Women and the Face of Leadership

by Evelyn Kalinosky on December 30, 2009

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In a recent article, I wrote about the myth of the C-suite and why so few women are reaching the uppermost echelons within companies and organizations. Despite years of progress by women in the workforce – they now occupy more than 40% of all managerial positions in the U.S. – within the C-suite they are far scarcer. When you look at Fortune 500 companies, the most highly paid executives with titles such as chairman, chief executive officer, president and COO, only 6% are women. More importantly, only 2% of the CEOs are women, and only 15% of the seats on the boards of directors are held by women.

One of the obstacles along the career path to the C-suite has to do with leadership style. Women often struggle to develop an effective and appropriate leadership style, one that balances the “communal” qualities people would rather see in women with the “mover and shaker” qualities people think leaders need to be successful. Women are not “men in skirts,” and there is the possibility that women who behave like men will be penalized. It’s not easy for a woman to strike that authentic balance as a leader.

I thought about this today after coaching a client who is frustrated with the double standard she feels exists between how men and women lead. She is a collaborator by nature, a trait that is normally seen in a positive light, but in the leadership arena consensus often equates to an inability to take a stand. Wishy-washy. Indecisive. If she acts in an autocratic manner she is seen as “behaving like a man” and her approval rating takes a hit. This double bind wreaks havoc on her ability to lead, and she struggles to strike a balance that is both effective and authentic.  

Women leaders regularly find themselves in this Catch 22 situation. If they exhibit traits typically associated with males, they will likely be resented and considered “too aggressive” for the position. Studies that have tracked reactions to men and women displaying different types of dominant behavior have consistently shown that this behavior is more damaging to women than it is to men. Assertive behavior can reduce a woman’s chances of getting a job or advancing in her career. Interestingly, studies bear out that men can communicate in either a warm or a dominant manner without experiencing a penalty either way.

Think for a moment about the word “leadership.” Now with that thought in mind, add the picture of a man and what comes to light? Do the words ambitious, decisive, commanding, demanding and aloof (among others) trip off the tongue? Do we envision such traits as collaborative, social, communal, nurturing and compassionate when we think about women and leadership? Do we begin to get uncomfortable if we flip flop these traits, or when men and women behave in a style that clashes with our assumptions?

Research and statistics have pointed to women leaders as more socially oriented and collaborative while male counterparts are seen as task oriented and dominating, and while I don’t doubt the validity of these findings, I do question their origin. How much of this has to do with biology and how much is due to sociological factors?  How much of this is true nature and predisposition, and how much is conditioning and gender stereotyping?

Talking about gender stereotypes and leadership success is multifaceted and complex – it’s way more than just a set of numbers and statistics. Yet it’s crucial that these conversations take place in order to break down and change longstanding beliefs about gender roles and dynamics. Breaking down gender stereotypes requires that we examine our presumptions. Often that involves painful excavation and removal of the false beliefs, judgments and restrictions we hold around what constitutes male/female behavior. Until these are brought to the surface and acknowledged, true change cannot take place.

By observing, understanding and transforming past patterns that dictate today’s beliefs about leadership we can take steps to create a new paradigm; a new set of beliefs that aren’t based on defined gender roles or qualities, but on what factors constitute the best in leadership. 

That’s what my client is trying to do. She’s not ready or willing to throw the baby out with the bath water when it comes to leadership style. For her, a collaborative approach is a strategic and systematic one that creates levels of accountability and alignment that drive results. She refuses to jettison that trait in favor of appearing more decisive.  She’s also learning to become more comfortable with the ambiguity even as she works to change it.

Collectively, we need a long lens to go back in our history to connect the dots of what it meant to be a man or woman through the generations. Then we can take what qualities are effective and necessary to good leadership and put a new face on them. Not a male face. Not a female face. But the face of a leader.



Are you a woman executive whose career is beginning to wear like a tight-fitting pair of heels? If so, this call is for you! There is still time to register for my free one-hour teleclass: “Your Turning Point: The First Step Toward Your Extraordinary Life Waiting for You” that’s scheduled for January 12, 2010 at 12:00 p.m. ET/9:00 a.m. PT. The only thing you need to commit to is 60 minutes of your time, and I’d love to have you be a part of the conversation and the journey.  You can learn more by following this link: http://www.evelynkalinosky.com/yourturningpoint.

Evelyn is a catalyst and mentor for business women in midlife transition. She specializes in working with women age 40 forward who are ready to claim – or reclaim – their Sacred Capital. Her passion is to create a new paradigm in how we think about aging, specifically, how we think about women aging.

Her award-winning Inner Affluence Blog received top honors in 2011 and 2012 as “Best Coaching Blog” by the School of Coaching Mastery, and she was named “1 of 101 Women Bloggers to Watch in 2011″ by WE Magazine for Women. In addition to being a coach and mentor, Evelyn is a speaker and published poet.

You’re welcome to use this article on your website, blog or in your ezine if you include the entire post without modification and link it back to www.InnerAffluence.com. If you liked this article, you’ll want to visit www.InnerAffluence.com and sign up for Evelyn’s bi-weekly ezine to receive more comprehensive information, strategies, and resources for the midlife business woman.

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  • http://www.makeyourmessyourmessage.wordpress.com Beverly Mahone

    I had a female boss in television who chose to use her femininity to get to the top. She got pretty far with that sex appeal. The men loved her and would do anything for her. The women–meanwhile–saw straight through her and cringed over her behavior. Ultimately her feminine wiles caught up with her and got her fired. How was she any different than David Letterman? He used his position of authority—she used her body to gain a position of authority. This is just an example of how we, as women, need to change the way we think about ourselves as we climb up the ladder.

  • http://www.evelynkalinosky.com Evelyn

    Good point, Bev. Power has no face. It’s neither male or female, and abuse of power can happen on both sides of the gender fence. The real focus needs to be on what traits makes an effective and authentic leader, and at the top of the list are qualities like integrity and respect. Authority is not the same thing as leadership – at least not in my book.

  • http://connectsimply.com/blog Heidi Caswell

    Just off the phone who is frustrated. She applied for an upper level management position in her company. She had the knowledge, skills, etc. She was in the final round of those they considered for the position, which was given to a man with less experience. If I remember right, something was said behind the scenes about not sure how some of the men would take to having a woman as a boss. Now she hears complaints about how that person isn’t doing his job well. Not giving up, as she’s had a couple more years to prove herself, she is trying for an opening in another department.

  • http://www.evelynkalinosky.com Evelyn

    Heidi, I’m sure there are many women out there who share her frustration and I applaud her for refusing to give up. Women may have to try harder (like Avis) to prove themselves, but they can use this to their advantage if channeled properly. In male dominated environments in particular it may take longer for men to get comfortable with women being in a position of authority. It may take longer to build relationships and for them to realize that even though she wears a skirt, she has a vision and the skills to back it up. There may be the tempation to revert to a victim mentality that blames it on the good old boy network, but very few women who I talk with would consider that as an option. We’ve come a long way, baby, but we’ve still got a long way to go!

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