How the myth of the 'nurturing' female boss hurts women

Let's stop assuming all women bring mothering skills to their day jobs, writes the joint-CEO North America at Grace Blue

What is a woman’s responsibility to other women in the workplace? Last year, the issue flared up after a mass exodus of high-ranking female employees at fashion rental service Rent the Runway. The ex-employees described a stressful, erratic and "cliquey" atmosphere, where screaming matches between executives were not uncommon. Three of the five executives likened the experience to the 2004 film "Mean Girls," a fact that did not go unnoticed by many popular fashion and women’s websites.

Rent the Runway is one of the few large companies in tech or in fashion that boasts a C-suite in which women are the majority — a large majority. While the numbers may have changed following the shakeup, an article in Fast Company last May stated that 75% of the company’s executive team, including its founders and CTO, were women. Of course, it makes sense that the leadership of a company focused on women would skew female. But those numbers are significant when only 6.5% of ventured-backed companies are run by women. And it makes the news of a toxic, female-led corporate culture that much harder to read. 

So what does the Runway debacle say about female leadership today? Are female-led simply replacing the old-school boys’ club mentality with a toxic Mean Girls culture? Or is there more to the picture than that?

Female leaders are often perceived — even valued — for naturally possessing greater nurturing skills. They are expected to excel at developing, inspiring and motivating other employees (particularly other females), building relationships and steering collaborative projects. A study published last year by leadership consultancy Zenger Folkman found that female leaders do in fact carry an edge in these nurturing competencies over their male counterparts, though not by a huge amount. The areas in which female leaders showed a true statistical advantage were those we normally associate with male leadership, such as taking initiative, leading with integrity and driving for results.

But in our current climate, women are expected to support and nurture the careers of those around them, whether or not that’s where their talents lie. This puts an unfair burden on women, and is a hindrance to female advancement. It’s simply not a reality that men have to face in the workplace. No one looks to hire male leaders for their supportive qualities.

"You don’t feel it’s an environment where women support each other," said one former Runway executive. Could you ever imagine reading the same thing about a group of male executives? But because a plurality of high-achieving female executives at Runway failed to execute on the "nurturing" part of their supposed mission, the resulting story — in their own words no less — became riddled with harmful, sexist high-school stereotypes.

This isn’t to say that women shouldn’t support each other, or that we can’t look to women to nurture others in their careers. We need each other now as much as ever. There are many incredibly supportive female leaders out there, and some very successful majority female-led companies, such as the highly profitable Williams Sonoma, which boasts a 57% female leadership team, proving that companies don’t always descend into a teen movie hellscape just because women are in charge.

Maybe it’s time to adjust our expectations of women in the workplace. When you cut past the juicy sound bites and hear the full story of what’s happening at Runway, it turns out the environment was unhealthy for many reasons, from business challenges to management deficiencies that had nothing to do with how many women were in the C-suite.

So let’s cut women some slack. Just as female professionals shouldn’t be pulling each other down on their way up the corporate ladder, we shouldn’t be expecting them to constantly mother each other either. At the end of the day, great leadership skills are universal, and they don’t center around nurturing. Creativity, agility, intelligence, strategic thinking and collaborative skills are what’s needed to manage strong teams and build great environments, regardless of gender.

Claire Telling is joint-CEO North America at executive search firm Grace Blue.

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