The women in leadership discourse

By Elizabeth Chan

It is fantastic to have this opportunity to talk about the research I have been involved in (Career aspiration in UK veterinary students: the influences of gender, self-esteem and year of study), although I feel the need to start with a disclaimer: until Sabrina Castro approached me to ask her to supervise her student project, I lacked enthusiasm. I felt I lacked the skills that were needed to contribute to the women in leadership discourse and was a reluctant role model.

Initially we carried out our research in order to explore whether the disproportionate representation of female vets in leadership positions arose from a lack of interest, or whether female students demonstrated equal career aspirations to male students, but subsequently become less successful in their pursuit of leadership roles. Although an overly simplistic question, we indeed identified a gender difference in leadership experience and ambition in veterinary students: not only were the female students less likely to aspire to owning a practice, they were also less likely to have previously held a leadership role, such as in the Students’ Union (SU). Particularly in a female-dominated course, we would have expected male and female students to have similar experiences and ambitions, and we concluded that the gender imbalance in veterinary leadership was not simply caused by women tending to work part-time or eschew senior positions because of family commitments, but instead is a consequence of factors exerting their influence before women enter the workforce.

Does this matter? We have had female RCVS and BVA presidents and will soon have a female BVA president this year, as well as female heads of several UK veterinary schools. One could argue that these positions are available for those women who want them, and the gender-discrepant career aspirations could be interpreted as female students simply choosing to pursue other roles. However, that would ignore our findings in that the female students surveyed had lower confidence and self-esteem than the male students, not to mention the surprising finding (at least to me) that knowing a female practice owner had no effect on the female students’ career aspirations. Given that one of our initial arguments for supporting women into leadership roles was to provide role models, this is a significant issue and one to which I will return.

I might buy the ‘female students want other roles so it’s not an issue’ argument if this was accompanied by comparable confidence and self-esteem to the male students. Gender bias is not simply the way an individual analyses someone’s attributes and character traits as a consequence of their gender – being surprised that a female colleague isn’t nicer to work with (‘too bossy’), or considering it to be more acceptable for a male employee to be ‘tough’ – the phrase ‘too aggressive’ appears three times more frequently in women’s performance appraisals than those of men according to research in a recent Harvard Business Review1. More important here is the way an individual feels about his or herself, as a function of their gender. It is a woman thinking ‘I couldn’t take on that line manager role – I don’t like conflict’, ‘I can’t sit on that committee – I’m not assertive enough’ or ‘I can’t apply for that position – I don’t have sufficient confidence in my decision-making’. Confidence and self-esteem have high context stability – in a particular environment, these will remain consistent. Therefore, aiming to improve female students’ confidence and self-esteem as a way to bolster their leadership aspiration would be a demanding task. An alternative strategy would be to demonstrate to women and girls the plausibility of taking on leadership roles, despite having less confidence in the attributes they perceive as being essential for these positions. Which brings me to the issue of female role models.

I was initially surprised and disappointed that when I discovered seeing female practice owners did not seem to encourage female students to consider similar careers (and interestingly this actually appeared to increase male students’ aspirations to own a practice; at the time we overlooked the significance of this finding and it was left unreported). However, review of the literature reveals female leaders can inadvertently dissuade other women from considering similar roles. There is a tendency for women to view other women in leadership positions as ‘not like me’. We assume they have the ‘other’ character traits (assertiveness, decisiveness, able to take criticism), which we consider that we ourselves lack. It was only when a senior colleague told me she hated conflict and had been dreading a potential argument that I began to wonder if most women leaders achieve these roles without feeling they have strengths in these presumed leadership traits. In gender studies, women are typically found to favour relational leadership styles and a more connected approach to working relationships. Veterinary practice increasingly emphasises client relations, shared decision-making and communication; it therefore makes sense that those who excel in these attributes would form the profession’s leaders. If this is the case, we need to think how we role model leadership, particularly to female students. Maybe being an uncomfortable decision-maker, conflict-avoider and reluctant task delegator is not incompatible with having a voice on female leadership, and it may even represent better role modelling to advertise these (seemingly lacked) attributes!

So what now? Our findings included some reasons for optimism. Our observed gender differences in leadership aspiration are smaller than the leadership representation currently seen in the profession. Also, the proportion of male students who would consider reducing their hours for childcare reasons is larger than the proportion of male vets who work part time. Career aspiration was significantly associated with SU experience, and it was great to see all of the SU positions being filled by women at the RVC this year. Hypothetically, these findings could translate to a more balanced gender representation in the profession’s future, both in terms of leadership roles and work hours; work is needed to follow these trends and to explore the support mechanisms needed, such that those who are inclined towards leadership feel empowered to pursue their ambitions.

1 CORREL, S. & SIMARD, C. (2016) Research: Vague Feedback Is Holding Woman Back. August 8, 2016

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