What are “feminine” leadership qualities?

An interesting question was raised at the meeting of a large European organization starting a deep cultural change initiative. 

The leadership qualities that senior managers will be encouraged to learn are e.g.:

  • Being open to change and to new ideas
  • Having a trusting, respectful attitude towards people
  • Empathy and listening
  • Being proud – of the team and of the organization rather than of themselves
  • Speaking the truth, being able to give negative feedback with compassion and positive feedback with enthusiasm
  • Being authentic and adopt a human posture
  • Being a “servant leader”


The question was:

Are these leadership qualities that we could call “feminine”?

What do you think?




Conversation with Elisabeth Layer

I met Elisabeth Layer as an audit partner of Deloitte. She was the first female partner of one of a “Big Four” audit firms I met personally, and I was struck both by her professionalism and by her young age. Being at that position at 35, she must not have much of a private life, I thought.

When I was fortunate enough to meet her sweet daughters Charlotte and Alice, my image (shall I say prejudice?) completely shifted. This was obviously a very happy and united family.

Now I needed to know more: how does a young mother do this? What does it entail for young people to find accomplishment in both their private and professional lives. I am very grateful that Elisabeth accepted to answer my questions and to address some of the important topics of gender balance in a very lively and practical way. 


Elisabeth, thank you for being my conversation partner today. You are a 35-year-old mother of two young children, you have a happy family and you are a partner of Deloitte, one of the “Big Four” audit firms. That sounds very much like a perfect example of realizing the dream of “having it all” cherished by many young women.

(Laughs) I am just a normal working mother. To be honest, I’m not sure to understand what this talk about “having it all” really means. From where I stand, it is all about maintaining balance, both in your professional life and in your private life. I want a fulfilled professional life, but I will not accept that my work impacts me as a person in a way that is not compatible with my fundamental values. And it doesn’t depend on having kids. But … children are a great litmus test: when our lives get out of balance, they will make us understand immediately and very clearly that something is going wrong.


When did you decide to pursue both a high-level career and a fulfilled family life?

(Does not need to reflect about this) There was no such decision because I could never imagine a life without satisfaction in both the professional and the private realm.


This is really important to you…

…I think it is more obvious or natural than “important”. It feels like this need is part of myself.

Now that does not mean it comes from alone. Actually, it requires serious work. I had to learn to deeply know myself, my children, and also to develop a thorough understanding of the organization I am working for, of its culture, of my colleagues, … I had both to learn the rules of the game and set clear boundaries as to the extent I was willing to play that game.


Can you tell me more about that?

It is sort of a carefully measured adaptation to the culture of your company, along with the courage it often takes to set clear boundaries for ourselves and to communicate them in an appropriate way to people around us. It requires both self-confidence and a friendly environment. 


Would you be willing to share with us which would be some of those boundaries?

I really much enjoy working but also taking care of my children. One of the rules I gave myself is to leave work at 6 pm each day (editor’s note: 6pm is a very early time to leave for a partner in the “Big Four” corporate culture. It is easily interpreted as a lack of commitment!) to spend two hours with my kids before they go to sleep. When my first daughter was born, it was quite a challenge for me to manage finishing my daily tasks on time and above all not to feel guilty about leaving when all my colleagues were staying. After having developed a kind of work discipline and gained some professional maturity as well, I discovered it is quite easy to do and I am not feeling marginalized by not being late in the office. Of course when it comes to working hard, I am part of it and I also travel for business when it is necessary.


Don’t you fear this may weigh on your further career?

No, because I am totally open and transparent about it. To everyone. I also encourage my teams to work “normal hours” by being fully efficient and having the ambition to reach a work life balance. The traditional evaluation schemes, like judging employees’ commitment by their presence in the office after 6 pm, are obsolete! And people increasingly understand this. Fathers of girls are the first to grasp it.

I also believe women like myself have a responsibility towards the next generation of women, to improve our work conditions. We also have an edge over men in this respect: a man who resists becoming “absorbed” by the current system has a much greater credibility problem that a woman.


Doesn’t this require an awful lot of courage from a young person?

I often feel like my work environment is a laboratory of modern life. Organizations are going through deep cultural change. I’m extremely grateful that Deloitte is very open to this change. They observe what is going on with curiosity rather than with apprehension. I believe that, if I were older, say 50, it would be much more difficult. Organizations are becoming sensitive to the problems of younger generations. They cannot afford to lose talents by staying attached to the old schemes. I find our society in general is pretty tolerant towards people having new expectations, proposing fresh ways to do things. Pretty open for change. I do not really see strong resistance. Most resistance is in ourselves.


