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Does female leadership work during a crisis? It is said that what we need now above all, is an iron fist and decisiveness; stereotypically these are not female attributes.

First of all, the leadership model that involves issuing instructions, focusing on financial results and on your own company has been in decline for the last few years. The remote work revolution has definitely called corporal leadership into question. How do you control people over a phone? How do you enforce obedience just by raising your voice?

Secondly, the countries that coped best with the effects of the pandemic are those ruled by women: Germany, Finland, New Zealand.

The coronavirus makes us focus more on our immediate surroundings. We stay home, accompanied by our loved ones and no one else and we cannot travel freely. How can we still worry about the world?

It is now clear that we are a part of a great whole. The fact that some people got sick somewhere else has resulted in a global crisis affecting our whole lives, business and politics. These global dependencies will therefore strengthen. 

And women understand this better?

They certainly value the concept of holistic leadership, which consists in building relationships and having good communication. For such a leader, it is important that the team feels that everyone has a common goal to achieve.

Is a woman in power, in the management board or supervisory board, able to manage it like that?

All alone? Certainly not. Various studies have shown that one woman does not change much when it comes to company culture, rules of operation, etc. Women must constitute at least 30% to really have an influence. That is why Ursula von der Leyen is right when she says that for her,  increasing the representation of women in the European Commission is crucial. And I guess women already account for about 40 percent of its members, which is pretty good.

There are still many companies, institutions, councils, foundations and NGOs in which there is just one woman or there are no women at all. And somehow no one is ashamed. Would relevant legislation be useful here?

As long as no quotas for women are required, little will change. In large corporations, which of course know that they must succumb to the market, as well as to global, social and media demands and pressures, are necessary equality procedures to be implemented. But the real share of women in management and supervisory boards has not changed at all. Although, studies confirm that companies in which women constitute for at least 30 percent of management board members, have had better financial results and are less susceptible to various crises.

What is the reason for this high share of men in management boards?

These are very good positions, so men who perform these functions make sure that nothing changes. Why let in competition.

Is it that simple?

Of course, there are exceptions and there are men who sincerely believe that the participation of women really benefits their companies and institutions. There are also many global companies that simply introduce their procedures in Poland. Our Citibank Handlowy bank is an example of this. Two factors worked there. The female head of the EMEA region – that is Europe, the Middle East and Africa – said that there should be at least 30% of women in the management board. And now it is the only bank in Poland in which there are actually three women in the management board. The CEO is Sławek Sikora who appreciates these women very much. 

So the ones who fight for seats for women in management boards are female leaders on the one hand and conscious men on the other?

There is also the third party. Women themselves. In this race for high job positions, they are usually not there. It’s not that they’re not qualified, because in this respect they are very well prepared. However, for many reasons, they either don’t apply for high positions at all, or if they do, they have a lot of weak points that eliminate them.

Family, household chores?

A woman who gets on the top must be aware that she is no longer in control of her calendar. This is especially true for corporations, in smaller companies it might be different. In a large company, for example, board and supervisory board meetings take place in the afternoons which is the time of school meetings and additional activities of children. Not to mention the fact that it is usually women who stay at home when the children are sick, so they are automatically treated as someone who you can’t quite count on.

Let’s consider the following situation: tomorrow you have to go to Gniezno. The guy will always say: all right, I’m going.

And the woman?

Wait a minute, I promised that I would take the kids to the cinema, I can’t go. Or: I have an orthodontist appointment, karate, English class, whatever.

PiS (“Law and Justice”, a political party,) in cooperation with the Church did a lot to convince everyone once again that a woman’s place is at home. Therefore, those who climb the career ladder may fail in their key roles as mothers, wives or lovers. This  discourages women.

The second barrier is the fact that the world of leaders is male. Expertise is not enough, because it is simply arranged in a masculine way. They have their own language, their own affairs.

The presence of women can change that.

Yes, but it all takes time. For years, I was the only woman in management boards and I saw how men suffered because I absolutely did not accept either their language or their behaviour, which I considered wrong. I have learned to express disapproval harshly and immediately, and not everyone is ready to do that right away.

Let’s tell men what it’s like to be the only woman among them.

