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Transformative Resilience: The Way Forward for Women Leaders

This week's guest blogger, Ama Marston will run a session on resilience and women's leadership

This week’s guest blogger, Ama Marston will run a session on resilience and women’s leadership at Power Shift 2016

From the glass cliff to the gender stress gap, from financial crisis to family crisis, women leaders face a number of converging personal, professional and global challenges. In the face of such momentous change and challenges, resilience as a simple notion of “bouncing back” isn’t enough. There’s no returning to who or where we were before challenging times, particularly in our fast-paced and ever-changing world. This makes transformative resilience, or the ability to transform adversity into growth and use it to our advantage, essential for today’s women leaders, along with many others.

Never has there been a greater need or a larger opportunity for women leaders to create transformative resilience in themselves as well as in the organizations and teams that they lead. Women must embody transformative resilience. “Nothing will work unless you do,” said author Maya Angelou.

Gender Stress Gap Many of us are now very familiar with the gender pay gap. We are less familiar with the gender stress gap, the greater levels of stresses and strains that women experience, which is widening between men and women. According to the American Psychological Association in 2010 there was a .2-point average gap between men and women’s reported stress levels on a 10-point scale. In 2014, those numbers are much farther apart with a .7-point average discrepancy.

There are a number of converging factors that place unique stressors on women along the path to leadership as well as once they reach leadership.

In my work with Grant Thornton surveying businesses leaders across 35 countries, we found that:

  1. Parenthood and family care required women to make significantly more career and work trade-offs;

  2. Women were twice as likely to cite gender bias as a barrier to advancement into leadership;

  3. And, women were significantly more likely to work their way up to management support positions rather than leadership in core business operations.

In addition, “style, gravitas, all of the subjective leadership qualities that we don’t tend to define still exist as biases against women today,” says Mark McLane, global head of diversity and inclusion at Barclays.

Studies at the University of Kansas and at the University of Exeter have also shown that men continue to be significantly more likely to be chosen for leadership positions when organizations are perceived to be doing well. When a company is perceived to be in crisis women are much more likely to be viewed as the preferred choice for leadership, a phenomenon known as the “glass cliff”.

That said women are taking on leadership at a time when we face new and unprecedented external risks in addition to the day-to-day challenges of running businesses and organizations. Women from business executives like Pepsi’s Indra Nooyi to leaders like Mary Robinson, the UN’s Special Envoy for Climate Change are facing a range of mounting challenges that the World Economic Forum rate as top among global risks from fiscal crises to water crises, failure to respond to climate change, conflicts between nations and cyber crime. These are no small problems.

Despite the challenges, several of the habits and skills that many women are socialized with, from communication to self-reflection and collaboration, position them for cultivating transformative resilience in themselves and others.

Converging Challenges for Women Leaders

Converging challenges

Making Meaning

In order to be successful in today’s turbulent world women leaders, along with others, will have to integrate the challenges they’ve experienced and accept–even embrace–uncertainty.

“There are uses to adversity, and they don’t reveal themselves until tested,” writes Sonya Sotomayor the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice and only the third female justice.

Transformative resilience is not about glossing over the negative emotions or challenging experiences. Nor does it replace the need for structural changes to take place whether tackling gender bias in work culture or addressing external shocks like financial crisis and climate change. It does however, hinge upon finding something useful and meaningful amidst stress and adversity and tempering emotions with a realistic optimism.

Among the key characteristics and tools for building transformative resilience are cultivating our abilities for adaptability and continual learning and establishing a healthy relationship to control.

Continual Learning

Continual learning is critical for the evolution of female leaders, taking advantage of the lessons offered by stressful and challenging times, and keeping our eyes on the horizon for what is coming next and how we may need to adapt as circumstances change. This can mean learning on a personal or interpersonal level, an organizational level, an industry level or global level. For today’s leaders it often requires all of the above along with helping convey that learning to others and cultivating a culture of transformative resilience and continual learning among teams and organizations.

Our brains are hard wired to learn from stress as well as from the world around us. Stanford University researchers point to the fact that following a stressful event our brains secrete hormones that trigger neuron rewiring that helps us remember and learn from the experience. That is not to say that all stresses are the same. But, on a basic level we are meant to grow and extract new information from the threats, challenges or stresses that we have experienced so that we may plan ahead and mitigate them. Moreover, we are better prepared for new challenges and have a better understanding of the environment around us as it evolves.

Healthy Relationship to Control

Ideally this learning helps us find the right balance and gauge the extent to which we need to seek out and exercise control as a situation evolves and as the world changes. And in many cases it also means accepting that there are a number of situations over which we have little control other than in our attitude, the way that we choose to view them and learn from them.

“Being in control” is often seen as synonymous with competence, a characteristic for which women and their leadership styles are judged more harshly by both other women and men, according to research from Dr. Isabel Welp at the TUM School of Management in Munich. For some this can spiral into feeling that we must over-extend our control or reach perfection, which ultimately leads to increased stress, less collaboration and less innovative thinking.

At the same time, having some ability to influence our surroundings and the things that most affect us is important at a fundamental level. “Stress is much less likely to be harmful if people have some control over the situation,” according to Daniela Kaufer, a UC Berkeley researcher that studies stress. But sometimes that control may only extend as far as our own mindset of how we frame a situation and our response to it. “If you tend to have a positive attitude—a self-confident sense that you can get through a rough period—you’re more likely to have a healthy response than if you perceive stress as catastrophic,” Kaufer concludes.

While women leaders face a multitude of challenges they also have tremendous opportunities if they can marshal both the internal and external resources to create a culture of transformative resilience in a rapidly changing, turbulent environment.

Please join me at Power Shift Forum to be held at Georgetown University in Washington DC from May 4-5, 2016 to further discuss why resilience is critical for women’s leadership and how we begin to build it.

© Ama Marston, Marston Consulting. 2016

Ama Marston is the founder of Marston Consulting and is a recognized thought leader focused on women’s and transformative leadership, resilience, responsible and inclusive business. She has been an advisor to the UN, businesses, NGOs and women leaders such as Mary Robinson and she has worked with Nobel Laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz. She is currently co-authoring a book on Transformative Resilience.

Twitter: @AmaMarston Website:

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