaders. We need all our leaders to be inclusive and demonstrate soft skills. Never has it been more apparent that we are rewarding the wrong leadership characteristics. We see those incompetent men, cited by Tomos Chamorro Premuzic, become leaders whether they hide in bunkers or refrigerators. These men have ruptured many of our fragile systems to the point where they are broken. We clearly need different types of executives to lead our organisations and countries.
To paraphrase Gloria Steinem, we need to unlearn what we have learned. We need to find the courage to teach our sons to be more like our daughters, and not the other way around.
This means that we need to create organisations when CEO means Chief Empathy Officer.