It would be wonderful if the way people view an effective leader did not depend on your gender. But the reality is that women leaders, according to an opinion piece in the New York Times, can fall into a likability trap -- in which the same authoritative behavior that men in leadership positions display triggers intense dislike from others when it's used by a woman.

Many organizations reward "emotionally tone deaf and grabby" behavior in white men "that's considered socially inappropriate in women," noted the author of the Times article, Joan Williams, a professor at UC Hastings Law, San Francisco. I find myself agreeing with Williams' point that "both men and women [should be] rewarded for displaying empathy [and/or] a willingness to put the common good above self-interest."

Though empathy is not my strong point, I try to do this in my leadership roles and I enjoy working most for leaders who do the same -- regardless of their gender. While there's no easy way to close the gap between the way the world should be and the way it is, Williams interviewed some 200 women in her research on gender and the workplace to explore the reality.

I see a model of emotional balance at play in what she describes in her piece. When a female leader asserts enough authority to set a new direction, it makes some people dislike her. To overcome that dislike, she takes some actions that are stereotypically female which evoke enough warm feelings to offset the dislike induced by her assertiveness. This strikes me as unfair since women should not need to do more work than male leaders to be effective.

To further that idea, here are four tactics described by Williams that effective women leaders use to overcome the likability trap-- some of which I find useful as well, regardless of gender.

1. When raising capital, stress your startup's social impact.

It strikes me as particularly outrageous that the standards for successful capital raising are different for women. Yet Williams found that female entrepreneurs had better success raising money for their startups if they presented their ventures as having a social impact.

As Williams wrote, researchers Matthew Lee and Laura Huang found that the "cover" of social impact -- which reflected the stereotype of the community-focused woman -- helped overcome the dislike induced by that of the the hard-driving entrepreneur.

This "cover" cheapens the importance of a startup's social impact generally and subtly disrespects the skills of the founders. 

2. When negotiating salary, use softeners.

The use of softeners can preserve a relationship likely to be stressed by a tough negotiation so it makes sense for all negotiators. Softeners are phrases intended to lessen the pain that that the speaker is about to cause.

For example, recently I was interviewing an executive on a topic that I knew he would find painful to discuss. So I began my question by saying, "I realize this is a touchy subject, however.." Williams gave an example of Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg doing the same kind of softeners tactic in her salary negotiation with Zuckerberg. The point is, whether you're talking on a touchy subject or in a high-stakes negotiation, using softeners helps dillute negative feelings toward leadership beahviors.

3. To overcome resistance to tough decisions, use 'gender judo.'

I believe leaders should rule by love rather than fear. Doing this, however, can give women a reputation as being the 'office mom,' as Williams points out. Once a woman is the boss, the office mom stereotype can help her build a reserve of love from her employees. When tough decisions she makes cause people to dislike her, those reserves of warmth will see her through.

Williams called this gender judo. To wit, she interviewed a former CEO who did this, who described "I'm warm Ms. Mother 95 percent of the time, so that the 5 percent of the time when I need to be tough, I can be." 

4. To feel more genuine, harness metaphors to cast masculine behavior in feminine terms.

I believe leadership style should reflect peoples' authentic selves. So I applaud women leaders who recast stereotypically masculine conduct in a female metaphor.

For example, a women in charge of winning new clients at a large consulting firm recast her role from the male "hunter" to the female "gardener." When colleagues brought up the idea that she was a hunter, she denied it and said she saw herself as someone who grew things.

I hope the need for such softeners is temporary and that new generations of leaders will be free of the gender stereotypes and organizational norms that make the softeners necessary.

Correction: An earlier version of this column misstated the university with which professor Joan Williams is affiliated. It is UC Hastings Law, San Francisco.

Published on: Aug 21, 2019
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