Female Leadership in a Male Dominated World

15/12/2016By Jill Lucas
Jill Lucas, CIO for Towergate Insurance writes about leadership in a male dominated environment.
Female leadership

“Be Yourself” was the best piece of advice I ever received.  It unlocked something for me about being a female leader in male dominated environment.

I was in banking at the time and most of the senior women around me were more alpha than the alpha-males. I admired what they had achieved but couldn’t relate to them.  Those two words of advice gave me the confidence to be comfortable in my own skin, learning from the people around me, but not needing to emulate them.

I don’t know whether I am lucky or not very sensitive, but I can’t think of a single example where I have been treated differently due to my gender. I know I have got onto a few shortlists out of sheer curiosity (a female CIO…) or to tick a diversity box, but when it has come to something, it has ultimately always felt meritocratic.

As a minority female on executive teams, I’ve felt part of the team but never ‘one of the boys’.  I’m not into football or cricket, but I love skiing, tennis and cycling so there’s always plenty to talk about, especially when you include food, wine, holidays… and of course ‘the business’.  My counter-balance is to put more effort into building relationships with colleagues, looking for common ground rather than differences.  In my job it is really important to get under the skin of the business – strategy, growth, change programmes, risks, people – so there is always a way of creating healthy, symbiotic partnerships.  Ultimately, I believe my peers have judged me for how I do my job and how I contribute to the executive, regardless of my gender.

What strengths and qualities have I seen women bring to the corporate workplace?  Analytical, risk-aware, people-centric, emotionally intelligent, articulate, balanced thinking, humility…. along with a strong commercial and business mind-set.  I’ve seen all these qualities in men as well, they have just been more common and evident in my female colleagues.

By contrast, I have seen women more often than men be emotional, erratic and take things personally.  I have also seen female colleagues use their sexuality as an influencing tool.  And I’ve seen women be the first to point out every chauvinistic comment. Both of which, in my opinion, reinforce gender-based preconceptions.

The strongest correlation with gender in my experience is lack of confidence.  I suffer from it myself at times and I’ve seen many great women at all levels held back, whether it’s as major as changing jobs or everyday things such as challenging colleagues.  Correspondingly, I’ve seen many men with levels of confidence disproportionate to their ability.

What lies behind low confidence in many women?  Fear of failure, ridicule, being disliked? I understand studies have highlighted brain differences suggesting that women are more likely than men to form strong memories of negative events, so perhaps that explains it?  Other studies have shown women will more often not consider themselves ready for promotions, predict they’ll do worse on tests, and generally underestimate their abilities.  The other association I recognise is perfectionism.  I’ve seen myself and other women hold back until we’re 100% sure or ready before acting.

I deal with this by telling myself my opinion is just as valid and that I have plenty of ‘credit in the bank’ with my colleagues. More than anything, if I get something wrong I will learn from it and if I do dwell on it, almost everyone else will have forgotten about it long before I have.

I have found mentoring and coaching immensely helpful and seen it benefit many upcoming men and women.  It has helped me to see through difficult situations and develop better leadership skills.

That works for me and I’ve had years of practice, but I strongly believe low self-confidence is a significant factor (alongside parenting priorities, of course) in so few women making it to senior roles.  I have found mentoring and coaching immensely helpful and seen it benefit many upcoming men and women.  It has helped me to see through difficult situations and develop better leadership skills.  I’ve had male and female mentors and coaches, whose different skills, background and approach has helped me across a range of development areas.  Based on my experience, I see it as vitally important that I do the same for others coming up through leadership roles.

The bottom line is I don’t think about my gender very much, but I recognise there are differences between men and women.  As with all forms of diversity, women bring a richness that is valuable to organisations and should be embraced and encouraged.


Jill Lucas

Group CIO,  Towergate Insurance

Jill Lucas is currently the group CIO for Towergate Insurance, previously she held senior technology leadership roles for organisations including Reuters and Barclays Bank. Jill is a firm believer in developing others. with a reputation for building high performing leadership teams around her.