Leadership and ‘The Lady Problem’

4 minute read


Google. One of the world’s most successful and revered companies right? So you’d think Ruth Porat, the CFO of this $500billion company would engender respect. And yet at their recent board meeting one of the shareholders issued a question ‘to the lady CFO’.

THE LADY LABEL. Irritating. Can you imagine a question which was posed to the ‘gentleman CFO’? Or the ‘black CFO’, the ‘Jewish CFO’, or the ‘gay CFO’, the ‘redhead CFO’ or the ‘young CFO’? It’s simply not acceptable or smart to label someone with their sexuality, their gender, their race or their age.

The brilliant CEO founder of Stella and Dot, Jessica Herrin (who has helped create an infrastructure of female-entrepreneurs in her business) recently mocked the ‘Ladyview’. That’s when people (including women)  interview a woman in business – but all they want to ask her about is being a woman, instead of about being in business.

In a grown-up business world, it should of course be what you do and what you achieve that matters. Not your appearance, your background, your personal life and certainly not the fact that you’re female.

So, let’s be clear, if you work your socks off to get to a position of seniority, focusing only on the fact you are a female of the species is highly irksome. It’s hard for the interviewer and the commentator.  As Sheryl Sandberg points out I don’t wake up thinking ‘What am I going to do today as Facebook’s female COO?’ She references Gloria Steinem ‘Whoever has power takes over the noun – and the norm – while the less powerful get an adjective.’ So please remember whenever you add the Lady Label you are consciously expressing surprise, highlighting a rarity and removing power from that person.

We should be profiling female leaders as visible role models of what is possible. But the important thing in looking at leaders is to understand what they believe and stand for, and what they are achieving.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t talk about ‘lady problems’. No, not those. The challenges facing women in reaching the top. The continued challenges with female confidence and opportunities. The stats show clearly that diversity drives profit and better performance.

Female leaders, those who have made it to the top have an additional responsibility. On top of everything else, they do have to speak up and speak out – the voices of the few need to be heard more strongly.  WACL – the women in communications London group has ‘speak up’ as its theme this year. It’s important for those who are plotting their career paths to see that it’s attractive to be ambitious, it’s possible to be successful and also that it’s okay to fail. Ambition and risk should be encouraged.  I have enormous respect for anyone who is prepared to put their head above the parapet and be a visible, human business leader. I think we should recognise and enjoy ambition in women; I have always loved Victoria Beckham’s pure, raw, ambition and her creative articulation of her vision as: ‘I want to be more famous than Persil Automatic.’

It’s not just the women who have to speak up though. #Heforshe. The support of men in business is essential –  mentoring, opening doors (careers-wise), sponsoring, championing and overtly recognising that things can be challenging for female leaders. It’s important to understand that some of the challenges that affect women can affect everyone; sometimes it’s more visible and vocal for women. I am a feminist because I believe in equality. When I talk about it, it’s very simply because I think it is right for business to be more diverse.

Women must speak up. Men must speak up. They must speak out. But – let’s be respectful and smart about it. The recent essay by Obama was personal, powerful and pulled no punches.  His point of view has been supported by a number of (male) business leaders on social media and that makes me feel positive about the future.

This is the way to discuss the challenges women face. Thoughtfully.

We need to talk about Kevin.

One of the most upsetting things Saatchi Chief White Male Kevin Robert’s downfall around his comments on gender in advertising was his discourteous comments about Cindy Gallop.  She was speaking up and he was, frankly, bitchy about her. (Yes, men can be bitchy too. How liberating).

I’m sure that Kevin Roberts has a lot going for him but there’s no doubt he’s been foolish.  He was also rude.  However, of course he’s right that plenty of people don’t want to take high senior roles – the pressure is huge and failure very public (as he’s shown).

His defenders point out that Kevin Roberts was not incorrect when he said some women said no to the top jobs. But if he’d read Lean In, he’d see the truth that many women rule themselves out for complex reasons. And instead of saying ‘they said no, the debate is over’ he should have said (and we should be saying) ‘What changes would make it more likely that we’d get more diversity at the top?

The key point, dear ladies and gentleman, the glaring point here is that this is not just a ‘lady problem’ but one that affects everyone.  It’s about diversity and about talent.  At Caffeine we’ve seen this in our coaching senior female and male leaders; we’ve seen it in our work with people at Board level. And above all, we’ve seen it in the number of smart, senior people who want to work with us because we have an unusual, liberating way of working. The best people are looking for a different approach to work – a more flexible, creative or considered set of options. For the ladies. For the lads. For smart people for whom presenteeism and looking like everyone else is a dated, daft concept.  For a more creative, constructive workplace environment. It’s about thinking creatively. Which surely should be possible for the creative industry. It’s about analysing the true facts. We can do that. We should do that.

Talk is cheap; we need actions and proof and change. But at least we’re talking about it… The irony. He who said ‘the debate is f****** over’ has definitely reignited it.


Found this interesting? Try these…

Sophie Devonshire
Latest posts by Sophie Devonshire (see all)

Need a Shot of Caffeine?

Sign up to the Extra Shot mailing list to keep up to date with the latest stimulating insights and thoughts from Caffeine.

Leave a Comment