Catch-22: When I Want to Take Charge but They Want Me to Take Care

What would you do if someone called you a b—– for doing your job very well?

At a recently concluded workshop for women leaders, one young woman sought me out for some advice. She is the first woman in a sales role in a male dominated industry and her challenge was: “I am a top performer in a Sales role, exceed my targets always, and am on the fast track program for rising leaders. But I face heckling from my team that I am too aggressive, pushy etc. I also heard that my peers pass unsavory remarks, urging my team to be ‘careful’ with me, or move over to other teams. I am worried that I don’t enjoy the kind of rapport or respect my (male) peers have with their team.”

This isn’t unusual. When I posted this challenge in our network of women leaders across industries, there was a chorus of virtual head nodding!

“In my role, I have to drive for results and deal with problems head on – but I was so astounded when I heard that my team doesn’t like me because I’m too ‘assertive’.”

“I am very good with pushing my way through challenges, but I often hear comments like ‘bullish’, ‘aggressive’ and they are not said as a strength!”

“I was shocked to see that the engagement survey feedback from my team said I am ‘Too pushy’, ‘Too assertive’, ‘Needs to tone down’.”

Assertive: adj. Having or showing a confident and forceful personality.

When asked to rate women and men leaders on some key aspects of behavior, senior-level executives in the United States ascribed ‘Taking Care’ skills to women and ‘Taking Charge’ skills to men.

If a woman is assertive, she is:

1.      Trying too hard to adopt  masculine behaviors

2.      Not liked by colleagues and subordinates

If a woman is not assertive and adopts traditionally feminine behaviors, she is:

1.      Liked by everyone

2.      But not perceived as ready for a leadership role

No wonder most of the coaching assignment requests I receive for middle management women is either that they are ‘too soft’ or ‘too aggressive’!

In such a catch-22 situation many women tend to create an internal glass ceiling for themselves and lean back in their careers rather than face the repercussions of these perceptions.

Reconciling and managing this ‘double bind’ is a key challenge that coaches and managers have to facilitate in women leaders to enable them to make the leap to the next level.

Some experiences shared by women who have been there:

a)     In a sales head role, figured out the toughest & biggest calls the team had: went all out and helped them close it on field.

b)     Played devil’s advocate to help them make quality proposals/presentations.

c)      Joined them for tea breaks and other opportunities to build rapport.

d)     Showed them how my aggression helped convince management for a better portion of the pie when it came to incentives.

e)     Fought tooth and nail for their promotion & hikes.

Managers can play a big role too, in setting these perceptions right; I remember one manager correcting a peer “I see her as passionate about her work and extremely competent, not aggressive!”

The role of the organization too, in creating an inclusive culture that responds positively to ‘masculine behaviors’ manifested by women leaders, cannot be over stated.

In truly inclusive workplaces, all employees, irrespective of gender, are able to leverage both masculine & feminine behaviors without having to face a backlash.

How do you deal with this Catch 22, as a woman leader? How do you enable the women in your teams/organizations to traverse this?



Kalpana Tatavarti is Founder of Parity Consulting & Training pvt ltd, a boutique firm focused on accelerating women leadership.

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