By: Kalpana Tatavarti
At a recent panel discussion on women leadership, one of the panelists remarked: “One message I would like to give to women leaders is, don’t become like a man. I find women who grow to the top layers of the organization become more male than the men themselves”.
I have continued to mull this statement over, as many of the managers and women I coach report receiving similar feedback, sometimes in the form of a sly remark, or sometimes even as direct feedback. Women ask me ‘What does it really mean to be not a man’? What should I be doing more of and less of?’.
I like to think this means that organizations are willing to appreciate that women are different and they should stay different. Unfortunately, when I dig deeper that doesn’t seem to be the case.
Leadership requires one to exhibit behaviors of drive, focus, directness and many more such ‘masculine’ behaviors, along side ‘feminine’ behaviors of collaboration, empathy, and sensitivity. Unfortunately ‘masculine’ is associated more with men and ‘feminine’ more with women. As long as women express ‘feminine’ behaviors all is fine. At senior layers one needs to exhibit the ‘masculine’ behaviors too.
And then begins the challenge.
So many women have expressed to me the fine line they feel they need to walk between being a woman and being a ‘leader’ saying ‘I have to wear a mask’, ‘People are not able to handle my directness’, or ‘Just because I am a woman, I am expected to be soft and caring’. Very often, this progresses to the women being tagged as ‘too strong’, ‘very abrasive’, ‘too aggressive’ or even sometimes derogatory remarks.
A young woman once told me how she heard some of her team members discuss a very senior woman leader in their organization. ‘If moving to senior roles means I will also have these remarks made about me, I had rather not aspire for leadership roles’.
How this impacts the gender balance agenda is the deeper question.
Catalyst captures this in their study ‘Double Bind Dilemma for Women in Leadership: Damned if you do, doomed if you Don’t’.
The report found that women leaders are either perceived as competent or liked, but rarely both. This impacts the leadership pipeline for women. It discourages women from being ambitions and encourages them to settle for mid-level positions, resulting in a dry pipeline in terms of women’s leadership.
Very subtly a choice is made.
So what is the solution then?
At an individual level, of course, it is important for any leader (male or female) to take cognizance of the environment and adapt to fit in. Coaching helps to a certain extent, for one to reconcile the dilemma and traverse this journey.
At an organizational level, it helps to set a culture of respect for all kinds of differences. I have known managers who upon hearing similar remarks bring it up in team meetings and convey a clear message that such remarks are unacceptable.
It is also the responsibility of each one of us to become comfortable with ‘strong’ women. I remember what one of my colleagues told me a few years ago: “Whenever I see a strong and powerful woman I think ‘Yay! Good for you!’ I actively scout for women like that for my team. I mentor them when I see that directness stepping on people’s toes, like I would anyone. But I am especially encouraging and motivating of strong women…we simply need more of them!”
Do you feel you are in a double bind, forced to choose between being likable and being authoritative? What are some active steps you can take to overcome this?
What are some ways you can help change this double standard in your workplace? How do you plan to be more aware of it?