Where Are All The Female Rebels?

Monika Frech
Written by Monika Frech March 06, 2021

On the Corporate Rebels' Bucket List there are about five male rebels for each female one. No judgement here, just an observation. There are some intuitive explanations for this. Women might be less innovative in the workplace, or there are few female CEOs, or female leaders are reluctant to speak about their initiatives.

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Combined, these correlations give a less obvious answer. Female managers lead in a way that is characterized as revolutionary when applied by men—empathic, open communicators with emphasis on flexible work styles.

Traditionally, leaders are perceived as strong and steadfast. They are decisive, they lean ”in“, towards action. Bosses plan, announce their plan, and direct and control subordinates in its implementation. So far, so bad.

The path to female leadership

In our culture, girls are generally taught to be nice. It’s okay for them to show vulnerability. They are encouraged to solve conflicts with communication and cooperation. If they show ”too much“ ambition, on the other hand, they are labeled as bossy (sic!).

This has long been a dilemma for aspiring women. With each promotion women have to implicitly choose between being perceived as womanly “nice“ or a “tough" leader. A lot of talented women are not even offered the questionable luxury of this choice.

In 2018, there were more men named Thomas or Michael (60) on German boards than women altogether (56).

As a study by the independent AllBright Foundation showed, the share of women on DAX Executive boards even declined in 2020. During the Corona crisis, many companies relied on more of the same “Thomases“ and “Michaels“ at the C-level, i.e. middle-aged white men from West Germany.

As many studies show, every aspect of diversity boosts performance. But prejudices are like lemmings: one follows the other, all the way to the bottom.

Women of color, with a disability, a migrant background or other aspect of social marginalization have an even harder time to get ahead. Intersectionality, the discrimination of one person based on overlapping aspects of their (perceived) identities, amplifies the problem.

This has long been a dilemma for aspiring women. With each promotion women have to implicitly choose between being perceived as womanly “nice“ or a “tough" leader.
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Breaking the cycle

To break this Thomas-cycle, the German government recently signed a bill that mandates a quota for female board members. It sure helps when woman have a seat at the table. It’s about time.

Women on the board—or, for that matter, anywhere—are, however, not a recipe for change.

A few leading women can even have the opposite effect if they are the exception who prove the male rule (pun intended) without changing it. If these women at the top only arrive there by showing—or showing off—the same leadership ”skills“ as the men they replace, not much is gained culturally.

The system has to change for women to stay who they are. It’s the ”female“ culture of a workplace that makes the difference. Men are not the problem, toxic masculinity is. It’s the attitude of the proud boys and angry men that dehumanizes workplaces.

Colleagues of all genders can and need to agree to work together in an open and empathic way. We need companies that support diversity and equality so individuals don’t have to fight for it.

Persons who identify as women are not better leaders per se. But a number of studies show that the traits and “soft“ skills associated with women are also the ones that have been identified—by the Corporate Rebels 8 Trends and others—to facilitate a 21st century work environment.

Easier said than done.

Balancing equality

At Dark Horse, a human-centered innovation consultancy from Berlin, we are almost 50:50 male and female. We have always worked in a non-hierarchical system.

We noticed, however, that this did not mean there were no power hierarchies. In our meetings, certain colleagues—mostly, but not exclusively male ones—tended to talk more often, for longer and with more vigor.

This changed when we introduced equal speaking time slots for all team members. In the beginning, it was tough for some to stay within the limits, and hard for others to find words when it was their turn to speak. Over time, we relaxed this strict standard, as team members contributed more equally.

We were always proud of our self-determined work schedule at Dark Horse. We co-founded our company with over 20 twenty-somethings.

Fast-forward a few years and we had a simultaneous baby-boom. Turns out, our flexibility wasn’t so supportive when some had to take care of their pregnant bodies or tiny humans. We now had to meet day-care deadlines in addition to client deadlines.

Colleagues without childcare obligations, on the other hand, felt the need to defend their equally legitimate wish for time-off to fit their needs. It took a few parental leaves of moms and—crucially—dads to adjust our schedules. We now try (and regularly fail) to accommodate different needs of parents and non-parents of all genders.

This changed when we introduced equal speaking time slots for all team members. In the beginning, it was tough for some to stay within the limits, and hard for others to find words when it was their turn to speak.
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Far from perfect

The hosting team at Dark Horse helps to organize and facilitate our workshops. These colleagues are independently responsible for bookings, background logistics and catering and provide helpful on-site services for our clients.

The team grew organically and was at one point all-female. In some workshops this created false expectations. Some clients were accustomed to hostesses as a beautiful part of the environment to please their eyes and supply their every wish.

Been there, done that. Apart from implicit personal objectification, this assumption also underestimated their responsibilities. We now have a diverse team and every host in each workshop introduces themselves and briefly explains their role.

These actions are neither rocket science nor a feminist feat. We are not the first nor only ones to implement such measures. We are far from perfect. But this kind of small modification did have a meaningful impact and changed our company culture for the better.

Female rebel gap

So, which explanation for the female rebel gap is true? Probably all of them, at least in some regards.

As a leader it is seen as revolutionary to care about (or “even“ for) humans and not only about numbers. It is rebellious to foster a supportive, trusting and transparent workplace culture. If you happen to be a female leader who actually leads in a ”female“ way it is a small revolution in itself.

The old predicament of nice vs. successful could finally be solved if we expose its gendered double standard. We need organizations with colleagues at all levels of all genders who are allowed to just be decent humans. In an ideal world it shouldn’t matter if leaders identify as male, female or diverse.

Until we are there, most companies would probably profit from more women at the top.

This is a guest post from Monika Frech, co-founder of Dark Horse Berlin, a company that empowers humans and organizations to design the best futures for all of us. For more information on Monika and the company, check out her Rebel page.

Written by Monika Frech
Monika Frech
As co-founder at Dark Horse Berlin, I empower humans and organizations to design the best futures for all of us.
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