To be able to picture this, they could think of being the only man at a meeting. I once founded Club 22, whose members are visible women with various backgrounds. We invite men to the meetings. And they are in a lot of stress when they see these 20 women who are certainly not self-conscious types.

It’s more convenient not to create such a situation for yourself.

Exactly! The CEO is building a team and suddenly he has to make a woman part of it. But she can’t adopt this language or culture, which breaks up the team in a way. The CEO will think twice whether he should do it.

And can’t a woman somehow learn this “male” way of being? Because I understand that this is not about sexist jokes or sports talks?

You’d be surprised, because to some extent it is. That is, it’s not about sexism, but about conversation topics that are traditionally or stereotypically considered male. And, as a rule, women don’t care about them. They include politics, sport and macroeconomics.

Why is that so?

Women focus primarily on substantive work and they have all the chores to take care of at home, so they often think that things like geopolitics or sport are nothing but big boys’ whims, for which they simply don’t have time for. We're not taught about this stuff at home, at school nor in college, so when a woman enters an environment where such discussions are of daily occurrence, she immediately feels excluded.

It's a bit unfair. I know many women who are interested in sport, geopolitics and macroeconomics.

But most women are not. In addition, men know this and use these topics as a way to exclude women from discussion. I was at some board meeting, surrounded by men who suddenly started talking about rugby. I felt totally stupid, because although I'm interested in sports, I don't know much about rugby.

You can always change the subject. Shouldn't you talk about substantive issues at meetings?

Yes. But a supervisory or management board is also a group of people who then go to a pub (usually without women too, as they have other things to do at home), where they talk about various issues. And in this informal way, relationships strengthen and deepen.

I once had a very interesting conversation with a British man. We were together in a supervisory board. And he says to me: "You must congratulate me! I am the world's vice-champion in the 60+ age group in standard dances." It just so happens that I have danced a lot. I went through the “standard” and “Latin”, so I knew what it was about. We had a very long and interesting talk.

What am I saying this for? Because topics such as politics and sport are great for bonding. And that's why it's worth investing your time in gaining knowledge on these subjects.

You were planning to open a leadership academy for women, but the pandemic broke out and...

We were supposed to start in June, we will start in the autumn. After what has happened in recent months, preparing women for leadership functions seems even more important than before.

This is a big challenge because I have no role models; as was the case with the majority of my projects, anyway. When I was working on the Nike award, everyone also said it was a crazy idea to keep the winners unaware until the last minute. But it worked, and to this day it is the most important literary prize in Poland.

I try to do things with a mission and the academy for female leaders is also a mission. I don't want it to be only about business, I'd like to include women from local governments as well.

Will men also be able to study there?

Not yet. Although, those whom I spoke about the project with said that excluding them is sexism.

And how did you respond?

I said that my mission is to equalise opportunities for women, so once I've done that, I might open the academy for men.

What annoys me the most is when I hear from different colleagues: "Well, we wanted women to be in power, but there are none that would fit. Either they don't want to apply, or when they apply, they don't meet the criteria."

The academy will change that?

It won't save the world, but a hundred women graduating from it in a year would be a good start. Such processes don't give immediate results, they take time.

Some people think that female bosses treat women worse than male bosses. Because instead of supporting subordinates, they consider them a threat.

These are stereotypes too, although one can understand that with such a small number of women performing the most important functions, they are trying to defend their unique position in various ways.

Working on women's leadership will definitely pay off. We'll all benefit from it.

But is it an actual thing? Is it not just wishful thinking based on the stereotype that women are empathic and soft, so they will govern in the same way?

When I talk about quotas, the first argument is: in politics, as the Congress of Women you wanted quotas and who do we have? Pawłowicz and Kempa.

That's right.

The problem is that there are so few women in politics that they can be counted on the fingers of one hand. There are so many ill-mannered and stupid men in the Sejm that you don't even remember their names. If such instruments are introduced, one should take into account that a less desirable group will come to power.

It has been proven on the basis of Western democracies that it takes three terms for quotas to stop playing a role in parliamentary elections. When Prof. Małgorzata Fuszara presented the draft of our quota law in 2010, the parliamentary hall was buzzing. We heard that it would kill the parliament, that it was wrong! And that was also what the women said. It didn't kill anyone and the share of female MPs has increased significantly.