I often hear about feelings of guilt women have when they feel they do not adapt to the “rules of the game”.

And I certainly had my dose of such feelings. It took long and deep work on myself to get detached from the old paradigm. But that’s not different for men. When it began, I was embarking on life as all young people do, and I have always been confident that I would find appropriate ways.


I believe not many people have reached that level of accomplishment at your age, or at any age!

That sounds a little bit exaggerated. I have many doubts. Balance is the result of work that needs to be maintained. It never ends. It must become part of your daily routine, a form of life hygiene.


Which was the most difficult experience?

When I was pregnant over my first child, I encountered some challenges. They started looking at me with different eyes. When I came back after maternity leave, I felt like having a different status. The status of a mother in a demanding environment. All the stereotypes surfaced. You know: she will work reduced hours, she will be less committed, her priorities have shifted, she will be on frequent sick leave both for herself and for her child, etc. Fighting against these assumptions was not something I could do – nothing I wanted to embark on. It would have meant asking so many other people to change their assumptions. That is something everyone has to do for themselves.

I was working then for a different company, but that doesn’t really matter. It was the change in my situation that was challenging for them and the topic was not openly discussed.

So I had my second child and then I came to Deloitte for a fresh start.

Of course, having children changes your every-day life fundamentally. It requires a totally different level of organization. Before being a mother, I thought I was organized. I had to think again. But that is all it changes from a professional point of view in most cases. I know many working mothers and I do not see much difference between our lives. 


Which would be your recommendations for young women who want to achieve fulfillment in both their professional and private lives?

Women and men! – The pressure on women may be stronger, but it’s not fundamentally different.

I have two recommendations. The most important factor is confidence. Confidence in ourselves and in people around us.

The second is self-knowledge. We must be clear about who we are, what we want our roles to be, what we expect from our lives and what our values are. 


Thank you very much, Elisabeth, for taking some of your precious time for this conversation.

What can we learn from each other?

In a different thread, Xuan reflects about three interesting questions


  • Is it advisable to separate women/girls and men/boys in different developing programs?
  • Why do women have less confidence and negotiating skills?
  • Is there a “feminine leadership style”?



Separating girls from boys and women from men in education or learning/development programs made sense in the past, when distinct roles were assigned to each gender, where the competencies and skills required for men were different from those that supported women, and where such segregation was generally considered as inevitable.

For hundreds of years, girls and boys have been educated in “gender-appropriate” ways, which meant no less than engraining the beliefs that those roles and behaviors that are appropriate for men are not the same as those appropriate for women. Both boys and girls have been taught how to conform to their parents’ stereotypes.

However, the world-view underlying those stereotypes is quickly becoming obsolete and burdensome in the world we live in. Our world is becoming ever more interconnected and interdependent and expectations of younger generations do no longer match those of their parents. Those values that long seemed to be a prerogative of women are now seen by progressive management teachers and writers as being fundamental components of the skills package that successful leaders must possess.

More generally, values like trust, honesty, respect, moderation, service, are no longer seen as contingent on their (perceived) direct business effect (“I can afford to behave dishonestly so long as the risk of being caught is minimal, or so long as the cost of being caught is smaller than the benefit of dishonest behavior”) but they are increasingly considered by both women and men as fundamental values that are part of human needs, irrespective of any utilitarian consideration. Which makes them only more relevant for long-term business success.

I’m not suggesting that these values are intrinsically less developed in men than they are in women. I do say however that they correspond more to the feminine stereotype than to the masculine stereotype. The utilitarian view is still often part of the “guys’ game”, part of the unwritten rules according to which our organizations have been run during the 20th century. Women are reluctant to adapt to the rules of that game. This makes them at first a disturbing factor, but – that is the hope we must cherish – it also gives women the opportunity to be powerful game changers. 

The paradigm is steadily shifting:

Double-income households are now the norm, men are increasingly sharing in household tasks, technology advances make work from home a more attractive option, women graduates are now a majority in most disciplines – and even more so when we look at the upper 25% grades – and our understanding of what is effective leadership is changing.

Women and men should not be educated separately. We should stop teaching each other and start learning from each other.


Regarding more specifically your questions:


A number of studies come to the conclusion that women have less confidence and/or less ambition than men. My own conversations with women in management make me  doubt these conclusions. What I find is that


  • women achieve better results at university
  • women quit their jobs more often when they do not find satisfaction
  • women quit their jobs more often to start their own businesses
  • women are more likely to ask “difficult” questions in meetings
  • most women have the ambition to “make a difference” in their lives.


