Women Leaders: Competent but Disliked

talk behind you
“…Women leaders experience social backlash because of their success. They are expected to be nice, warm, friendly, and nurturing. So, 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…” Marianne Cooper, Harvard Business Review

I have taken a public position on gender discrimination: Each one of us, (man or woman) is responsible about what we leave behind regardless of the obstacles we all face. But at the same time, one cannot turn a blind eye on the reality of perceptions, expectations and norms – and specifically about issues at the workplace and how women in power are perceived.

Powerful people are powerful regardless of their sex, color or money. It’s the character that matters, the heart, the determination and stamina to fight. Yet, the older (and wiser (?) I get, I am often blown away about how “progress” sometimes is going backwards.

How many more years, decades, centuries do we have to go through to get over this stereotypical idea that women in positions of authority are supposed to be nicer than men?

Consider the famous Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins US Supreme Court Case:

Ann Hopkins worked for Price Waterhouse for five years when she was nominated for partnership after playing a key role in landing a $25 million contract with the U.S. Department of State. At the time, the accounting firm had 662 partners, only seven of whom were women, and Hopkins was the only woman out of 88 people nominated for partnership that year. Hopkins’ efforts were described as “outstanding,” but her partnership was put on hold because her perceived aggressiveness rubbed fellow employees the wrong way. One partner described her as “macho.” Another suggested she take “a course at charm school.” Yet another suggested her chances for partnership might improve if she learned to “walk more femininely, talk more femininely, dress more femininely, wear makeup, have her hair styled, and wear jewelry.” The U.S. Supreme Court, which heard her appeal when she sued, agreed she had a case for discrimination. “We sit not to determine whether Ms. Hopkins is nice, but to decide whether the partners reacted negatively to her personality because she is a woman.”

Think about it: You certainly know of similar situations and specific environments where some women – and particularly women managers – are perceived as too soft or too tough but never just right. They face higher standards and lower rewards than men leaders. And some are perceived as competent or liked, but rarely both.

This is not about feminism (the mention of it alone has become an anathema to many of us – no, I don’t like labels, thank you very much). It’s about the realization that acting human is always the preferred way…


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