Does leadership in construction need to be deconstructed?

Part 2: Leadership: power over, power with, power to…

In the study of female leadership in Construction, Thurairajah et. al write, “for many years it was believed that effective leaders must be confident, task-oriented, competitive, objective, decisive and assertive which were traditionally viewed as masculine attributes’’ (2007). Women have often been excluded from leadership roles as they were perceived not to possess many of these attributes, explain Thurairajah et al (2007). Arguably, some research studies found that women leaders that do use masculine behaviors are judged harshly and evaluated less favorably than men (Rojahn and Willemsen 1994 cited Yukl 2006). The transactional leadership style of “power over’’ as described by Brown has been seen in Construction and other male dominated industries as a norm (2018). In her book, “Dare to Lead”, Brown argues that the “power over’’ leadership is not only ineffective in the long run, but creates a disenfranchised workforce exhibiting lack of care, resistance and rebellion. Brown concludes “the way people are leading today needs to change in order for leaders to be successful in a complex, rapidly changing environment where we’re faced with seemingly intractable challenges and insatiable demand for innovation” (2018).

Business Harvard Review gender studies revealed that when it comes to leadership skills, while men excel in confidence, women stand out for competence (Zengel and Folkman, 2019). Furthermore, according to the same study analysis, “women score higher than men on 17 out of 19 capabilities that differentiate excellent leaders from average or poor ones” (Zengel and Folkmen, 2019). Moreover, females’ brains are “more tightly connected to the frontal cortex”, which is responsible for abstract thinking, planning and reasoning. (Mosconi, 2019) Mosconi’s research argues that there are significant cognitive differences between males and females that determine the way we think, behave and act.

Tend and befriend

Mosconi in her latest book “The XX brain”, explores the subject of gender diversity through the lens of cognitive science, by presenting the latest research in behavioral and psychological effects of stress (2020). Contrary to a general understanding, Mosconi explains females do not react to stress in the commonly known ‘fight or flight’ response. Instead, females respond with ‘tend and befriend’, which is demonstrated in connecting and collaborating with others in times of crisis. Taylor, who first coined the term in 2000, formed a “Tend and Befriend” theory, which explores the implications of collaboration and connection as a response to stress, on our society, health, and wellbeing (2012). Conversely, Taylor’s research reviles that ‘fight or flight’ response to stress, makes men particularly vulnerable to early mortality due to suicide, coronary heart disease, and disorders related to substance abuse as a way of coping with stress (2012). Taylor’s research has a strong implication on a current mental health crisis observed in Construction, stating that the “suicide rate for male laborers is three times higher than the average male suicide rate for the UK” (Barton, 2019) Moreover, 20% of all ill health cases are due to work-related stress and account for 400,000 workdays being lost in a year (Barton, 2019). Although predominantly observed in women, ‘tend and befriend’ can, however, be identified in men who practice both masculine and feminine traits; embracing their whole selves. By balancing out the gender split and adopting a more ‘tend and befriend’ culture and management style, these toxic masculine standards and pressures can be overturned, suggests the latest research (Eagleman, 2020). Brown (2018, 2020) takes on the dualistic male/female discourse, driven by sex-type theories, by exploring in her research the masculine and feminine presence in both genders. She further argues that it is the presence of the feminine that is required in a “modern and innovative organization with a non-coercive, collaborative approach to effective leadership” (2018). Therefore suggesting, that the presence of the feminine (regardless of gender), enables men to be more integrated leaders themselves. Yet, as previously outlined, the leadership model in Construction appears to be stuck in the old, masculine narrative and it has a profound impact on both men and women who try to be part of the leadership story. In a Ted Talk “The danger of a single story”, Adichie (2009) speaks of the impact of stories and narratives adopted by us individually and as a wider society. Adichie warns “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story” (2009).

Action Bias

“Until men can understand and articulate the complex and compounding barriers that women face, the gaps and how to fix them, they will remain adrift from the debate and the solution ”(Hampton, 2019).