This is not a portrait of someone lacking confidence.



  • women tend to hold themselves to higher standards. When a man who feels 50% qualified for a job will step forward and say “I can do this”, a woman who feels she lacks 20% competence will want to think it over – and often forfeit her chance of getting the job.
  • in direct competition with a man a woman is more likely to “give in”
  • women are less likely to risk confrontation, whereas confrontation is part of the “rules of the game” for many men
  • women “don’t ask”: women unanimously tell me that they want their merits to be acknowledged by their employer without having to ask for it. Having to ask for a promotion or for recognition feels like it diminishes the reward.
  • generally speaking, women are not trained in playing the games through which men find out who is the leader of the herd, and it is not what they see as the goal of their lives.


I am very reluctant to call this “lack of confidence” but yes, these factors can be obstacles to promotion in today’s corporate world.


Negotiation skills

I know many women who are fierce negotiators. They will always look for the best deal for their kids, for their family, or for the organization they work for. Their “weapons” will be excellent arguments, high communication skills and effective tactics. They will rarely resort to intimidation, belittling the opponent or playing power games. 

Again: I see no inferiority in negotiation skills, but I see different negotiation styles.

A factor creating hurdles to their promotion is certainly a reluctance that many women have to negotiate for their own advantage. “Selling” themselves is not something most women find attractive or even appropriate. They tend to abhor company “politics”.


Is there a “feminine leadership style”? 

A number of studies come to the conclusion that no significant differences can be found in men’s vs women’s leadership styles, and such studies have been conducted by both women and men.

On the other hand, when you ask individuals, they will say “of course men and women lead differently”. 

When I ask men or women to tell me stories about great bosses they have worked for, I hear about women and men who are fluent in the “hard” business and leadership skills, but who are also good people managers, who have high integrity and who inspire people through their example.

It is not a leadership style reserved to women, it is rather a style that integrates the best of the feminine stereotype and the best of the masculine stereotype. It is a “gender-bilingual” leadership style rather than a “gender-stereotypical” one.

I’m currently having conversations with successful women and I will ask them to describe their very own leadership style. If you feel inspired to make your voice heard, drop me a line and your story will appear in this blog!

Stay tuned!




As long as women are prevented from attaining their highest possibilities, so long will men be unable to achieve the greatness which might be theirs.


Conversation with Ruba Homaidi

One of the many difficulties of women’s progress towards high-level careers is the lack of role models. The default leader is still a man – in the eyes of both women and men, and hundreds of “manuals” out there in the market encourage women to “learn the rules of the game”, to behave more like “real leaders”, i.e. to behave more like men. An outcome, needless to say, that no-one really finds attractive.


In my “Conversations with Women”, I hear a (still small) number of women speak with enthusiasm about their experience of working for a female boss. All of them describe their boss as someone who is able to ideally combine the “softer” skills they learned as girls, women and mothers with the “professional” competencies, learned on the job, that make them effective and credible in the eyes of their organizations without resorting to the dominating and intimidating demeanor that is regrettably still present in many workplaces.


Those are the women needed as role models, those who can show that it is possible for women to be successful without compromising their femininity, and how it can be done.


I have been very fortunate to meet Ruba Homaidi, a former financial executive in the Jordan-based regional offices of a multi-national group specializing in Intellectual Property Management (IP). Mrs. Homaidi has been living in Switzerland for the last year and is redirecting her life to coaching and holistic healing. She has graciously agreed to share her story of how, after encountering typical stereotyping and prejudice in her male-dominated organization, she found her very personal and very effective way and was eventually offered the CFO position.

Ruba, thank you for accepting to have this conversation with me. You told me about your professional experience that made you learn how as a woman you can be a very successful manager without compromîsing your femininity.

Would you describe to our readers what the difficulties were that you had to overcome?

I am originally from Jordan, I was born in Palestine and lived between Abu Dhabi (UAE) and Amman (Jordan) until August 2008. When I was hired as the Financial Controller in the regional office of a multi-national company, I was in charge of 8 department managers, 5 of whom where men. I was introduced to close to a hundred people working in related departments on my first day. Many of them openly expressed their surprise – referring mostly to me as being young and a woman. Several of the department managers in addition to other peer executives clearly rejected my presence.

What a difficult start to a new job! Why do you think they behaved like that?

