Why Are Most Successful Female Leaders Unlikeable?

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7 min read

“Jane, you are aggressive, intimidating and scary…”

I am a 5 ft. 6 Korean woman with a deep ‘posh’ English accent who sits on a management committee (of which 80% are men). I like wearing pearls and striking colours to the office. I always strive for ‘number one’ and I am not afraid to speak up at meetings and share my view.

I work for a high growth firm which has revolutionised the way we access knowledge. I started at the bottom and worked hard, really hard to get where I am today. From the company’s early success came opportunity. By making the most of each opportunity I was able to scale my way up the corporate ladder very quickly.

An uncomfortable truth

But as I get more senior, I realise that being a leader has major downfalls: everyone has an opinion about you and is happy to share it. They will assess (at a micro level) each of your actions and will freely offer up adjectives to help you to understand their perception of you.

This, on its face, isn’t necessarily bad. It’s essential to get feedback so that you can grow, learn and continually improve. But for me, statements like these are common:

“Jane, you are such an intimidating Manager.”

“Jane, you are scary.”

“Jane, you are demanding.”

Interestingly, when I asked a junior colleague to describe a fellow colleague’s leadership style (who happened to be male), she offered up “decisive”, “confident” and “on point.”

Taken aback, and slightly confused, I then asked her why the words she used to describe his leadership style differed to the way she described mine. (Tough, I know!) After considering this for a few minutes, she said;

“I think people think you are aggressive because you are a woman.”

Why success and likeability do not go together for women

Did my junior’s comparison hurt my feelings? Of course. I was uncomfortable with the negative association attributed to my leadership style. Just as some people respond well to compliments about their physique or elegant outfits, I thrive on positive reinforcement relating to my work and, in particular, my management abilities.

I was shocked (again) when I realised how these three adjectives changed my behaviour. I began to question my every action:

“Am I speaking too much in meetings?”

“Am I dressing too ‘aggressively’?”

“Do I need to soften my tone?”

“When I challenge my staff to do better, am I being a b****?”

Finding answers

After a little soul searching, I realised that the reason this feedback hit a nerve was because, for me, my leadership success is synonymous with my likeability. What I seek from my peers and juniors is to be ‘liked’ but I also want to make the tough decisions and appear confident.

Is this even possible for someone in my position?

Feeling utterly confused and a little despondent, I delved into the research.

The research behind gender stereotypes in the workplace

gender stereotypes in the workplace
It’s time to address gender stereotypes in the workplace

Why are female leaders often coined with negative adjectives in the workplace?

According to sociologist Marianne Cooper, women are often penalized when they behave in ways that violate gender stereotypes.

Women are expected to be nice, warm, friendly, and nurturing. Thus, if a woman acts assertively or competitively, if she pushes her team to perform, if she exhibits decisive and forceful leadership, she is deviating from the social script that dictates how she “should” behave.

This sentence also struck a chord:

High-achieving women experience social backlash because their very success – and specifically the behaviors which created that success – violate our expectations about how women are supposed to behave.

Is this unconscious bias?

Yup. The effect of positive or negative stereotypes that exist in our subconscious affect our actions and these manifest in unconscious biases which ultimately drive how we perceive ourselves and how we perceive others.

I have to concede, I do fit the ‘aggressive female professional’ stereotype pretty well – not a great conclusion to reach when it comes to my career progression.

And, according to Quartz, “a woman manager is less likely to be taken seriously by the people who work for her.”

Awesome. I’m facing the career equivalent of ‘pissing into the wind.’

Gender stereotype statistics

According to HRD, a Unilever world-wide study of 9,000 women and men found that old gender stereotypes, social norms and biases maintain an ever-widening gender gap. 60 per cent of women and 49 per cent  of men in the study said gender stereotypes affect their lives and careers.

The study also shows that women buy into stereotypes which work against them: 77 per cent of men and 55 per cent of women believe that men make better leaders in high-stake projects.

But, what all this research makes loud and clear (and which I take comfort from) is that many other women in the workplace are also experiencing the same bias: I’m not alone.

Acknowledging the stereotype has motivated me to make a few pro-active changes.

What can we (men and women) do to combat unhelpful gender stereotypes in the workplace and thrive?

The existence of the aggressive female leader stereotype obviously isn’t conducive to women thriving in business. And it doesn’t just affect women – it results in economic inefficiencies which affect everyone.

Here are a few things we can do to mitigate the fallout of gender stereotypes in the workplace.