But it's still lower than 35 percent in the Sejm.

And this will not change until we introduce a slider that imposes the alternation of men and women on lists of candidates. The parties manipulate the spots: women are at the end of the list or run in the most difficult places for a given party; for example, women from the Polish People's Party (PSL) are candidates in large cities. We all know these tricks.

But back to leadership. It's not about the fact that women govern in a better way or more gently. What's important is diversity. The fact that key decisions are not made by one particular group. Women have a different view of the world because of the way they are brought up, the way they are taught at schools, because of their social roles. This is the most important thing. That is why companies that have at least 30 percent of women on boards have better results and face less risks. Let me remind you of the crisis of 2008. When it turned out that the banks that made the most risky decisions were managed solely by men, the opinion that gained popularity for a while was that if there had been more women on boards, this tragedy might not have happened. Yes, a tragedy, because while we weren't affected by it that much, in the US it was an incredible crisis.

And it was the fault of men in power?

These banks were run solely by guys who graduated from the same schools, played in the same golf club, drank whiskey in the same pub, thought similarly, and looked at risk similarly. And suddenly it turns out that it translated into thousands of people being deprived of housing, work, healthcare or schooling.

This is obviously not just a gender issue. It's also about people of other religions or a different skin colour. For now, the governing party, Law and Justice (PiS), is very determined to stick to one religion, one skin colour, one lifestyle. But this diversity will happen, whether you like it or not. Ukrainians who settle here also introduce a different way of thinking. And their presence when making decisions about the fate of the society and business is also essential.

Why?

Matters that concern us all should be agreed together. For this, you need patience and understanding. Acknowledging that I'm not the only one who is right.

And this is where we get back to women's leadership. You say that it is stereotypically associated with feminine features. But women are brought up in such a way that, regardless of personality traits, they are usually better listeners. We have these qualities that have been created in us for centuries, and this translates into the way we manage and build relationships with employees. The labour market is changing in such a direction that these qualities – let's call them conventionally “feminine” – are more suitable than those that have been desirable for years as “masculine.” We don't need muscle strength any more, as most of the physical work, with several exceptions, can be done by robots. Strength, decisiveness and all that resulted from raising men in the belief that you have to be a tough guy is much less sought after now. Contrary to empathy, listening skills and team building skills.

Therefore, sooner or later we will need women as leaders. Because everyone is aware that if they want to reach a customer, they must have someone who can understand what categories this customer uses. And as research shows, 75 percent consumer decisions are made exclusively by women.

You say that women who want to get to boards and politics, adapted to men's interests and to the male world to some degree. But since the labour market and the world in general are changing, maybe men should also adapt to women's values and lifestyle.

For now, we are still operating in a world that has been arranged by men. They have determined what our work system looks like and prepared our legislation. But it will even out, they will also start to adapt a little. After all, what has been discussed until recently as distant, theoretical trends, something that might be observed somewhere in California, but certainly not here, suddenly becomes the reality. Remote work and flexible frameworks are examples of solutions that support combining work and home. And they will definitely make it easier for women to run businesses and be leaders. It is no accident that more and more women are becoming presidents, prime ministers etc. Our time is coming and we have to prepare for it.

Henryka Bochniarz – PhD in economics and politician. In 1991, the Minister of Industry and Trade. From 1999 to 2019, the president of the employers' organisation "Konfederacja Lewiatan", from 2019 the chairwoman of the General Council. Presidential candidate in 2005. Vice President of BusinessEurope, the largest employers' organisation in the European Union. She was the chairwoman of the presidium of the Social Dialogue Council, she played an important role in the dialogue between the government, employers and trade unions. In 2006-14, the CEO of Boeing for Central and Eastern Europe. Member of the supervisory boards of Orange Polska S.A. and FCA Poland S.A. She created the "Prymus" foundation aimed at equalising educational opportunities for rural children. Originator and long-term co-funder of the Nike Literary Award. Co-founder of the Congress of Women

“Tenderness and freedom. Let's build balanced relationships” is a campaign run by Kulczyk Foundation along with “Wysokie Obcasy” and “Gazeta Wyborcza Foundation”.

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