Let's Get Real: What it Really Takes to Champion Women at Work
“She rubs people the wrong way when giving feedback by being too direct and insensitive. She is too confrontational when advocating for her ideas.”
“She can be too apologetic when there is friction. She should be more comfortable challenging people and confident giving her opinions.”
“She needs to smile and make an effort to look happy. Her presence is strong, and she can be intimidating to others when her face is so serious.”
“She can be too respectful and cautious when there are big personalities in the room. She should stand out and be more assertive.”
“She is highly committed, but she should set better boundaries to enjoy life outside of work.”
“It’s fine that she has a family and works from home sometimes, but she should be more diplomatic and not advertise that she has to leave.”
“She should think about her hairstyle and clothing choices, and if they help to convey the executive presence associated with her role.”
Coaching engagements often begin with a series of colleague interviews to solicit feedback about what’s going well and what should improve in a leader’s professional life to cultivate their potential. The quotes above are real and represent advice from male colleagues about what a female leader in their organization can do better.
I’m not sure if was a reaction to the pink-dyed popcorn or the lump in my throat after watching “Barbie” this weekend, but memories of these statements made about real working women rang loudly in my ears and weighed heavily on my heart. Greta Gerwig’s beautiful film has given millions the opportunity to think long and hard about the expectations we have for women in our society.
As an executive coach charged with the task of helping professionals develop their potential, I have a front-row seat to witness the complex expectations we have for women at work. I see the ways we believe we champion women at work and also recognize how woefully short we are falling.
Ladies, be assertive and speak up for your ideas, but not so assertive that you alienate people around you. Show commitment and put in the hours to succeed, but maintain a work-life balance and be there for your family. Drive results and deliver a healthy bottom line, but be empathetic and sensitive to the needs of others. Maintain a strong executive presence and know how to command a room, but smile, be pleasant, and don’t dominate meetings. Be organized, planful, and task-driven, but be flexible and open to change…the list of conflicting messages we subject professional women to is endless.
While most organizations tout equality and aim to embrace the unique qualities of female leadership, they also expect women to mirror traditionally masculine leadership characteristics. The dueling and unrealistic expectations we impose upon women creates such a narrow and precise definition of female success that most women feel they are walking a tightrope to survive. Every female executive has heard some version of "be more of this, less of that" over the course of her career. The expectations of women are so diverse and subjective that we almost expect them to be professional chameleons - able to adapt their approach based on the demands of each person they interact with, or risk negative evaluations of their leadership performance.
At the same time, male executives seem to have broad discretion and a lot of leeway to decide how they want to show up at work. Performance evaluations for women often reveal detailed scrutiny of how a woman speaks, dresses, and manages her time, while men are held accountable for the results they achieve. We do not insist that men embrace qualities typically inherent to women, such as empathy and collaboration, and we tolerate the negative impacts of an individualistic or hardline approach as long as he gets the job done. Although our society has made tremendous strides toward female equality since the 1970s, American workplace culture still focuses performance accountability for men, and style, approach, and behavior with our professional women.
Although the sample size of hundreds of colleague feedback interviews I’ve conducted over the course of my coaching career might be easily dismissed by some as anecdotal, significant patterns have emerged from these experiences that inform my perspective. I believe we unconsciously create an impossibly narrow and conflicting lane of acceptability for women and lack equal accountability for men in professional life.
We expect women to take a neutral approach when advocating for their ideas and influencing others to their way of thinking. Most female executives have been told at one time or another that they are either too tough, aggressive, or assertive, and/or too timid, meek, and reserved. If we speak too passionately, we are bossy and argumentative, if we speak too little, we are deemed "not executive material." On the other hand, male executives are rarely corrected for impassioned and relaxed methods of influence. We allow male executives greater flexibility in their approach to win people over and don’t raise concerns unless the delivery is somehow egregious. Yet women are rarely afforded the same level of professional acceptance when they use too much or too little influence with colleagues.
