Women shouldn't try to be 'one of the boys' when leading organisations

EOH's Megan Pydigadu reveals that you can earn anyone's respect by being your authentic self.

On 4 August, South Africa’s leading women in finance and HR gathered online to kick off Women’s Month with a CFO South Africa webinar about how women in business can be true to themselves. 

“There’s only one woman CFO in the top 40 JSE-listed companies and women make up only a fifth of the directors that serve on the boards of JSE-listed companies,” CFO South Africa editor in chief Georgina Guedes said, pointing out the necessity for women to claim that space. “However, we would be forgiven for thinking that one of the ways to do this is to act more like men and be less true to ourselves as women.” 

To prove the contrary, Georgina introduced leadership practitioner Inge Walters, who said that women need to invest in understanding themselves better. “As a management consultant in a mostly male-dominated environment, there were many things that I initially found hard. One of them was finding my voice – quite physically,” she said, explaining that she had struggled to speak up during meetings as she believed she could only speak when she had something important to say, which wasn’t a concern that held any of her male colleagues back. 

However, it wasn’t a question of whether she wanted to or should be authentic, but Inge didn’t know what that could look like. “I needed to invest in understanding myself better, but also to look at those limiting beliefs, understanding and recognising that there are both external and internal barriers that are more difficult for women to control,” she said. “When I was able to work on that, together with my strengths and potential triggers, I could live more into my authentic self. 

Georgina then introduced EOH CFO Megan Pydigadu, who, after completing her articles, had joined a mining company. She echoed Inge, agreeing that you have to be authentic to yourself. “At the end of the day, you need to show up through your work and what you can deliver.”

She explained that it’s also important to stand up for yourself. She joined the mining company with another colleague from her articles, but they had been treated differently because he was a male. He was earning more and was put on different remuneration structures. So she confronted her manager, asking why this was the case, even though they were doing exactly the same work and had exactly the same qualifications. 

AECI group human capital executive Candice Watson, who is currently doing her PhD in business administration and management at UCT, then explained that these “boys clubs” were one of the factors that perpetuate the underrepresentation of women in the workforce, saying that “socialising and social activity outside of the workplace still influence work related decisions, and women are still being excluded from these clubs and those decision making processes.”

Megan said that it is important to show up as your authentic self when you are trying to engage in circumstances where you still tend to be on the outside. “You shouldn’t try to be ‘one of the boys’, because that lessens and debases who you are as a person. You have to try and bring your whole self, including your femininity, to the table.” 

Instead of trying to fit into the social dynamics men are generally involved in, like golfing, Megan tries to form connections on a one-on-one basis. 

She explained that, if you deliver good results, people will eventually respect you for the work you deliver. “People will start to recognise the value of your contribution to the organisation.”

Megan’s previous job environments had been very male dominated, but at EOH she has seven direct reports of which six are women. Her direct team within the group head office is over 60 percent women. 

She said that, especially for the journey EOH has been on, the level of wanting to get things done and care that women bring to the organisation has been crucial in keeping people going. 

However, companies should not only ensure diversity. She said that companies need to try and change their culture to be more inclusive. “We need to start thinking about the cultures we want for our organisation and how to draw on the collective diversity to be stronger as a result.” 

McKinsey research has shown that women can change the culture in an organisation. “If women are not doing things in a way that’s authentic to themselves, then the culture of the organisation doesn’t change. Only when women are authentic do you start seeing different kinds of leadership behaviours from the stereotypical form of leadership,” Inge said. 

She explained that the research has been proven that women being their true selves can advance the decision making and improve performance in any organisation.