The theme for International Women’s Day, this year, is #BalanceforBetter. Undoubtedly, a more gender-‐balanced world that allows women to participate in greater numbers has benefits for everyone, allowing organizations to benefit from talent with a diverse set of perspectives, and allowing women to feel like valued members of the community who can make a larger contribution with their work. With fewer than 5% of companies in the Fortune 500 Index with women as CEOs, we’d do well to increase the pipeline of women professionals at all levels. That said, what we really need is not simply greater balance in terms of numbers, but also balance in terms of the values that undergird the culture in organizations to create a more encouraging environment that both draws more women into the workforce, and allows them to thrive so that they reach the very top.
As a supporter of not just women’s leadership, but of mindful and conscious leadership, I believe every human being, every professional, every leader needs an inner balance of both masculine and feminine values in order to feel whole and craft the best versions of themselves. Examples of values typically labeled as masculine include resilience, independence, and being decisive, while examples of values considered feminine include patience, humility, collaboration, and empathy, among others. Each set of values is, interestingly, gender agnostic in that you can have men leading with more feminine values, and equally, women leading with more masculine values. However, because the culture in most work places has been largely set by men (they have been working longer than women have, and in larger numbers) and a vast majority of our leaders continue to be men, what we have is a culture that supports and rewards masculine values and relegates a more “feminine” way of leading to an inferior status. That has grave consequences for both men and women, especially those who feel more naturally inclined to work and lead with the more feminine values.
Many women consciously or unconsciously adopt a more masculine way of leading and working, in order to adapt to the prevailing and dominant culture, which earns them considerable success for a while but comes with the emotional cost of betraying or denying their authenticity. At the root of the dilemma of how to lead is the classic double-‐bind or ‘tight-‐rope bias’ women face – if they lean too heavily towards the masculine traits, they get penalized for not conforming to the societal expectations of their gender, and if they lean too much on their feminine side, they might be accepted more, but not necessarily seen as competent leaders. It’s this fine dance that women constantly have to do that creates a great amount of inner turmoil and conflict in women aspiring to reach higher levels in their career, and undermines their effectiveness as leaders.
One way to redress the imbalance of acceptable behaviors is for both men and women to both accept and cultivate their feminine values, and that can be done with practice of mindfulness, which supports a variety of powerful feminine values. Mindfulness, originally emerged as a spiritual Buddhist practice more than 2500 years ago to help alleviate human suffering, but today is practiced in a wide variety of secular contexts from medicine and clinical psychology to schools and corporations given the widely documented and scientifically proven benefits of mindfulness. Quite simply, it is the practice of bringing your attention to the present moment and your present experience, with openness, acceptance and compassion. One of the most effective ways of practicing mindfulness is with meditation, and when done over time, can help individuals cultivate a mindset of greater patience, inclusiveness, and compassion, all of which are strong feminine values that ultimately benefit everyone.
Compassion can sound intangible or ambiguous to many, especially in a work context, and is therefore not given much credence or dismissed as one of those soft feminine values, but it is arguably the most powerful value of all. In our programs, whenever we ask participants to think of a leader they deeply admire and respect, they invariably think of someone who took a genuine interest in them, someone who cared deeply about them, and helped them become a better version of themselves. That is compassion.
Mindfulness training allows you to become more aware of what you are thinking, what you are feeling and what you are sensing in the moment, about yourself as well as others, and that translates into a heightened capacity for empathy and compassion. With greater compassion, we relate to each other more, connect at a deeper level, and work together in much greater harmony.
Patience is another value, often touted as a feminine value, but benefits everyone who cultivates it. Normally, if something triggers us in a negative way, the brain automatically activates the stress response by going into the fight-‐or-‐flight mode, and prepares you to react, often in ways you later regret, long before the more rational part of your brain has a chance to process the situation and frame a more thoughtful response. Such a reaction, often referred to as the amygdala hijack, if it comes from someone in a leadership position, can negatively impact the mood, energy and functioning of the entire team.
Mindfulness rewires your brain to pause before responding to a situation, which then allows you to function more thoughtfully rather than mindlessly on habituated patterns of thinking and behaving. The patience and calmness that you then exude in the face of any stressful or challenging situation ripples out to positively impact everyone around you.
Millennials today want to work in a world where everyone is treated equally, and where everyone’s voice is respected and equally valued. A world that is inclusive, and where people can collaborate across any differences created by race, gender, caste or creed.
Mindfulness supports a collaborative mindset by allowing us to become more aware of the unconscious biases that get in our way of connecting with one another as equals. All biases reveal themselves in the form of a thought, and in our reaction to those thoughts. When we deepen awareness of our thoughts, we are better able to catch these biases, and when we examine those biases in a space of non-‐judgment created by mindfulness, we are better able to deal with them, and even over-‐ride them.
John Gerzema, after studying 64,000 people across the world, revealed in his book The Athena Doctrine that what people truly want in the modern leader, best suited to handle the kinds of challenges we face in the world today, is one who leads more with the feminine values of compassion, patience, humility, intuition, flexibility and selflessness, among others. These values are available for both men and women to cultivate, and when encouraged to do so allows them to lead with much greater authenticity and impact. Mindfulness practices make us more self-‐aware, give us greater control over our emotions, and increase our capacity to act thoughtfully and with purpose. In so doing, they help us restore our inner balance between masculine and feminine values. If we want #BalanceforBetter, then let’s also focus on creating this balance of values in our minds, in our organizations, and in our communities.