Although we seldom admit it, we expect women to be pleasant to work with and notice even small infractions against this unspoken norm. We subconsciously expect women to smile, communicate well, collaborate, and be team-oriented. Female executives who don’t adhere to stereotypical female behavior are quickly labeled as unapproachable, territorial, and difficult to work with. We easily impugn character when women exhibit behaviors that defy our expectations and fail to consider the context and circumstances of her behavior reflects. At the same time, we hold male executives to standards of pleasantry and enjoyment to work with. They are celebrated for their independence and assertiveness, as well as tolerated if they give off an air of unapproachability. We easily excuse male collaboration infractions and look to extenuating circumstances before attacking their character.
We expect women to be good mothers and daughters and remain attentive toward family needs, yet our corporate culture expects them to compete with male executives who have no such expectations. The forty-hour work week was created with the understanding that someone is at home to care for family members unable to put their needs on hold between the hours of 9 and 5. Women have joined the workforce in droves since World War II, yet no one thought to reevaluate the impact of 9-to-5 working commitments on those charged with building a career and attending to family life. Scarce and inequitable parental leave policies, inadequate childcare provisions, and inflexible working policies have created an uphill battle for women charged with competing in the workplace while shouldering the lion’s share of family care responsibilities. It is as though we ask both men and women to run a professional marathon, strap women with the tremendous weight of responsibility for home and family, and expect them to cross the finish line ahead of men to achieve success.
We expect our women to uphold the physical characteristics derived from stereotypes of femininity. Corporate culture demands that women are polished, professional, and impeccable, or else face the consequences of lost opportunities. Hairstyle, makeup, clothing, jewelry, and nails have to meet expectations of femininity, and cannot draw too much attention in either a positive or negative direction. Our vision of a successful leader also includes a requirement of fitness, energy, and health. We lack tolerance for any deviations from the norm, and somehow preserved antiquated formerly reserved for 1960s flight attendants in today’s corporate world. Men just have fewer chances to get it wrong and more flexibility with the norms we establish for their professional appearance. In all my years of coaching, I have never been asked to address a man's physical appearance because as long as male executives show up within a very broad range of hygiene acceptability, we don’t give a second thought to how they present themselves.
I wish I could tell you that I have the answers to addressing the expectations gap we have for leaders based on gender. The societal and cultural factors that influence gender expectations are so deeply ingrained that the cause-effect relationship we expect to find between problems and solutions in the corporate world is frustratingly elusive. One of the best contributions I can make to the dialog, as a female executive and coach who has seen the impact of gender disparities more times than I can count, is to let my professional sisters out there know they are not alone. I can lend a voice to the feeling that women everywhere have been grappling with for as anyone can remember – the feeling that nothing we ever do is good enough.
To The Ladies...
When mothers pay too much attention to their careers, they feel like they're failing as mothers – yet when our kids need us, we are failing our teams at work. Those of us who chose to build families are expected to pay the price of diminished career advancement opportunities, then applaud men who achieve success unencumbered by caregiving responsibilities. Women without children are assumed to be available at all times and expected to devote unlimited hours to get the work done. We deprioritize the time of those who do not have children or are yet to have them, and no one ever stops to think that they might have a life outside of work too. We are either too ambitious or not committed enough, too emotional or not passionate enough, too bossy or too passive, too focused or too distracted…And at the end of the day, we are all expected to find a quiet, minuscule, sweet spot of perfection in a storm of conflicting expectations. Then we wonder why we are feeling tired, hopeless, and unworthy of any success we manage to achieve.
At the same time, I believe our collective female consciousness is rising from the anxiety and depression of unmet expectations toward a gentle acceptance of who we really are – uniquely feminine, and perfectly imperfect in every way. We all have gifts we bring to the places we work. It is essential for us to remember that our task is not to conform to societal expectations. Our task is to make, and support each other in making, professional contributions consistent with our deepest values.