Action bias, as first mentioned by researchers, Patt and Zeckhauser (2000) is deeply connected to behavioral economics and loss aversion theory, formed by Daniel Kahneman (2011). Kahneman says “Loss aversion is a powerful, conservative force that favours minimal changes from the status quo in the lives of both institutions and individuals”. Action bias can lead to developing solutions before fully identifying the problem; resulting in creating an appearance of change without much advance or success, therefore preserving the status quo (Patt and Zeckhauser 2000).

The action bias theory ( Patt & Zeckhauser, 2000) can be observed and identified behind some of the gender diversity initiatives in Construction. The idea to act in order to gain a sense of control over the diversity issue, and eliminate the problem through a recruitment drive, offers only a short-term solution. Despite the efforts to balance out the gender gap both in boardrooms and on construction sites, the number of women in the industry is on a decline. A graduate shift engineer Ruth describes her observation of the phenomenon as follows: ” …there must be something which is structurally and culturally wrong with Construction. When I left my university, it was 50% male and female in the first year going in. But if you go on site, it doesn’t translate.”

Isa the project manager, adds “ I think the retention rate is a problem. So we tend to not retain as many women or progress and develop them for various reasons”.

The questionnaire data on the female leadership status in Construction revealed that 100% of participants believe they are encouraged/supported to go for leadership roles. Out of the 100%, 84% believe that they can obtain these roles.

However, the majority of women agreed that the definition of leadership in Construction is “a male shopping list” (Questionnaire Participant) that comes with “expectations on certain masculine behaviours and management styles” (QP). The MD Lisa describes her experience, “there is a misconception of what leadership looks like, and how that doesn’t always match with what a woman looks like. A man can be both successful and popular. But in a woman, that’s a bit of a trade-off, like maybe you’re kind of seen as a ‘bitch’, cold-hearted or psychotic, and I think men don’t have that balancing act. “

Beard (2018) offers her perspective on women fitting into structures designed for men, “…if women are not perceived to be fully within the structures of power, surely it is the power that we need to redefine rather than women?”.

The innovation and leadership theories support Beard’s argument; it is the feminine leadership style and diversity of thought and perspective that are needed for a successful organisation. For Construction, this has a very real financial impact as in its current masculine perspective, it lives within the -0.5% to 2.8% profit margins. By bringing more women into executive roles these margins could radically increase offering more scope for innovation and making it a more sustainable industry for all.

One of the solutions for closing the perception gap, adopting a more feminine leadership style, and minimising the action bias is the reverse mentoring programme, identified in both primary and secondary data. This initiative has been adopted in 2018 by BAM Nuttall and described as having “a clear role to play in shaping policies and practices around gender equality in our changing world” (Armstrong and Ghaboos, 2019). One of the interview participants Vanessa, shares her experience of being a young mentor to one of the directors. In her interview, she describes just how big a gap there is in the senior management’s perceptions about daily operations and how departed they are from reality. Vanessa shares the impact her feedback had on her mentee “ it was enabling him to build better relationships with his teams that are in his region. And the communication was key, and he opened that door, to have a two-way relationship where they could pick up the phone if they had ideas or issues. Rather than just being this director that everyone is scared of and not very approachable ”.

This process opened up the debate that would not have been able to happen in the boardrooms or on site; broadening the understanding of the human experience for both the mentor and the mentee through exercising courage and vulnerability — the true mark of transformative leadership (Brown, 2018). Initiatives like this, can help in addressing Hampton’s critique and bring male leaders back into the debate, and therefore create a meaningful and sustainable leadership culture.

If you would like to read the whole research report: “Does leadership in Construction need to be deconstructed? A study of gender imbalance in leadership and its impact on innovation and sustainability in the UK construction industry.” please contact the author.

MSc in Innovation, Leadership and Management, an innovator and change management specialist, director, music producer and a co-founder of a non-profit Blueprint