When women rule the roost - five successful women on being a good boss
Words by Andrea Smith. Photos by Kip Carroll
Ah yes, the archetypal female boss, beloved of Hollywood scriptwriters and screenwriters.
She's glamorous, sexy and powerful - and counts crushing the morale of her hapless employees and colleagues beneath the red sole of her skyscraper Louboutins as a perk of the job. In short, she's a bitch.
It's a stereotype that's set to be parodied in a new comedy, The Boss, which hits cinemas next week. In the film, Melissa McCarthy plays a businesswoman who believes that you need to cut out people who are dragging you down, do whatever you need to do to get ahead of the competition, and not care a jot what anybody thinks of your ambition and appetite.
Does she exist in real life though, or is it the case that we demonise strong, assertive women for actions that wouldn't cause us a second thought if they belonged to a man? After all, Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, famously urged women to "lean in" in her 2013 book - but is there a perception in some quarters that in order to get ahead and compete with men, women need to act just like them?
While we have made great strides in achieving equality in the workplace in recent years, there is still a long way to go. Today, only 14pc of Irish CEOs and 10.5pc of publicly-listed company board members are female. So how do these women navigate the still largely male-dominated environment of the boardroom and push the glass ceiling?
Ahead of the release of The Boss, we put these questions and more to five leading Irish businesswomen. Here, they share the lessons they've learned in their years at the highest levels of the business world about what it really takes to be the boss…
Do you think that strong, tough or driven women are incorrectly portrayed as being bitchy?
Margot: Absolutely, there is almost a begrudgery out there because if you're a woman having a difficult conversation, you're castigated, but if a man does it, he's just seen as straightforward and clear. It's not seen as the norm for women to be like that, as in a world view, we should be soft and say nice things, but I'm a firm believer in being very clear.
Caroline: Yes, occasionally. I don't think being a bitch is a good thing, but standing up for yourself is required at times and it's something you have to do in business.
Tanya: It's a stereotype that exists, but in many ways toughness is an entirely different trait. I admire women who demonstrate toughness through their energy, passion and ambition, as these are the traits that are infectious and can filter through your organisation.
Anne: I think if they are portrayed as such, it would be a huge misunderstanding. If you have emotional courage and you're resilient, I don't understand how you can be portrayed as a bitch.
Nicola: Yes and you see it most in meetings. I love to talk but find that men almost try to take over or hold the ground, so they talk over you and that drives me mad. I am very assertive about that and will say to the men at a meeting, "Can you wait until she is done talking?" I look like a right cow stepping up and telling them to wait and everyone gets embarrassed, but I find men aren't even aware that they are doing it.
Are there any women who have particularly inspired you in business?
Tanya: My aunt, Michele Kessler, is a successful CEO of an innovative protein bar company, Think Thin, in California. She is smart and articulate, with leadership skills in abundance, and is a great listener who has always been a good sounding board for me.
Nicola: Mary Harney was an amazing public speaker and she had a brilliant brain and excellent foresight. She was also considerate, thoughtful and kind. My other role models are my peers and the other women here today, most of whom are my friends in business.
Margot: I find my company's global VP for diversity and inclusion, Rohini Anand, an inspiration because she has a lovely soft approach and is extremely knowledgeable, but her approach is very clear and determined. Another woman would be Mary McAleese - I love her warmth but she still tells it like it is, as did Mary Robinson.
Caroline: My mother, Mary, gave me the confidence to do whatever the boys did or whatever I wanted, and she let me do things even though she may have preferred me to do something a little more ladylike.
Anne: I don't have any specific role models but I would say my late mother Jean was an influence. My father died when I was young, and she had her own business and was quite an inspiration.
Have you got any tips for handling tricky staff situations?
Caroline: Make sure you have all the facts, and try to sit down and talk to the person about what is stopping them from delivering their best performance. You'll usually find out that there's an issue going on with them and you can work on that, or maybe they're in a role that's wrong for them.
Margot: I think that if you start someone with a really good process, you usually finish with a really good process, even if the situation doesn't work out. Being very clear at the beginning is important, so you explain that this is the quality you expect and if it isn't delivered, things need to change. A working relationship sometimes has its ups and downs, like any relationship, so you have to bear with the process.
Anne: You have to develop your listening skills, try to understand and be fair.
Tanya: I like to stay very calm and stand back a lot. It's about being able to have that calmness, not reacting and taking time to reflect, think and then act.
Nicola: Confront the person with openness and honesty as quickly as possible. Don't let the situation fester as ignoring something won't make it go away, and the quicker you respond, the quicker it gets resolved. You also shouldn't do it alone if it's not your core competency.
Do you have to be a bitch to be a female boss?
Nicola: Absolutely not. What happens is that any woman who is speaking aggressively is seen to be a bitch and that is just not true. We expect women to be nurturing and caring, so when a man shouts, it's masculine, but if a woman shouts, she's a bitch. We have to be allowed to air our emotions, and if aggression is one of them, we have to be allowed to show it. What is acceptable for men has to be acceptable for women.
Tanya: Quite simply, you don't need to be a bitch, but instead need to be authentic and real. This allows you to build working relationships that are based on openness and honesty.
Margot: I don't believe you do. I think the days where that sort of behaviour was acceptable are gone. I think it's all about being your true self, being open and clear with people, and having very straightforward conversations.
