How Women Manage the Gendered Norms of Leadership  

28 November 2018:

A wealth of research shows that female leaders, much more than their male counterparts, face the need to be warm and nice (what society traditionally expects from women), as well as competent or tough (what society traditionally expects from men and leaders). The problem is that these qualities are often seen as opposites. This creates a “catch-22” and “double bind” for women leaders. Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of HP, depicted it this way: “In the chat rooms around Silicon Valley, from the time I arrived until long after I left HP, I was routinely referred to as either a “bimbo” or a “bitch”— too soft or too hard, and presumptuous, besides.”

To alleviate this double bind, societal expectations — for what it means to be a woman and what it takes to lead — must change. But until we get there, female executives still have to navigate these tensions. We wanted to know how successful women do it, day-to-day. So we conducted extensive interviews with 64 senior women leaders (all at the VP level or higher) from 51 different organizations in the United States: CEOs, general managers, and executives across functions, working in various industries. We found that there are four paradoxes, all stemming from the need to be both tough and nice, that these women confront. We also identified five strategies they use to manage them.

Four Balancing Acts
Paradox 1: Demanding yet caring. The female executives we studies told us they must demand high performance from others, while also demonstrating that they care about them. For example, Norma*, an HR executive in financial services, recalled how, in a past project, her perseverance led to successful project outcomes but also earned her some negative feedback: “I remember a program that I designed that everyone was doubting… and I truly just knew deep in my heart and… gut that it was going to work. So I kept pushing forward… and it was a huge, huge success… I’ve gotten feedback on being intimidating and that kind of stuff. Would I get the same feedback if I were a man?”

Paradox 2: Authoritative yet participative. This paradox lies between asserting one’s competence, and admitting one’s vulnerability and asking others to collaborate. On the one hand, women leaders learned to project authoritativeness, because without doing so, they risked being perceived as not credible, especially at the beginning of a new business engagement. They learned to “toughen up,” “speak louder,” and “act decisively.”

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Source: Harvard Business Review

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