Women Taking Charge

Posted by Gwenda Blair on June 16, 2011
Women Taking Charge

Back in 1956, before women entered the workplace en masse, audiences at the Broadway hit My Fair Lady roared with laughter when Professor Henry Higgins, flummoxed by Eliza Doolittle's behavior, complained, "Why Can't a Woman Be More Like a Man?"

It doesn't seem as funny today. Over the last half century, as women have gained career recognition and advancement, they have become far more like men. But instead of easing the difficulties between the sexes, Professor Higgins' prescription has led to a new set of problems. And nowhere is that more evident than in corporate America.

Put simply, when a man gives orders, he's likely to be seen as bold and dynamic. Even if he's being a hard-ass-aka "a prick"-he's just doing what it takes to get the job done. But let a woman utter the same words, and she's seen as domineering and shrill-aka "a bitch." Or, as Marlo Thomas once said, "A man has to be Joe McCarthy to be called ruthless, but all a woman has to do is put you on hold."

Catalyst, the not-for-profit New York-based women's research organization, reached the same conclusion when it surveyed 1,231 senior executives in the U.S. and Europe for a 2007 study called "The Double-Bind Dilemma for Women in Leadership: Damned If You Do, Doomed If You Don't." It found that masculine characteristics like assertiveness are considered necessary for leadership, but when women display the same characteristics, they come across as too harsh. Meanwhile, when women back off from competitive, self-promoting behavior and act in more traditional feminine ways, such as listening carefully and asking others' opinions, they're in just as much trouble. The reason: Instead of seeming too bossy, they're seen as ineffective and incompetent.

"When women follow masculine norms, they're too tough," said researcher Laura Sabatini, author of the Catalyst study. "But when they act in ways consistent with feminine stereotypes, they're too soft. No matter what women leaders do, they're in a real no-win situation."

In short, women are in one hell of a bind. How did such a thing happen? The simple answer is that people associate leadership with men. It's not hard to see why: According to the U.S. Department of Labor, while women make up 51% of management, professional and related occupations, at Fortune 500 companies, they account for only 2% of the CEOs, 15.6% of the corporate officers, and 14.6% of the board of directors.

Nor is it hard to see why women who want to get ahead are tempted to act like one of the guys. But as Lois Frankel, author of Nice Girls Don't Get The Corner Office, points out, we live in a society where we don't like women who act like stereotypical men (and vice versa-men should leave their "feminine side" at home). "It could be a career-buster if the president of a major corporation cried at a major shareholder meeting," Frankel said. "And if a woman seems to be ordering people around, that doesn't work either."

At the same time, however, a woman who wants to be considered boss material has to show that she's hard-driving enough to be a leader. "Men are understood to be competent," said Joan Williams, a professor at the University of California's Hastings College of Law and director of the Center for WorkLife Law. "If they make a mistake, they can recover. But (God forbid) if a woman takes a false step, it's because she wasn't up to the job."

Which brings up yet another Catch-22 twist: Being up to the job for a man means looking like a good bet-but for a woman it means having already done it. "A woman keeps running up against an implicit bias against her, and an extra need to prove herself," Williams said. "A man is judged on his potential, but a woman is judged on what she's already achieved. She has to have a track record, to have already proved herself." 

But even a list of kudos a mile long isn't enough to get her home free. At the same time she's showing off her "male" stuff, she's got to be vigilant that she's still got that compassionate, caretaking "woman" thing down. "If a man is extremely harsh, he's just direct and doesn't suffer fools lightly," Williams said. "Look at Larry Summers-long before he became president of Harvard, he was widely understood as having a foot-in-mouth problem, but that didn't disqualify him. It would be unbelievably unlikely for a woman lacking social skills to have made it that far."

To avoid the b-label, however, a woman needs more than social skills. She needs iron control over what has long been the prerogative most associated with power: anger at subordinates. When a man blows his stack, it's okay-depending on the circumstances, it might even be a plus-but for women, it's a no-no. In a telling experiment conducted by Yale social psychologist Victoria Brescoll, male and female observers watched videotapes of women and men (in reality, actors from the drama school) during supposed job interviews in which they displayed either anger or sadness about losing an account because of a coworker's lateness. When the viewers  rated the subjects' potential and decided their salaries, angry men got top marks and pay, sad men got second-best, sad women came in third, and angry women came in dead last.

