Women leaders: lessons from the military

Senior positions held by women in the US and Canadian military are still few and far between in spite of the fact that the modern skills required are held equally by women and men, with the exception of physical strength.

by Human Resource Management
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

The latter is less significant now that diplomatic, leadership and technological skills are more pertinent to the demands and nature of modern warfare. Yet the old stereotypes persist, which continues to keep the numbers of female leaders low in the military.

Similarly, in business companies often expect their leaders to put in extraordinary hours or to undergo extensive travel to prove their worth, both of which are often difficult for women to manage in tandem with other domestic responsibilities.

Following scandals of rape and abuse of prisoners by US and Canadian soldiers, there has been an increase in calls for a new kind of leadership in the military. In connection with this public pressure has been the introduction of legislation to open up more jobs in the military to women to make the armed forces' top echelons more diverse and reflective of society.

Businesses, who sometimes face heavy legal costs because they have been accused of failing to promote women, could learn from the way in which the armed forces has opened up job positions that were previously regarded as unsuitable for women - such as flying combat aircraft. Sex-role stereotypes continue to influence attitudes towards women in the military, in which leadership is associated with masculinity.

The criteria by which females are evaluated are often stacked against them. Efforts are underway, however, to improve matters. As such, the military will become an interesting test case for businesses interested in finding ways to get rid of harmful stereotypes. In the business world, there are parallel stereotypes such as the view that men are better at problem-solving. However, there is less recognition that the problem exists in business.

The military cases have shown that legislation alone is not sufficient to change attitudes. HR practices such as merit boards in the Canadian military need to be put in place to make clear what candidates have to do to get promoted. Further study has shown that personality measures used to select leaders in the military rated the personality trait of dominance highly.

Some women have claimed that they have had to show that they are as tough as men whilst retaining enough femininity to avoid appearing too "butch". This approach referred to as 'blending' seems to have helped some women advance. The other barrier is that women are not always given the same tasks and therefore have less opportunity to show what they are capable of doing.

Civilian organisations should devise a balanced scorecard approach to identifying and rewarding leadership attitudes and behaviours, based on masculine and feminine traits. The Canadian armed forces have had more success than the other armed forces in integrating women into its ranks and putting them in combat situations. It has been shown that only by gaining operational experience are the women in a position to take on greater responsibility. The knowledge gained through experience is often more important than pure intellect, a lesson that can be applied to business organisations too.

Seeking the best leadership lessons from the military
Catherine Loughlin and Kara A Arnold
Human Resource Management, Vol. 46, No.1, Spring 2007
Review by Morice Mendoza

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