The paradox facing women leaders

Susy Roberts says women leaders are still stuck between a rock and a hard place – but it doesn’t have to be this way. 

Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of HP and 2016 US Republican presidential candidate, is routinely referred to either a bimbo or a b*tch, she says

As a leader of a global company and aspiring head of the free world, her significant talents, skills and accomplishments (she was the first woman to take control of a Fortune 100 company, created one of the most successful initial public offerings in US history, and named the most powerful woman in American business) were reduced to two derogatory words used to keep women firmly in their place.

Push too hard? You’re a b*tch. Look good and show compassion? Must be a bimbo. What do women need to do to be accepted in leadership positions? It’s apparently simple, says recent research: you must be warm and nice AND competent and tough. 

This 2018 paper shows that little has changed over the last two decades. A 1998 study  into the differences between men and women in the workplace found that women were described as ‘emotional’, ‘weak’ and ‘dependent’, while men were associated with higher levels of ‘mastery’, greater assertiveness and individualism. 

Fiorina’s experience shows that these stereotypical attitudes towards women in the workplace don’t ease as you get higher up the ladder. She was described by Fortune magazine as not just reaching the glass ceiling but obliterating it, yet that wasn’t enough for her to be accepted on merit. Women must be placed firmly into one of society’s clearly labelled boxes regardless of their achievements.

Ultimately, we need to change societal expectations, but – as research spanning 20 years shows – this isn’t a quick or easy task.

While men are expected to be – and rewarded for being – competent and tough, women who display the same traits are accused of being aggressive. Those who display the ‘warm and nice’ traits described in the 2018 paper are seen as weak and emotional. How do women win?

Ultimately, we need to change societal expectations, but – as research spanning 20 years shows – this isn’t a quick or easy task.

There are companies who are working hard to address this: Fujitsu’s ‘Stand Out’ programme appoints female role models within the business who are supported by internal and external communications teams to share their success stories via blogs and social media posts; Accenture’s ‘Getting to Equal’ strategy provides a global digital platform where women can share advice, insights and experience, and are given personalised mentoring and training for self-development. All positive steps.

But there’s a long way to go before the gender imbalance is evened out. While we wait for society to catch up, how do leaders – male and female – approach this situation? How can we attempt to tackle such an unfair disadvantage that we experience in all walks of life, not just in the boardroom?

First, we need to be much clearer about the importance of diversity in the workplace. According to Women in the Workplace, women are at a disadvantage which increases steadily throughout their career. Women make up 31% of employees at graduate level, 27% of managers, 26% of senior managers or directors, 24% of vice presidents and only 19% of senior vice presidents or the c-suite. 

One proven way to counteract this bias is to give women role models. A University of Minnesota study showed that economic and social behaviour was significantly affected by a series of identity traits; those who were shown someone more similar to themselves in a work situation had a significantly increased level of engagement.

Developing formal mentoring schemes and pairing young talent with female leaders – preferably with other similar economic and social traits – gives talented young women someone familiar to emulate. However, before we can help women to progress, we must ensure that they are given opportunities to begin with.

There should be very clear recruitment criteria to ensure the best candidate is given the position, but if there are male and female candidates who are equally qualified and suited to the role, current figures mean that we would need to appoint and promote more women than men for decades to redress the balance.

This presents a problem in itself – cries of reverse gender discrimination give women yet another obstacle to overcome to prove that they’re in their role because of merit, rather than to meet a tick-box exercise in diversity.

It’s a catch 22, but there are steps women can take to progress as individuals while also driving societal change.


Focusing on self-development, demonstrating competence and achieving results are traits all successful leaders should exhibit. However, while successful women in leadership positions have no problem in evidencing these skills, they tend to be far less vocal than men when it comes highlighting them. Unsurprisingly, as self-promoting women face a backlash that is not experienced by men 

But self-promotion is essential if we’re going to tackle this gender imbalance and ensure the recognition for success is placed with the person who deserves it. At the same time, we need to give younger or less senior talented women the opportunity to emulate the behaviour of someone they identify with.

Harvard Business Review’s article exploring the 2018 research into how women balance the gendered norms of leadership described four paradoxical areas identified by the paper’s authors. With the right tools and techniques, it is possible to achieve a balance. 

  • Be demanding and caring: It’s absolute fine to be demanding and stretch people – as long as you support them to achieve the goals you set them and help them to focus on self-development.
  • Be authoritative yet participative: Authority is about setting vision and clarity – where are we going and how will we get there? Focusing on clear objectives but ensuring that you include people’s views and ideas about how you achieve those objectives creates strong and impactful leadership.
  • Advocate for yourself while serving others: Leaders and managers should consult their own leader about their personal aspirations and ask for feedback about how these can be achieved. Developing your own career while advocating for the needs of the team is a basic requirement in leadership, and scheduling regular conversations with mentors and superiors to discuss successes and shortcomings is essential.
  • Maintain a distance but be approachable: Honesty is the best policy. Strong communication and leading by example will ensure you are a strong influencer with integrity.

It’s not appropriate for a leader of either sex to be either rude, aggressive or intimidating, neither is it effective to be too focused on the emotional impact of any difficult decisions which must be made. But it is possible to show compassion while demonstrating strong leadership.


About the author

Susy Roberts is an executive coach and founder of people development consultancy Hunter Roberts.


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