When a man strongly asserts his point of view and autonomy, he is hailed as a strong, competent leader. When a woman exhibits the same executive qualities, she is labeled a brusque, overbearing bitch. This is not really news anymore, is it? Yet these unfair perceptions are a key reason why only five percent of Fortune 500 company CEOs are women.
How can women leaders break through that brick wall of "bitch"? How can they manage gender expectations and still successfully climb the corporate ladder?
Breaking Through "Bitch" takes an innovative, sometimes controversial approach, using stories from executives at the highest corporate levels to show how women can hone their innate skills, rise to the top, and be effective, outstanding leaders. It addresses head-on why women cannot and should not "act like men."
Breaking Through "Bitch":
Breaking Through "Bitch" empowers women to be their best selves, overcome stereotypes, and lead!
|Edition description:||First Edition|
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About the Author
Carol Vallone Mitchell, PhD, cofounded Talent Strategy Partners, a talent management consulting firm, in 2001. She has worked with numerous Fortune 500 companies to identify and develop leaders who can build and nurture the right workplace culture and drive results. She received her doctorate in organizational behavior from the University of Pennsylvania, where she developed the Womens Leadership Blueprint a behavioral profile of success. She uses this expertise and her 20 years of leadership development experience as a go-to speaker for companies and professional associations. Her passion and success lie in helping women in all fields step up to lead and succeed. Carol is based in the Philadelphia area.
Read an Excerpt
What's Sex Got to Do With It: The Impact of Stereotypes
Don't all good leaders have similar qualities that make them effective? Haven't we had the conversation about the different styles of leadership and when best to use them? Why would there be a difference in how great male and female leaders lead? What's sex got to do with it? Well, when female leaders who exhibit traditional male behaviors, are labeled "bitch," the answer is "a lot."
Leadership Is Masculine
When we think of leaders, many of the images we conjure up are distinctly male. We have familiar phrases that reinforce the maleness of power and leadership: manpower, the thinking man, fraternal order of police, statesman, forefathers, talking man-to-man, being man enough. The very lens that most people look through is a male one, often identifying leadership attributes in terms of sports or military imagery. A leader commands attention, doesn't pull punches, leads the troops, is a straight shooter. But that isn't so surprising when you consider what we expect of men in our society. It is virtually the same as what we expect of our leaders. In fact, it's easy to confuse leadership and masculinity. An effective leader is often admired for his command of the situation, his strength of character, for "being a man."
Masculinity is seen as consistent with powerful authoritative leadership, so much so that an ineffectual male leader is somehow seen as less of a man. The unspoken, or sometimes blatantly spoken, question is: "Is he man enough for the challenge?"
In a television advertisement, one male character taunts another male character who was not asserting himself by saying, "What, are you a girl?" In another commercial an adolescent boy calls another "an old lady" when he doesn't try a risky maneuver on his skateboard. A commercial depicting a football field practice shows a coach barking orders like a drill sergeant saying, "Come on, ladies." One could go on and on, but the trend here is evident.
Questioning the masculinity of leaders goes to show that traditional leadership behaviors are seen as "male." If he's not demonstrating these traditional behaviors he's not a man, or not "enough of a man." But the real problem here is that ineffectual leadership is then labeled as being female. This is continually reinforced through the media, and research also bears this out. In comparisons of how of gender and leadership are perceived, men are described similarly to how leaders are described. How women are described doesn't even come close.
A male leader who is effective in the eyes of others is viewed as being more of a man. A man's sexual desirableness and male sexuality are associated with power. For heaven's sake, when a leader in business is courageous and "stands firm," we say he has balls! What is so tough about that part of the male anatomy? I am not even going to comment on "standing firm."
Men demonstrate that power physically, financially, and/or intellectually. Think about male figures idolized in our society: the man in uniform, be it military, police, firefighter, sports; the man who commands huge financial resources; the brilliant entrepreneur. These men that demonstrate mastery and power are seen as sexy.
So, for instance, effective leaders are "strong," "powerful," and "potent." Too often, masculine terms are used to mean good while feminine terms are used to mean bad. When I worked for a large firm, I received a copy of a memo summarizing our firm's financial results and utilization for the month. The memo was from finance to the head of U.S. operations. Bolded words are my own emphasis. The second paragraph read:
Utilization at the consultant level (XX%) continues to be strong exceeding budget. Utilization for all remaining levels lags target. Partners' utilization has been soft, dropping to (XX%) for the month of July.
The memo intends to convey that the consultant level was doing well because their utilization (billable hours) was higher than what was budgeted, whereas the partners were not doing well because their utilization was lower than budgeted. The use of the word strong to mean good, and the word soft to mean bad is just one example of how we continue to perpetuate gender issues. Words become so much a part of a lexicon that we don't even realize, or at least we don't think about, what their underlying meaning might be.