In a subsequent experiment, Brescoll instructed the subjects, labeled as either CEOs or trainees, to show anger or placidity. Observers gave top competence marks and salaries to male CEOs, mid-range ratings and pay to unemotional females, and starting pay to trainees-but women who displayed anger, regardless of whether they were CEOs or trainees, came in for the lowest paycheck of anybody. In a third experiment, viewers increased the salaries of women subjects who explained their anger-but still gave the highest pay to men.

 No matter how you look at it, the deck seems stacked against women who want to get ahead. "I don't think things are much better today than when I graduated from law school," said Jill Wine-Banks, who has served as chief counsel of the U.S. Army and held top spots at Motorola and Maytag. "Women who speak like women get ignored, and women who speak like men are considered-well, let's just say 'witches.'"

Women can help themselves by doing the obvious, like avoiding angry outbursts. They can check out a potential workplace for how many women are high up on the corporate ladder, a reliable reflection of whether women are supported or squelched. They can look at what is actually expected of women who want to get ahead, so as to make a realistic estimate of what is needed to make an impression. When they hear a woman being trashed simply for being direct, they can ask-politely, of course-whether the speaker would say the same thing about a man.

They can also stay away from the kind of self-gender-stereotyping Wine-Banks, who now heads up a 50,000-student career program in the Chicago Public Schools, did during a cell-phone deal for Motorola in Moscow. The translator told her the Russians thought she was mean. Feeling hurt and upset, she phoned a close woman friend, the CEO of a major publishing company. "My friend said, 'What are you crying about?'" Wine-Banks says. "'If you were a man, you'd want them to think you're tough!'"

It could also help if, instead of thinking of themselves as facing a single impenetrable barrier or "glass ceiling," women see the workplace situation more as a kind of labyrinth. "It's a word that suggests a whole complex of problems," said Alice Eagly, a psychology professor at NorthwesternUniversity and coauthor of Through the Labyrinth: The Truth About How Women Become Leaders. "It implies that there's a route to where you want to go, to the center, but there's also a series of puzzles you have to solve-and you may not get there." 

The larger take-home message-if a woman wants to advance, she shouldn't be too tough or too nice-is a lot harder to act on. Gender stereotyping runs deep in our culture, and countering it is often a hard and lonely task.

Fortunately, a few forward-thinking companies are trying to change that. In 1993, the CEO at Deloitte and Touche noticed that although about half the new hires each year were women, there were only a handful of women up for partner. He launched a task force, and later an external advisory council, now headed by former astronaut Sally Ride, for the retention and advancement of women. The firm has since become the gold standard for developing a culture of inclusion and innovation. "We think it's the norm that has to be redefined," said Anne Weisberg, a director at Deloitte and senior advisor to the company's Women's Initiative. "It doesn't work or fit the majority of the workforce today. And that's not just women: It's senior men, young men, Gen X and Y, the millennials with a very different view of how they want their careers to unfold."

Ultimately, as women become more accepted in the workplace as administrators and bosses, the world will bristle less under their charge. But because such a paradigm shift will not occur rapidly, women who want to advance will have to develop techniques, like asking for feedback and presenting options. "If you lay out three options you can live with and tell people to pick the one they want, they'll feel like it's their idea," said Lois Frankel. "It's like giving a kid the choice of whether to go to bed at 7 or 7:15 or 7:30. He gets what he wants and you get what you want."

As Frankel sees it, the real trick is for women not simply to try to take over, the way a man would, but to take advantage of their own emotional intelligence-their self-awareness, their self-regulation, their empathy, and their social skills. "When women manage to marry those uniquely feminine characteristics with more directive male-style behavior," she said, "they won't be called 'bitches' any more."  

MBA Jungle, December 2007

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