The Company I joined had a very classical set-up which was in the process of being changed when I joined. Female presence wasn’t yet welcome in higher management, which had a fair majority of “experienced” people who helped set up the company in its early days.

How did it make you feel being treated that way?

It brought a lot of my “insecurities” to the surface. Being in a highly visible post at the time was already “scary” and it added to the “stress” of being in a new job. (She smiles) I certainly displayed lots of the features that are described in the book “Nice Girls don’t get the Corner Office” by Louis Frankel (smiling too much for example). Probably deep down I still felt like the little girl who needed approval.

What was it that encouraged you to take steps to change the situation?

My work with holistic studies encouraged me into changing my perspective, I realized very quickly how much a combination of demeanor and sincerity will affect how you are perceived and treated. I worked at being direct and non-judgmental – to a certain extent I have to say, and I was also both professional and personal in my relation to people, basically working with the strengths of being female rather than focusing on what is often considered as our weaknesses. Coaching helped me “own” my fears and work through them and focus on the moment, a change of perspective that was very helpful. I started viewing their “Young and Female” comments as a compliment, thanking them for it.

What did you do differently?

My varied background in accounting, audit and cash management allowed me to quickly assimilate and digest the huge amount of new information, which definitely helped me gain their trust, but what I felt really made a difference is that the team I worked with realized that I did understand how much they were capable of solving their own problems and realizing their department goals which they helped set. I focused on empowering them towards finding their own solutions. I did that, not because I thought a coaching role was important in my position, but because it was sincerely how I related to them at the time, and I made it a point to redirect the praise to them, celebrate their successes and focus on their growth and personal challenges, while always striving to maintain a professional demeanor.

Earlier in my career, I had learned to use the power of Assertiveness rather than the Passive-Aggressive attitude that I had previously resorted to in the face of what I perceived as threatening-overpowering male demeanor.

Which were the moments of greatest joy for you on that journey? How did people around you respond?

Within less than two years, I realized I had built a reputation for executing positive change and I was promoted to be the Group CFO. I had to decline due to the re-location decision that I had already made. I don’t want to sound exaggerated, yet the feedback from my team was the biggest gift I ever got. I have received most of it through the grapevine, yet their very warm and personalized farewellis still color the memories of my work there. I am still in touch with a few of them and with other friends at work, who make it a point to tell me that “my team” as they put it, remember me well.

What would be your recommendations for women pursuing management careers?

The top 3 would be to deeply know yourself and who you are (your fears, your drivers, your insecurities) and use the challenge to grow, work from within your strengths and trust the process (we women tend to focus on our weaknesses way too much), be assertive in your actions and make it clear what your expectations are. It is easier for people to work with someone who is direct and structured, especially if it is their manager.

Ruba, thank you so much for your time and for being ready to answer our questions so openly .

Ruba Homaidi writes about her learning experience with coaching in www.resetcoachdaily.blogspot.com


Is coaching different for women?

Accompany’s efforts to support women in organizations are being met with great interest everywhere.

However, when I mention our “Coaching for Women Managers” program to high-level female managers, they often have a strangely consistent reaction: “So is coaching for women different from coaching for men? At the end of the day, it is about performance on the job, and performance is the same for women and men, right?”

Coaching women is different because women encounter different issues on the job. Here are only some reasons::


  • The “double bind dilemma“: men are seen as the “default leaders” (by both men and women!). Women are generally evaluated against a “masculine” standard of leadership, leaving them with two unsatisfying options: either they behave according to gender stereotypes, and risk being considered as too soft and less competent, or they behave according to the masculine standards and are considered as too tough, bitchy and unfeminine.
  • Self-confidence: Studies show that on average a man will feel competent enough for a job when he has 50% competence to start with, when a woman who has 80% competence may still hesitate around the “missing” 20%. Rather than lacking self-confidence, women tend to hold themselves to higher standards. In a competitive world, the resulting “hesitation” to apply for high-level jobs, taking a moment to think it over, to ponder the requirements, risks and responsibilities, is often interpreted as a weakness.
  • Women Don’t Ask“: This is actually the title of the wonderful book in which Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever describe how women “neglect to negotiate” their starting salaries, their position or their promotion. When asked about their negotiation experiences, many women answer “I bargain every day with my children and believe me, I’ve learned all the tricks.” Well yes, but that’s really negotiating for the benefit of the other (the kid, equal treatment between them, or similar). We are talking about negotiating for your own advantage!
  • Coping with the double burden of family and career: as things are today, women usually still take on the vast majority of household chores and children’s education. This requires at the very minimum a strict discipline, and part of this discipline needs to be imposed on the organization. Yes, my lunch-break has to be from 12:00 to 13:30, and I cannot stay after 18:00. I’m sorry but the meeting that we scheduled for 17:00 cannot be postponed to 17:45 as I leave at 18:00. These can be tough choices, especially if the organization interprets them as “of course we understand that your priorities are not on your career at this time”, and it may be the right moment to consider switching to an organization that offers women better perspectives.