Getting back to the aggravating memo, look at the word soft. It has many definitions in the dictionary; a representative few are:
Marked by gentleness, kindness, or tenderness.
Lacking firmness or strength of character, feeble, unmanly.
Having relatively low penetrating power.
The word strong also has many definitions; representative ones are:
Having or marked by great physical power, robust.
Having morale or intellectual power.
Having great resources, wealth.
Power derived from muscular vigor, large size, structural soundness.
Using the word soft to describe poor business results and strong to describe good results implies that poor results have a feminine quality whereas good results are masculine.
Using the word soft to describe poor business results and strong to describe good results implies that poor results have a feminine quality whereas good results are masculine. And for heaven's sake, soft is described as having "low penetrating power." Need I say more?
The subtle association of leadership as male can creep in and be reinforced through images that are apparently beyond the conscious awareness of those in power. At a state-of-the-business meeting of a large management consulting firm, a presentation title slide bore the photo of the three top leaders posed at the end of the national mall, in front of the Washington Memorial. Of the 400 or so senior consultants in the room, only a handful of attendees chuckled at the fact that our pale male leaders where posing with perhaps the most prominent phallic symbol in the nation!
The Good Woman
So where does this leave women who want to lead? What are the images that come to mind when we think of women? Women can be seen in many different lights, but there are three female stereotypes that are reinforced and they feed into what we expect of women.
1. Woman as Nurturer
Women are caretakers of children, of elder parents, of the household. This image isn't reinforced as much today as it was in the sitcom days of Alice the maid on The Brady Bunch, but the expectation of nurturing certainly continues to be reinforced through various media. Commercials and print advertisements show women using the furniture polish, heating up the frozen dinner, extolling the benefits of a particular disposable diaper, far more than they show men engaging in these tasks.
2. Woman as Seductress
Every generation has its icons of sexuality. Our cars, our household products, our vacation destinations, and our health and beauty products are marketed to us by sexually idealized women. Some are subtle; some of the ads are blatant.
I will never forget Super Bowl XLVI in 2012. We had a small group of friends and family (all men but me, as it turned out) gathered to watch the game, including my husband's boss, who was in town from the UK. There was a commercial by a Web hosting company that will remain nameless. The commercial featured a female model on a pedestal wearing a scant bikini being painted with marketing information of the company. Later in the game the same company had a second commercial showing women on a dry ice–fogged stage wearing, yes, scant bikinis, talking to two young men about making all their (internet) dreams come true. One of the women in a feathered wrap, with apparently nothing else on, stepped out front and center as the two guys said, "Is this heaven?" She said, "No, but this is" as she was apparently opening the wrap. The screen whited out with a bright "heavenly" light in time to hide the "reveal-ation."
Okay, that was extreme, but there were five other commercials with women in bikinis, with women seducing someone (sometimes the TV viewer), or both. Sex sells, and in our society, sex is women in scant clothing and women acting seductively. The Super Bowl is notorious for its extravagant and edgy commercials, of course, but it does show how men like to see women. I was embarrassed, but the men watching these subtle and not-so-subtle commercials didn't blink an eye. (Because they didn't want to miss anything?)
3. Woman as Saint
These are women who are put on a pedestal. Mother Teresa, Princess Diana, Grace Kelly, and Jackie Onassis fit into that quintessential beauty-radiating-from-within, regal, and pure image we like to associate with women. Think Galadriel, the elf queen of power and wisdom in The Lord of the Rings, played by Cate Blanchett, who actually glows with an ethereal light when on screen!
Because these stereotypes are so valued, and so promoted as the ideal, they continue to get reinforced even as women take on more and very different roles. Although men also struggle to fit some stereotypes for the ideal man, those stereotypes are not inconsistent with leadership as are the stereotypes of women. (Although perhaps an elf queen would make it to the C-suite.) Though feminine traits that emphasize warmth and expressiveness are highly valued in society, these traits are not generally associated with leadership and power.
The challenge for women in positions of leadership — or working toward positions of leadership — is that they have to deal with the fact that we first have expectations of them as women. We expect them to be interpersonally sensitive to us, to be supportive of us, to be inclusive and welcoming. These are not typically what we expect from our male leaders.
The challenge for women in positions of leadership — or working toward positions of leadership — is that they have to deal with the fact that we first have expectations of them as women.
If a woman ignores the set of expectations we have of her as a woman and demonstrates behaviors associated with strong, competent leadership, she is frequently criticized. Her femininity or sexual orientation may be doubted. Her humanness, her normalcy, will be questioned. Her behavior will be viewed in exaggerated terms. We will see her as harsh, abrasive, aggressive — as in, "he's assertive; she's pushy." And yes, we will label her a "bitch."
