The world needs disruption – are female leaders the ones to bring it?

With a new female UK Prime Minister, the possibility of the first female President of the United States, and an increasing number of female leaders across the world from Norway to Senegal, Poland to Argentina, is it finally time to embrace female leadership?

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The world needs shaking up – in politics, in business, in education. This requires visionary leadership, at all levels of organisations, not just the top. Are the female leaders amongst us the ones with the mettle to do the job? What are the strengths that women bring?

Disruption takes hard work as well as vision and luck. It means having the courage of your convictions and sticking to them. As women, we are less likely to fall unwittingly into successful careers than men – we have to make more of a conscious choice and be more determined. And we are likely to have to do this in the face of significant challenges, juggling different roles at work and home, while also finding strategies to cut through established cultures that are dominated by male ways of thinking. Consequently, once a woman takes on senior leadership, she’s usually already got some good practice under her belt. And she has the grit to take a risk and stand by it.

Women also listen deeply. We rarely jump into things without being open to diverse views. Disruption requires good collaboration – in which listening is essential. And we see the point of collaboration. We are less likely to be distracted by defending a personal position, or looking out for personal gain. We know very well that the best ideas emerge from collaboration, sharing ideas and interactive exploration.

Having said all of this, in the world of music, the number of females in senior leadership positions is still frightening low. Especially when compared to the number of females studying music. Why is this? Why is it that women are successful, even disruptive, during their education but struggle once in the professional world? And are there similarities in the business world? I think so.

As women we tend to take negative feedback to heart, and we may dwell on it too long and too hard. We find it hard to ignore. So we need to develop a strong muscle in terms of how we take all types of feedback. However positive or negative it is, we need to learn to use it constructively. It’s completely useless if we allow particularly negative feedback to affect our self-esteem and how we judge ourselves as people, rather than use it to help develop our work to the next stage. Liz Lerman, American dancer and choreographer has done some amazing work on this in developing her Critical Response approach to feedback. We know that if we haven’t evolved a strong feedback muscle during our education, then we’re more likely to get ground down in the early stages of a career and the many setbacks that are inevitable.

The performing arts professions are very difficult in practical terms for women who start a family. The hours are irregular and antisocial; pay is often too low to be able to manage childcare (particularly when you have to travel) and end up with any profit; freelancers get almost no maternity pay. For many women, professional life in the arts becomes unsustainable with children.

However, there are great trailblazers, who are succeeding and disrupting the norm. Trumpeter and Guildhall alumna, Alison Balsom, is a wonderful example. She’s changed the image of the trumpet as a solo instrument and is inspirational in the work she’s doing to support young people learning music in the developing world. I think that she has been positioned as a classic blonde star in the past, but I see her being much more disruptive now, with her image as well as her work. She hasn’t been one to be either overlooked or to be pigeon-holed. And she’s a thoroughly committed mum.

The support of female disruptors is a particular part of the mission of the Guildhall’s business incubator scheme, Creative Entrepreneurs. It’s time to help all talented professionals in the performing arts to realise their potential and they can only do that if they find ways to make their careers sustainable.

To change the nature of things we’re going to need to break the mould. Professional women rising through the ranks do often find themselves in contexts where they’re having to fight hard for their positions and they don’t necessarily feel encouraged/enabled to be themselves. In these situations, it’s all too easy to fall into transactional patterns. In my own development, it’s only now that I’m really beginning to trust a more transformational approach. There are no quick fixes but, for the women who get the chance to take on leadership, I’m convinced that the results can really bring about much needed change.

About the Author:

Professor Helena Gaunt is Vice Principal and Director of Academic Affairs at The Guildhall School of Music & Drama

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