He curiously looked at me across the table and said: ”I’d like to get your input on a situation at work Manuela. You’re busy with female leadership, right? Our company has been under pressure from both shareholders and clients to increase the gender balance in middle to senior positions. And because of that they have started to promote more women, many times two job grades at a time.

A problem with this is that some of these women appear to struggle in their new roles and keep knocking on their colleagues (mainly males) doors to ask for input and guidance. And now we have got those same colleagues feeling disgruntled by the perceived inefficiency and inability of these ”token” women.”


Badly handled gender balance projects

Now before we dig deeper into the story above, I would like to emphasize with the male (and female) colleagues out there, who have been negatively impacted by badly handled gender balance projects like these. When promoting diversity appears to simply results in you picking up more work and having to make up for your underqualified new (female) colleagues, then it’s no surprise you might have felt miffed by and critical of your new peers or managers.


A different perspective

And I also would like to explain how your obvious frustration has different angles to it that are worth exploring. Let’s get started:


1. The unquestioned assumption that there would have been someone (a man) more suitable to the position

”She was promoted for diversity reasons only”. Whenever I hear that sentence (from a man or a woman) I tend to ask the following questions: What gave you the impression that this is true? How do you perceive the woman when you believe this to be true? How do you treat the woman if you believe this to be true? 

Unfortunately the answers to these three questions many times are:

I heard it through the grapevine.
I perceive her as incompetent and the role out of her league.
I’m sceptical and adopt a wait & see attitude with her.

Believing this sentence we additionally feel disgruntled as we unconsciously believe a more suitable man was overlooked to create the opportunity for this woman to rise.

But is the latter in fact true? Would a man automatically have made a better manager or leader? What makes a good leader in this day and age? If your answers are ”yes. And a man of course” I’d love to invite you to watch the two videos I’m sharing at the end of this article.


2. Extrinsic motivation leading to quick-fix solutions

The next thing worth exploring is that the company appears to have gone for a quick-fix solution under the pressure of their shareholders and clients. Instead of thinking this through they went for a short term target and instant promotions.


3. Lasting solutions start with the whole in mind

In order to create lasting solutions we have to start with the whole in mind (including but not limited to company vision, values, stakeholders, short term and long term goals) as otherwise we will miss important elements such as addressing company culture and performance management systems. More on this in point 4. In their report ”Women, leadership and the priority paradox” IBM Institute for Business Value share why so few organizations are getting this (gender balance) right—but those that do are outperforming.


4. Successful companies support men AND women in the process
Which brings us to my last point. Successful companies, IBM Institute for Business Values calls them First Movers, practice four key habits to make them successful in closing the gender gap:

They provides career development planning specific to women’s needs
They use the same metrics for men’s and women’s job performance evaluations and apply them equitably
They provide men and women with equal career opportunities
They work hard to create a culture that embraces women’s leadership styles


Re-visiting the scenario described above

So let’s revisit the story above. How could the company have handled the pressure to increase their number of female leaders differently?

To start off with they could have resisted to jump to quick fixes and instead have learnt from others, said First Movers, who’d been successful in the past. In addition they could have prepared the chosen women for their career jumps through providing them with in-house mentors/sponsors and the necessary leadership training and coaching to ensure a smoother transition into their new role. And most importantly, as suggested above, they would have helped ALL staff to embrace the benefits of women’s leadership styles.


A culture that embraces women’s leadership styles

What does a culture that embraces women’s leadership styles look like? Well to begin with it would understand that the notion of the ”all knowing, independent leader” is outdated and no longer fit to address the challenges we face in our day and age. Instead it would recognize the ability of the woman in the story above to ask for input from her colleagues as a strength, rather than as a sign of incompetence or a lack of experience. It would stress that the best solutions are found in collaboration and co-creation and that bringing our whole selves to work (mind, heart and soul) is the necessary super power that will allow us to transform our organisations into the workplaces of the future.


So next time you hear somebody has been promoted for diversity reasons only take a moment to take a step back and reflect on the following questions:


Do you believe in gender equality at your workplace?


If your answer is yes, then I invite you to support your female colleagues and your organisation as a whole to make the transition successful. And whilst doing so make sure to encourage your more sceptical colleagues to see it from a different perspective too.

If not, become curious if you might benefit from exploring some of your beliefs around women and their ability to lead? You might enjoy either of the following TED talks to get you thinking:

Are you biased? I am | Kristen Pressner | TEDxBasel (5.30 min)
Why do so many incompetent men become leaders? | Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic  (9.30 min)


And the moral of the story?

I’m sure you could tell from the way he sincerely asked his questions in the story above, that my friend did indeed support gender equality. And having the opportunity to ask these questions and see the situation from different angles gave him the language and intent to bring others along with him too.

Let’s make a difference. Together.


Manuela Damant
Visionary Collective Leader Azkua


At Azkua we are on a mission to turn businesses and organisations into a force for good. And we believe that it is professional women like YOU, who will be at the forefront of this transformation. Purpose driven, caring, grounded and influential women.