1. Acknowledge that gender stereotypes exists and respond with nuance and poise

Be prepared to call out gender discrimination and inappropriate behaviour when you see it and support others when they do. But make sure to “think about each situation before you act. Know when to call out rude and sexist language, or when to let it pass with a raised eyebrow or a witty remark. Try not to assume the worst – sometimes men make mistakes with clumsy language [don’t we all]. But be cognizant of when they deliberately try to assert themselves. Figure out the difference and respond accordingly.” WeForum.com

If you’re being called out as ‘emotional or aggressive, when you’re just making a point, take 5, consider your audience and the forum, then speak up, rebutting that message to your advantage.

For example, when my boss outwardly contradicted me in a meeting in front of ten male managers, I got the sense that the other male colleagues in the room were waiting for me to react emotionally and/or aggressively. I showed no emotion (even though it frustrated me like hell!) and highlighted that this wasn’t the forum to discuss the issue and suggested we take it offline. Cool as a cucumber, but direct.

2. Be ready with appropriate responses which send the message but don’t create barriers

Have responses up your sleeve like, ‘that’s completely out of order’ or ‘please, seriously, get with the 21st century’ which you’re comfortable using in these situations. Sometimes a grimace, an eye roll, and a polite smile can be just as effective.

Encourage your male colleagues, your boyfriends, husbands and brothers to call out others when witnessing this behaviour.

In this interview Maris Drew (one of the most powerful women in finance) shared how she responds to these situations in the workplace:

“If someone is dismissive, talks over you or is inappropriate, there are two ways to approach this. One is to ‘get up into someone’s face’ and say you’re offended by the behaviour–although one is perfectly entitled to do that, it becomes a polarising uncomfortable conversation.

On the otherhand, if you feel compelled to address the situation, consider using humour to get the message across. For example, if someone uses offensive language you could say with a cheeky smile, ‘Would your mother really want to hear that coming out of her perfect child’s mouth?’ You’ve made your point, you have hopefully kept heat and emotion out of the discussion and you haven’t put the other person in a corner which is difficult to bridge.”

3. Ask for help to change the dialogue

Find your sponsors and two to three trusted employees in your organisation and get them to use adjectives to describe you which are positive.

Humans will assimilate whatever they think is the norm – i.e. if five influential people are using adjectives like ‘confident’ rather than ‘demanding’ to describe your brand, this will start to catch on.

4. Be self-aware – are you perpetuating gender stereotypes in the workplace?

It may be that because you feel insecure that you speak a little louder than usual, you are subconsciously wearing power colours to make a point or you are using directive words like “I need you to…”, to your employees.

These tactics are powerful but can slap you back equally hard if overused so, exercise discretion, take a step back and consider what your most effective mode of communication is. It will get you the best results. Have a think about what mode of communication comes naturally to you by observing how you communicate outside the office environment.

I received a fantastic piece of advice from a mentor on self-awareness. He turned to me and said “whether it is in business or in life, one has the tendency to look outwards and see what is encouraging the bad situation… but always look inwards before outwards – there is always something you can improve within your team, within your home before you start diagnosing outwards.”

4. Understand what makes you tick

For me, I know that I thrive on external encouragement or “Radical Candor” feedback. Radical candor is the ability to ‘challenge directly’ whilst showing that you ‘care personally’ when giving feedback. It creates trust and transparency with your team and colleagues and enables effective communication.

So, now I surround myself with people who can give me this feedback and I make it very clear to my  superiors that this is the way to get the most out of me as an employee.

5. Get yourself a professional career coach

Having a career coach gives me the opportunity to share my ideas and find solutions with someone who is 100% objective. Coaches can also give you the tools to challenge your own thinking and interpret others’ behaviour in different ways.

6. Take unconscious bias training to combat gender stereotypes in the workplace

Another helpful tip is to take unconscious bias training. Oftentimes women can have as much bias against other women as men do, and we can be biased against men as well.

As the CEO of Maxis, Lindsay Pattison said, “we must remember that equality is the goal – more diverse voices create better business solutions, and we should use our collaborative abilities to work together to make change. Because if we work together, we can do anything.”

Meet Jane

Jane is Korean and grew up in the UK. She lives in Hong Kong with her Fiancé. Prior to transitioning into business, she read Law and worked at a corporate law firm in Seoul.

Gender Stereotypes In The Workplace

How to combat gender stereotypes in the workplace

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