Breaking out of the stereotype as a female leader

It’s arguably human nature to want to define people; we feel safer when we’ve figured someone out and put them in a box. However, by constructing walls in which to house others, assigning labels and creating barriers, we limit the possibilities.

In the workplace the damage done by pigeonholing different factions – including women – can be seen. The creation of female business stereotypes, both in terms of job roles and characteristics, has robbed organisations of talent for generations. Whether it’s a young girl choosing to be a primary school teacher rather than a doctor because she thinks only men go into medicine or a female leader being kept from reaching the top because she’s perceived to be ‘bossy’, there are examples everywhere of stereotypes preventing women from reaching their full potential.

However, a finger can’t be pointed solely at the opposite sex for upholding these outdated views of women in the workplace. In fact, females themselves are often just as guilty for trying to box others into male and female roles.

This is something Nancy Mattenberger, Vice President for Global Consulting Services at Infor, experienced early in her career when she tried to make the jump from HR to technology. “I got a lot of people when I was trying to move from operational HR to IT saying “don’t move out of your lane, it’s not possible”,” she explained to Primeast. “I even remember a significant conversation with a senior HR lady saying as a woman our careers are limited to being HR or to be a hostess in an airline, etc etc. I couldn’t believe I was hearing that kind of language coming out of an HR VPs mouth.”

So how can females shed the stereotypes and help to create greater equality in the workplace?

The first challenge is to question socially ingrained ideas about male and female professionals, especially when it comes to terminology.

Changing language

In 2011, Anne M. Koenig, Alice H. Eagly, Abigail A. Mitchell, and Tina Ristikari made a study of the masculine nature of leader stereotypes. The academics found that the characteristics people typically associate with leadership are often stereotypically masculine. Assertiveness, force, dominance and competitiveness – four notions commonly used to describe the qualities of leaders – all have masculine connotations. It’s rare, Koenig and her colleagues pointed out, that the stereotype female traits of affection, compassion, warmth and gentility are used.

By linking stereotypically male characteristics to leadership, it’s easier for men to be thought of as successful leaders. This is called role congruity. In an article for Footnote, Eagly from Northwestern University and Koenig from the University of San Diego explained that women are stuck between a rock and a hard place because of this. When they conform to female stereotypes they are thought to be poor leaders, but if they adopt stereotypically male characteristics they are penalised.

This was seen in the case of Jill Abramson, the first female executive director of the New York Times, who was fired due to clashes with Times publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr. Her demeanor was criticised as being “pushy”, “stubborn”, “uncaring” and “brusque”. Eagly and Koenig have questioned if Abramson would have been described in the same way if she were a man.

This is an issue that has been taken up by the Ban Bossy Campaign, which looks at why when a male takes charge he is called a leader but a girl is called bossy. Stars like Beyonce, Jennifer Garner and Condoleezza Rice took part in a video to help put an end to women being negatively labelled for displaying signs of leadership.

In order to change the words stereotypically used to describe women and criticise them when they display traits perceived to be male, professionals have an obligation to try to take gender out of the words they use. Think about the connotations of words when describing a colleague, be they male or female. If everyone makes a concerted effort and women themselves stop describing other females as bossy, then negative stereotypes won’t be reinforced.

Think equal

Stereotypes won’t come to an end until there is equality when it comes to job roles. Children need to be told from a young age that they can be anything they want to be.

“In Australia I used to participate in an initiative that was aimed at high school teenagers, girls in particular,” Nancy said. “It was sponsored by Oracle and we would have these 14, 15 year old teenagers come in and they would say things like “it’s not cool to be a geek” and “a woman needs to be sexy and have a sexy career”. We would really try to talk to them at their level and let them know that technology can be cool: you can move around the world, you meet a lot of great people and as a woman this is what you can achieve.”

Women need to believe that they can be anything they want to be – and so can men – whether that’s a CEO or a stay-at-home parent. Primeast recognises that all talent needs to be liberated in order for an organisation to reach prime performance. This means creating opportunities and harnessing the abilities of both sexes.

Don’t take no for an answer

“I didn’t listen to what people said, moved industries, tried new things, moved countries, took risks and moved up the chain,” Nancy explained. “For me that risk paid off. If I had listened to people along the way, I don’t think would have got very far.”

Ultimately, to break out of gender stereotypes, the most important thing is not to listen to them. By being persistent and refusing to take no for an answer, female positions will undoubtedly change. As more women move into leadership, it will become the norm.

Embracing being the boss

In order for female stereotypes to change, it will be important for women to embrace all qualities associated with being ‘the boss’. Being afraid of being classed as bossy or seen as masculine will only reinforce negative gender roles and ensure the glass ceiling stays firmly in place. While this won’t change the views of society, it will result in more women climbing the ladder and stop women in the boardroom being a rare sight.

For more information, read ‘Gender parity will take 81-years – what can we do?‘ and ‘Supporting women into leadership‘.