Leading digital transformation: Why women do it so well

As part of International Women’s Day, our very own Mersha Aftab, School Lead for Architecture and Design, was invited to participate in a round table talk entitled ‘Leading digital transformation – Why women do it so well’.

The discussion was aimed at shining a light on some of the women who successfully have forged their careers in somewhat historically male dominated environments. The inspirational women reflected on the joint vision to do public services better and the need to have the right organisation and cultural change in place.

Mersha gives us a valuable insight into how she thinks women can impact the digital sector.

How are women as leaders different? 

Both men and women make great leaders. Historically, male leadership has been studied, celebrated and researched in mainstream leadership forums. However, women as leaders are recently getting noticed, and we have found that they bring something different. Women leaders are naturally gifted with softer skills like empathy; women have a nurturing tendency that works well with transforming organisations and teams. The podcast invited women from different walks of life, all leading digital transformation. 

Women leaders are seen to encourage and empower team members, they focus less on productivity and more on providing their peers with the right tools and support, and productivity is a consequence of that. Women leaders also focus on development more than goals. Women over-communicate; they are the social glues of the society and their teams and leadership; therefore, their communication style encourages transparency. The most prominent evidence comes from the countries being led by women during the pandemic crisis, i.e. New Zealand, Germany, Norway and Taiwan, which had the most compliance from the people of these nations and the most effective policy and procedure for track and trace. 

What kind of leadership does digital transformation need?

Digital transformation requires leaders who are visionaries, value human-centred approaches to change, and see failure as a learning opportunity. Digital transformation is inevitable, and the pandemic has increased the pace of this transformation further. We need leaders who see value in bringing people and real stories to the forefront of digital transformation as leaders and managers of this process. Any transformation is an opportunity to create something new and improve it by using better processes so that the products and services created are valuable for those who use them.

My research and practice involve a leadership style very suitable for leaders of the 20thcentury – its action-centred leadership. These leaders do not lead due to their position but believe in intellectual leadership and take action to support, improve and change. This fits very well with transformational leadership which also enables leaders to move between the role of mentors to coaching to managers and does not see leadership as a static state. These new leadership ways and standards are personal. They require a deeper level of empathy and skill of building interpersonal relationships which honestly suit female leaders for reasons I have stated earlier. 

What can we do to support women to lead in the digital sector?

Research demonstrates that women are confident in taking on leadership positions. So, where are we going wrong? Why is there an only hand full of women in leadership positions? What can we learn from existing women leaders who have broken the barriers and reached that stage in their profession? 

Workplaces must recognise challenges faced by women and take action in clearing the path for talented and dynamic leaders to rise. We need to be open-minded enough to bring in female leaders from other industries who don’t have a tech background into tech and digital industries. We must work closely with schools and universities to win the argument that tech isn’t just a male career path. 

Could you also give some background on why it’s essential to recognise females in the digital sector?

International Women's Day brought together women leaders who are doing great work in the digital transformation to discuss why women do this better. It is important to recognise and celebrate that women are making huge impact in a predominantly male sector. Recognition is not enough! We also need to reward women for bringing something different to the table. 

Do you have any advice for female students?

I advise women to build the skill to recognise the right people, connect with them, and learn from them. Take risks in your career, and do not forget to ask for help when you feel stuck. I recommend female students hear the podcast discussion. The podcast shares fantastic advice for female students and its relevance to all women aiming to be leaders across disciplines and sectors.   

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