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The gender-bias of veterinary leadership

The gender-bias of veterinary leadership

Have you ever paused to consider why the standard narratives of leadership feel slightly off-key or incomplete? Why some of the tactics don’t seem to work for you? Or the strategies that are supposed to be best practice seem to get taken the wrong way when you try them?

Then I’m going to guess you’re likely a female leader reading this.

I’m the last person to say that women can’t be great leaders (obviously) - BUT I do want to acknowledge the awkward reality that it is different for us. That our actions are interpreted differently, our word choices more limited, our responses more critically measured.

But it's not just about gender differences; it's about how deeply embedded biases shape our understanding of effective leadership. Most leadership training and advice are predominantly modeled on male experiences and perspectives, often overlooking the unique dynamics that women bring to the table and the unique challenges we face at the implementation or delivery stages. This oversight isn't just a minor gap—it's a significant blind spot that can hinder the progress and effectiveness of organisations across all sectors.

This isn't an article bemoaning women being victims of societal biases; it's about fundamentally enhancing the way we lead and succeed. It’s about making sure that women mentor women, that we ensure our perspectives make it into the textbooks, that our challenges become core curriculum in leadership courses. And if we don’t talk about it, then our female dominated industry will continue to get leadership training from middle-aged white men and then wonder why that same demographic are the ones who make it to the top layers of corporate and industry management.

The "Double Bind" dilemma is a critical concept that encapsulates the unique challenges female leaders face. This dilemma suggests that women must constantly navigate between being assertive enough to be respected and gentle enough to be liked—a balancing act not as stringently applied to their male counterparts. For men, being liked is not only a much simpler ambition, but also less important in the subjective assessment of their leadership success. Women in leadership are often caught in a paradox where their capability is questioned if they're too soft, and their likability plummets if they're too assertive.

This isn’t just my (and likely, your) anecdotal experiences. Empirical studies confirm this frustrating double standard, highlighting the pervasive nature of gender biases. A well-known study of college students ranking the likability and competence of a leader in a case study rated those attributes completely differently if the story was about leader with a male name, or the exact same case study with the subject being given a female name.

Another study focused on the hiring process for a police chief—a role traditionally dominated by men. Researchers found that when a resume with more education was labeled with a woman's name and another with more experience with a man’s name, the “more experienced” candidate was preferred. When the resumes were reversed so that the male candidate had more education than a female candidate with more experience, yep you guessed it: the study participants justified why they would go with the candidate with more education. This "shifting standards" phenomenon illustrates how criteria can be manipulated to favor a predetermined, often biased, outcome.

These studies aren't just numbers and theories; they reflect everyday realities. I know I have personally sat in a room of General Managers at a corporate gathering and expressed early what I thought was a simple, high impact low effort no-brainer idea. A few people nodded, but the point was largely absorbed into the wider conversation. Not two hours later the same idea was mentioned (somewhat less eloquently) by a male in a counterpart role to mine, and was met with universal enthusiasm and a commitment to action. While of course I’d heard of this happening to other women, it certainly was my first experience of it and was literally speechless. I’m not exaggerating to say that I laughed out loud.

These anecdotes are not isolated incidents but are echoed by countless women across various sectors. But in our profession, where the data clearly shows the male leadership skew in a female-dominated industry, we know things have to change.

We all know academically that fostering an environment where diverse leadership styles are valued can lead to more innovative and inclusive workplaces. But what are we actually going to do about it? How can we, as women, make sure that leadership is assessed on the ability to do the job, not the careful and artful selection of words that best balance assertiveness and likeability?

Addressing these biases requires more than acknowledgment; it demands actionable changes in industry and corporate cultures and policies. Organisations need to implement unbiased training and evaluation processes that recognise and reward leadership qualities irrespective of gender. It requires blind abstracts to be submitted for speaking opportunities at industry events – anyone else here surprised at how male-dominated our conferences are, or how often male presenters are judged as favourites? And don’t get me started on childcare for CPD events – that's a whole different blog coming soon!

As we continue to push for these changes, it's essential to listen to the voices of those affected and learn from their experiences. By understanding the practical implications of these biases, we can better equip ourselves to challenge and change the outdated norms that hold back talented leaders based on gender and maintains the status quo of our industry demographic skew. This journey isn't just about correcting injustices; it's about building stronger, more resilient organisations (and leaders) that truly reflect the diversity of the world they operate in.

The journey towards equitable leadership is paved with challenges. Systemic cultural biases aren't any one individual’s fault, nor even the fault of an industry – it's a natural lingering side effect of the world we once lived in. But to make change requires us to be more aware. To have more conversations. It requires female leaders seeking out and/or offering mentorship and guidance from female leaders. It requires checking the diversity in the room when designing leadership courses, conference agendas, and expert panels. But most importantly it requires each of us – male and female - to challenge our own reactions, responses and assessments of leaders and leadership. To check, as objectively as the human condition is capable of, whether you are taking the Double Bind into account when having a thought about a leader’s actions or words, and whether your rating of a leader’s likability is flawed.

Let’s make sure we hold each other up, and seek each other out.

After all, Empowered Women Empower Women.

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