My approach will likely always be a little too direct and forthright for most. I will intimidate others with my high expectations and lose patience easily with those who don’t share my sense of urgency. I will speak with passion, advocate strongly for my ideas, and miss every opportunity to back away from conflict. In exchange for these feminine expectation infractions, I offer an unwavering commitment to excellence, a results-driven approach, and a steadfast focus on doing what’s right for myself and my team. I lead with honesty, integrity, and even a little humor for good measure, and when it's all said and done, I win most people over with my championing of their growth and development. I know who I am, and I know what I bring to the table, therefore I am secure with my professional contributions. I have finally reached the point where I am not so easily swayed to change my approach based on subjective feedback from anyone in my professional world.
My wish is that female executives stay in touch with the value they create and have confidence in their professional contributions. When we are confident in the unique quality of our professional gifts and navigate our working lives in accordance with the principles we value most, we develop resilience against the well-intentioned efforts of others to align us with perfectionistic expectations of female behavior. We need to learn to accept the nuggets of wisdom that can be found in feedback and develop the courage to dismiss advice that does not align with our own professional values.
While I believe wholeheartedly that we need to lift each other up (and do a better job of not judging other women or tearing them down), advocate for workplace policy reform, and hold a mirror to the subjection of women to male-dominated standards for behavior, I also believe this battle can be fought and won with one act of self-compassion at a time. Forgive yourself for any failure to conform to other’s expectations and remember that your relationship with yourself is the one that matters most.
And Gentlemen too...
My second contribution to this important dialog is to offer advice to the male executives who recognize the expectations gap between male and female executives and want to do what they can to close it. Most of the men I’ve worked with care deeply about supporting women in leadership positions, yet also fail to fully recognize how ingrained these societal expectations are. From my humble vantage point, I believe this is a good place to start:
Be curious. Ask female executives about their experiences living up to expectations associated with women in leadership positions. Listen to understand, not necessarily intervene, and show a concerted effort to see the world through the lens of their experiences. Avoid defending the company or the male perspective as a whole, and aim to listen without judgment or the obligation to respond.
Be cautious. Before you give feedback or career development advice to a female executive, ask yourself if you would give similar feedback to a male colleague. Would you advise a male professional to be more neutral or to avoid impassioned methods of influence? Do your expectations for female executives consider the policy barriers she must overcome as a caregiver, or do you assume availability from those without family commitments? Would you ask a male executive to smile more, or be more approachable? Have you thought about the details of a male colleague’s appearance and thought to offer critiques about how he can look more professional? Pay attention to the traps of professional gender norms and think critically before offering feedback along these lines.
Be proactive. Become highly critical of the support your organization offers to female executives, especially those with child or elder care responsibilities. Be passionate about leveling the playing field for men and women in the corporate world and challenge the professional standards we establish for primary caregivers. Are existing benefits, policies, and expectations flexible enough to support those with varying degrees of responsibility outside of work? Be an advocate for meaningful change with the women in your organization and seize opportunities to support them with generous, flexible, and fair practices.
All of this is not to disparage men and encourage a rebellion against the patriarchy…well, maybe a little. At the end of the day, my hope is to empower women to release themselves from obligations to fulfill unfair gender-based professional expectations and challenge men to think differently about the narrow definitions of success we establish for women at work. I realize this issue is far more complex than a series of tips or dos and don’ts that attempt to band-aid the issue and call it solved. I also recognize and validate my position of privilege - as a white female who was given every opportunity to succeed – and the likely impact it has on my perspective. While I cannot speak for all women, I can certainly bear witness to the trends I observe in organizational culture and embrace my audacious hope to move the conversation in the right direction.
To read America Ferrara's speech in "Barbie" that so beautifully describes the impossible expectations our society has for women, click here.
To learn more about the impacts of a patriarchal society on women, read Patriarchy Stress Disorder: The Invisible Barrier to Women's Happiness and Fulfillment.