be likeable but tough, or, how to lead if you’re a woman

This is my logo thanks to Jane Pica, a super talented artist.

“Dawn, CEO of a nonprofit organization, explained how she did this through something as simple as clothing: ‘I try always to dress just ever so slightly more formal than employees, except on Fridays when I dress very informal to show that I’m also not stiff and unapproachable. Generally we have fun, but… there is a little bit of distancing that I try to maintain… I want people to see that I’m fair-minded and not playing favorites.'”

From, “How Women Manage the Gendered Norms of Leadership”, Harvard Business Review, November, 2018

I’d like you draw your attention to a couple of pieces of info in this quote. Dawn is a Chief Executive Officer. She has to think about what SHE WEARS TO WORK ON FRIDAYS so that she appears “approachable” and “relaxed”. She doesn’t want people to think she plays favourites. She has to distance herself, BUT JUST A LITTLE BIT. She needs to show that she is fair minded. She has to dress JUST a bit more formally from MONDAY TO THURSDAY.

Ok, I know, you think I’m exaggerating for effect. Yes, I am, but I also want you to read this quote that was published in the Harvard Business Review on gendered leadership norms. It’s 2019. We’re not talking about how Dawn, the CEO, is developing strategy or managing her not for profit successfully. We are, once again, talking about what Dawn wears to work. How Dawn interacts with her colleagues so as to not appear as either a push over or unlikeable.

This is the tightrope women leaders walk everyday. Likeability isn’t just a thing that female politicians have to contend with. Being likeable but also authoritative is the delicate balance we have to strike. These gendered leadership norms are regressive and dysfunctional and very persistent. They also play into the stereotype that women leaders are trying to be likeable, as if we have to work at it. Or that we can’t be authoritative and likeable at the same time, that, as the HBR put it, they are “opposed” or “in juxtaposition”.

” Instead, we continue to see that the average performance of leaders and managers is pretty disappointing. More bosses are contributing to burnout, anxiety, boredom, and productivity losses than driving top team or organizational performance. Just google “my boss is” to see how most people experience leadership in their work and careers: “crazy, abusive, unbearable, toxic…” and some other options that are just too rude to repeat here”.

Harvard Business Review, March 2019

I would like to think that you can be personable and authoritative, commanding and compassionate at the same time. Is this not just good leadership? Can we not care about “getting the job done” and “caring about the people” at the same time? My experience is that “caring about the people” is highly gendered, yes, but many women leaders don’t do it well or at all. And there are definitely men leaders that I have worked with that care deeply about the people that they work with. They’re just good leaders in my view.

“And yet, if our solution is to train women to emulate the behavior of men, by asking them to promote themselves more, take credit for other people’s achievements, blame others for their own mistakes, and focus on their own personal career interests, as opposed to the welfare of their teams or organization, we may end up increasing the representation of women in leadership without increasing the quality of our leaders”.

Harvard Business Review, March 2019

So, let’s talk instead about what good leaders do. Let’s talk about how we can show compassion in our work environment, for ourselves and for others, and I promise you, the job will get done. xo Janet

Published by Janet Gwilliam-Wright

Feminist and queer. Professional teller of truths. Slayer of personal demons.

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