Do women leaders need to be tough cookies, or bring the cookies?
How can senior women executives wield power without being seen as monsters? Jill Abramson fired from the New York Times for being “impossible.” Ellen Pao called “entitled” during her gender discrimination suit against Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer branded as a “case study in poor leadership.” Looking at the headlines, it would seem as if the answer is: they can’t.
While women have made immense strides at lower levels of business and in the professions, we continue to be a rare breed at the top of the house. And even when a woman makes it to the top, constant pitfalls await her.
The core of the problem is that our image of a good leader and our image of a good woman continue to be incompatible. Leadership is associated with traits like toughness, forcefulness, decisiveness, and a willingness to do what needs to be done without letting emotions get in the way. Womanhood is associated with gentleness, kindness, openness, and sensitivity to emotions. So what’s a woman to do?
Successful women typically craft a leadership style which includes elements of both images. I’ve written before about how women can use referent power to lead without being seen as “too harsh.” Because referent power relies on respect — your employees follow your orders because they want your approval and to be like you — it doesn’t conflict with people’s traditional notions about how women should act.
The truth is that being a women leader requires a nuanced and difficult balancing act. Lawyer and author Andie Kramer calls it the Goldilocks Dilemma, because “Women are often seen as too tough, too soft, but rarely just right.” It’s easy for women to lose their footing in this balancing act. And when they do, both men and women are quick to criticize a woman’s leadership style, often for behaviors that would be admired and appreciated in a male leader.
Instead of judging women in power through the lenses our own emotions and biases, both women and men need to use our heads. We know that companies with more women in leadership positions have stronger profits. Perhaps if we all focused on that, instead of how women play into our own expectations, female leaders wouldn’t be stuck trying to juggle bringing the cookies with doing their job.