For all these reasons, “equal treatment” can be a form of discrimination. Organizations need to understand and take into account these different needs and refrain from interpreting women’s behaviors according to male standards. On the other hand, women benefit from learning to understand the language of male-dominated organizational cultures and to communicate in ways that will avoid misunderstandings in such an environment, in other words, becoming fluent in “gender-bilingualism”.

Do not hesitate to download our “Coaching for Women Managers” brochure and to forward it to friends that may benefit from a “gender-bilingual” coach.

Gender balance, intro

Gender balance is not new on my agenda, but I have become much more seriously attracted to the question last September when “Partnership of Women and Men” was a major topic of the 2008 EBBF Annual Conference and I had the opportunity to converse and work with women entrepreneurs.

Back home, I embarked on a research project “Conversations with Women” made of 60-90 min “semi-structured interviews” I’m having with women – managers or not. It is a very enriching experience for me and I am very grateful to all those women (23 so far) who have accepted to participate. Of course, to make this meaningful, I must also talk with men, and I started doing this just two weeks ago. If you feel motivated to participate, please drop me a line here.

I have also been very encouraged and inspired by a conversation with Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, her blog and her book “Why women mean business“.

Accompany is offering coaching services to women in management or pursuing an entrepreneurial project, and consulting services to organizations wishing to consciously start moving towards reaching a better gender balance.

This blog intends to be a place where women and men interested in the topic of gender balance can meet, exchange their views and opinions and have meaningful and fruitful conversations. Everyone is welcome to participate. Just hit the “Post a Comment” button below this post. And do not hesitate to express yourself in your preferred language. Google’s translator is good enough to help everyone of us understand what you said.

If you wish to contribute with an article of your own, please contact me here.

Let me start then by setting the stage from which I operate and voicing my fundamental convictions (prejudice??).

I believe

– Our organizations, and our society at large, must (and will) eventually achieve a level balance between the feminine and the masculine in decision-making and in managing our affairs

– Women still hit many obstacles when engaging on a high-level career path. Some of these obstacles are unconscious, some are upheld because the status quo feels more comfortable and less risky, some are due to a misinterpreted spirit of competition

– Also women can be prejudiced against women

– “Equal treatment” is a form of discrimination, because the “game” is played according to masculine rules. Men think women should learn the rules of the game. Women don’t think it’s a game

– Many women seem to feel uncomfortable with ideas of quota or “positive action”. Success is then no longer attributable to their own personal performance but to their privileged status as a woman. However, some seem to start accepting such ideas as a necessary way to go in order to get enough women quickly enough to decision-making positions

– There are differences between men and women. To say this requires a definition of such differences. This discourse is still very sensitive because “difference” immediately prompts ideas of normal/different, of superior/inferior… 

– We need to use categorizations in order to make the conversation possible. This is OK so long as we refrain from “individual stereotyping”. In other words, certain talents, competencies, preferences, sources of motivation, values, needs, etc are more frequently found in the category of women than in the category of men and vice versa. That does not men that each man and each women corresponds to a “model” displaying the average traits of their respective category. An individual man can come very close to corresponding to the feminine “model” and an individual women to the masculine “model”

– I believe gender balance is a strategically important question because to make our decisions as good as they can be, we need to include the contributions of both the feminine and the masculine perspectives

– I do not believe women make better decisions or are better managers than men. I believe that both gender categories have their strengths and their weaknesses. Decisions that are too strongly “testosterone or estrogen driven” are likely flawed decisions. Only a genuine partnership between women and men (and including a number of other factors of diversity) brings about excellent, sustainable decisions or management and leadership styles

– What needs to be done at this point is to significantly increase the number and the influence of women at all levels of management and decision-making

– oh, and not to forget: this is not intended to put pressure on those women who choose not to pursue managerial careers. Every women (and, incidentally, every man) must feel totally free to choose whether to dedicate themselves to their family, or to have a job to earn their living, or to embark on a high-level career. And yes, unfortunately most ARE not totally free…

I will look more deeply into all those aspects in future posts. Please do not hesitate to send your comments, questions, suggestions…