Genders and Leadership - Perspectives and Insight from Guest Professor Dr. Julian Barling

Monday, January 19, 2015

  • Dr. Julian Barling - visiting professor from Queen's University

    Dr. Julian Barling - visiting professor from Queen's University

Written by Pegleess Barrios

University of Guelph students and faculty had the pleasure of attending a presentation by Dr. Julian Barling, Borden Professor of Leadership in the Queen’s School of Business, and a Queen’s Research Chair. Dr. Barling - or “Julian” as he asked his audience to call him - is a prominent researcher in the field of organizational behaviour. 

The distinguished professor and popular lecturer is the author of several books on Leadership, Work Stress, and workplace safety, over 125 research articles and book chapters, has served on several well-known editorial boards. He additionally served as the chairperson of the Advisory Council on Occupational Health and Safety to the Ontario Minister of Labour from 1989-1991. 

His current research focuses on the nature and development of transformational leadership, and on the other side of the spectrum, the nature and development of unethical leadership. His research also investigates how leadership can enhance employee mental and physical well-being – research with the potential to improve the lives of millions of working Canadians. Dr. Barling discussed points his recent book, The Science of Leadership: Lessons from Research for Organizational Leaders, which was chosen by Forbes Magazine for their “Recommended Summer Reading for Creative Leaders” list in 2014.

One of the subjects Barling discussed was the highly controversial topic of gender and leadership. Barling pointed out that within the leadership research, it has been scientifically proven that women leaders are more participatory, democratic, and transformational than male leaders.

Barling stressed that hiring women in top levels of management is not only necessary for maintaining employment equity, but in the best interests of the organization – better leaders can help produce better results. However, recent reports by TD Economics and CBC show shockingly low numbers of women at the top of Canada’s largest companies.

Women represented a mere 11 per cent of board members listed on the S&P/TSX composite index reported in the TD analysis, which represents large publicly traded Canadian companies. Only 42 per cent of these companies had no women whatsoever on their board of directors, and 28 per cent had only one female board member. None of these 60 major Canadian companies have female CEOs.

The problem, Barling explained, is that studies have shown that the vast majority of the men holding power in these organizations simply do not care about the lack of female representation in their companies. The question he then posed was: “How do we make them care?”

To begin to answer this question, Barling referred to the Beaman, Duflo, Pande and Topalova 2012 study conducted in India: “Female Leadership Raises Aspirations and Educational Attainment for Girls: A Policy Experiment in India.” This study followed the effects of the Indian government’s 1993 constitution amendment, requiring a certain proportion of all council chief – or “pradhan” – seats in its village be reserved for women.

The underlying theory was that women filling these quotas would act as role models, helping to lower gender barriers in their political system and closing their political gender gap. The findings of the longitudinal study indicated that the quota system that promoted women in positions of leadership empowered not only female leaders, but also female youth who look up to them as role models – and interestingly given the concerns of so-called “meninists”, none of these benefits to the women came at any cost to the males in their villages.

What occurred could be described as a change in perspective: after exposure to two consecutive female leaders, young girls were found to have drastically increased aspirations of achievements for themselves, and the gender gap in adolescent educational attainment was actually erased – the percentage of girls reading, writing and attending school was found to be equal to or surpassing that of boys in their village.

In these communities, it was also found that parental aspirations for daughters also increased, notably, the desire for daughters to one day become a pradhan was particularly increased in fathers.

Drawing from this study, Barling discussed the interpretation of these results in a Canadian context. Referring Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Barling talked about how women in North American societies are often told to “lean in” – to be more aggressive, pursue opportunities more actively, and take a stand in their own career advancement. However at the top organizational levels, a Rotman study has shown that this approach leads to “invisible, informal punishments” from male colleagues and superiors – most prominently, sexual harassment (Berdahl, 2007).

Barling explained, “In this context, sexual harassment occurs not necessarily out of sexual desire, but as a form of control and a display of power.” But how can women advance their careers, if increasing personal agency only leads to harassment and ridicule? “Like Emma Watson said, in her ‘He to She’ speech, our target group to help with closing the gender gap should be men – fathers, sons, and brothers.” Telling women to step up may be important, but the men who could one day be in power need to be primed to be more accepting of women in leadership positions. As Barling concluded, “You can’t complain of a skill deficit when you are not including everyone in the organization!”

Barling continued on the topic of gender by declaring that the phrase “gender and leadership” needs to change to reflect the reality of gender as a multi-faceted concept, thus “genders and leadership”. Martine Rothblatt was one of the exceptional and highly successful leaders redefining genders and leadership that Dr. Barling mentioned. Martine Rothblatt, born 1954 as Martin Rothblatt, is the founder and CEO of United Therapeutics Corp and the highest-paid female executive in the United States as reported in Fortune Magazine.

Rothblatt states in her manifesto The Apartheid of Sex, “There are five billion people in the world and five billion unique sexual identities. Genitals are as irrelevant to one’s role in society as skin tone. Hence, the legal division of people into males and females is as wrong as the legal division of people into black and white races.”

Despite Rothblatt’s success, Barling notes, “You lose power as you deviate from social norms.” Other highly successful CEO’s, such as Baron Brown of Madingley, suffered severe career consequences when outed or coming out as anything other than heterosexual, and society – particularly, the communities of top-level organizational representatives – have a long way to go in becoming more accepting and realizing the benefits to having a diverse leadership workforce.

Barling’s talk continued to discuss future research directions, as well as strategies to improve leadership. However, the subject of genders and leadership remained the most discussed once the presentation was over, and students and faculty mingled over snacks and coffee. Despite the daunting task that closing the gender gap represents, it is promising to know that researchers remain open-minded and actively work to improve the quality of occupational representation for people of all genders in the workforce.

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