Anne: Absolutely not because your work environment is built on relationships, and you can't build good and healthy relationships with people if you're a bitch.
Caroline: No, as most of us who had good female bosses found them to be strong and assertive, but not in a bitchy way. I think the best bosses and leaders are supportive.
How far away are we from equality in the workplace?
Margot: I think we're miles away from it. We have it at certain levels, if you look at the number of female CEOs in this country or the UK, it's very poor so there's a long way to go.
Nicola: It's going to take more time because I don't think women are vocal enough about it, as I'm not sure if we know what we want. We want the freedom to choose, because some of us want to raise families, some want to work and others want to do both, but the problem is that we don't have a united voice on it. There is as much female judgment on it as there is male, we all have unconscious bias. These judgements are wrong so we have to correct ourselves.
Caroline: I think we have come a long way, but the only way we will have full equality is if both men and women push for it. The workplace was designed for men so now that women have joined it and are trying to fit in, that's a challenge for men just as much as it is for women. Women are sometimes more reticent to go for a position that they are not fully qualified for, whereas men will go for those opportunities and learn on the job.
Anne: If you are to believe some of the research that is out there at the moment, we are definitely a long way from being equal in leadership.
Tanya: It's definitely moving in the right direction as it comes under more and more focus. There's no doubt that organisations need a mix of the skills and strengths that both men and women bring to the table.
How tough do you have to be to be a boss?
Anne: I think you have to be fair and have clarity on what you're trying to achieve with your team. You have to be able to inspire people to want to achieve similar goals, and if that is being tough, then so be it. It is much more about inspiring than being tough.
Caroline: You have to be very resilient as you may have to deal with situations where you or the business is being attacked, so you need to be able to deal with that without getting upset.
Tanya: I look at toughness in terms of having a high degree of resilience and perseverance. It's developing a sense of resilience when you face challenges and need to pick yourself up again, and a sense of perseverance and determination to stay committed to your goals despite the many obstacles that will naturally come your way.
Margot: I think there are times when you have to be strategic. You have to look at the picture and figure out that if it isn't a straightforward line, how do you find your way around it? You need to have a bit of guile about how you might do things, of course, as everybody does.
Nicola: I don't think it hurts to be strong if it gets the job done, and feel that we either all work towards a goal or we don't. You only get places if you all go in the same direction. I consider myself to be resilient, and I bounce back when I'm knocked down, and think you need to be able to learn from your mistakes, listen to others and work as a team. You can't be soft and nurturing when money and jobs are on the line. The difference for women is that business is business and home is home, and the two should never meet.
What is the single biggest challenge for women in business?
Anne: Not being able to reach your full potential in the work environment. I would say believing in yourself and understanding the importance of having good networks is important, so that people can support and promote you in terms of your career development.
Tanya: Overcoming self-doubt and developing a real self-confidence. Having confidence in your strengths can be a challenge in the workplace for women, and often this means exposing yourself to those things you fear most. Combining confidence with capability is a winning formula in business.
Nicola: Achieving equality is still the big issue, as in getting people to view women as being equal without a second thought. Unfortunately, being a woman, there is a judgment that sits on top of the job, and that can be hard to deal with at times.
Margot: It's trying to make sure the glass ceiling has truly broken, because we are not there yet. There are not enough women at the top level, and I think there is still resistance to elevating women to the top jobs. Some establishments can be very club-by and clique-y and show a lack of confidence in women, and men tend to be the decision-makers there.
Caroline: There is a massive issue with childcare for women developing their careers. I remember a very senior American woman saying the most important decision you make in business is who you choose as your husband, because it enables childcare to be shared, etc. I think it's hard for women who really want to make it to the top to get that balance right, but when they do, I think it's perfectly possible.
What has been your biggest challenge in business to date?
Margot: Probably just to overcome people's view or perception of me. I am a gay woman, a left-brainer and I think quite differently. I am trying to get across that you can do something very successfully, but you might have to take a different approach to it.
Caroline: Learning how to manage. I want to be an authentic leader, but some of my natural traits would not get the best out of my team, so I needed to learn how to manage them and understand what would bring out the best in people.
Anne: Mine was not being emotionally involved in every decision, and learning to let go and delegate. If I hadn't learned that, I wouldn't have allowed the people around me to grow.
Nicola: Keeping focus is the number one thing, as it's important to keep the head down and finish a job before you think of the next one. I wasn't so good at that in my 30s but am definitely getting better in my 40s.
Tanya: Today's digital world provides access to an unprecedented amount of data and information at your fingertips, and my biggest challenge has been finding a way to avoid being disabled in business by this abundance of information, as I've seen how data overload can paralyse the decision-making processes.
Photographer: Kip Carroll, kipcarroll.com
Hair: Aidan Darcy Make-up: Eilis Downey, both from Sugar Cubed, Clarendon Street, Dublin 2, brownsugar.ie
Styling: Sonya Lennon for Frockadvisor, frockadvisor.com
Clothes: Caroline (on cover) wears her own dress; others wear clothes and accessories from independent boutiques around Ireland
Location: Vintage Cocktail Club, Crown Alley, Temple Bar, Dublin 1, vintagecocktailclub.com
The Boss opens in Irish cinemas June 10