The first female CEO in the auto industry went before the House and Senate to testify about her company's delay in recalling vehicles with defective ignition switches. A male colleague of mine watched some of her testimony and said she seemed unemotional and too defensive of her company. He said, "She didn't say, 'This is absolutely awful! We will do everything we can to fix this.'" I had to wonder if he would expect a male CEO to be "emotional."
Does She or Doesn't She?
The flip side of the coin is: What if a woman leader does demonstrate some of those behaviors we associate with women? Some research suggests that femininity has a negative effect on women's advancement and that "female managers should be cautious about demonstrating a feminine orientation that could reinforce perceptions of incompetency in the minds of organizational decision makers." The perception that a "feminine orientation" means incompetency certainly puts women in a catch 22! Demonstrate nurturing, interpersonally sensitive behaviors so that you aren't a "bitch" but don't be too feminine, or you will be seen as a "ditz" or, worse yet, a sex object. Can't win for losing!
This unfortunate phenomenon happened to a female VP heading a staff function at a Fortune 100 company. She was smart, attractive, and confident. She was knowledgeable, charming, witty — everything that seemed to be associated with being a successful woman leader. She was seen as a star initially; however, colleagues' perceptions of her changed over time and their comments reverberated in hallways and offices behind her back. Some women were disparagingly referring to her as "Barbie," and many of the men had written her off as a socialite and flirt. The same set of behaviors that made her a star when she first came to the company later somehow clouded the fact that she was a competent contributor. Her behavior had not changed, but people's perceptions had. She had been admired for her relationship-building and interpersonal skills when she was new to the company; however, those behaviors were later seen as flirtatious. And although these behaviors got her hired into a top job, woe to the one who exhibits them once she is there! People "sexualized" her behavior so that she was seen more as a seductress than a competent corporate leader.
Interestingly, an executive coach told another woman I know, who was a VP in the very same company as "Barbie," that she should wear makeup and "flirt a little." Yes, the company had hired a coach for this VP because she was seen as just a bit too masculine. Like I said before, can't win for losing!
Back to the hazards of demonstrating femininity, I worked with Meredith, an EVP of HR for a financial services company who was in her late 30s, was in a rush to have a program design, and wanted something impressive and snazzy to present to the executive leadership team in three days' time. My female colleagues and I were facilitating a daylong meeting with Meredith and her three female directors to develop an outline for the program. The three directors "sided" with us in various debates that morning, and Meredith became more defensive as time went on. We took a break as lunch was brought into the conference room. Meredith left for about 15 minutes and when she returned she had on dark — almost black — blood-red lipstick (think Rocky Horror Picture Show)! I looked across the table at my colleagues. One had a raised eyebrow; the other was visibly forcing herself not to crack a smile. It was as if Meredith had put on war paint to intimidate us and reclaim her power over the team. She was used to being the "alpha female" in the room, so the present situation did not sit well with her.
The lipstick was just the icing on the cake, or lips. Meredith always sported high-fashion edgy clothes, shoes, bags, and accessories, exuding an air of high-wattage superiority. The in-your-face emphasis on her sexuality was amped up a notch or two or three when she felt threatened and was fighting for territory. Her subordinates and executive peers alike saw Meredith, no surprise, as a "bitch." She was asked to leave the company six months after our design meeting.
I've seen this aggressive posturing — amping up sexuality — in other meetings where the attendees were all women. Angela, a director for an insurance company who was in her mid-30s, entered the conference room of her peers 20 minutes after the meeting had started. She glided into the room, took a seat at the head of the table, dramatically peeled off her closely tailored suit jacket, and stated, theatrically and nonchalantly, "Sorry I'm late." As we continued our discussion, Angela sighed from time to time, tossed her head to swing her long glossy locks off her shoulders, and occasionally stuck out her chest as she repositioned herself in her seat. She didn't apply blood-red lipstick, but there was no question that she was throwing her sexuality out into this room of women in an assertion of her dominance.
After the meeting, Angela's peers caught up with my colleagues and me in the parking lot. One said, "Can you even believe her? She prances in like a princess and then interrupts the conversation with her sighs of boredom. She thinks everyone is beneath her." Another woman said indignantly, "She sticks out her chest like she's going to overpower us with her oozing sex appeal. What's that about?" Yet another laughed and said, "She's just a rude, self-centered bitch!"
The expression of sexuality can be used as a lure or weapon. It can be perceived as desirable or hostile, too much or not enough. It speaks volumes, yet what is it saying? It is an aspect of oneself that has to be considered carefully when operating professionally.
A very astute observation that an executive woman shared with me was about how she thought a female leader has to deal with sexuality:
The expression of sexuality can be used as a lure or weapon. It can be perceived as desirable or hostile, too much or not enough. It speaks volumes, yet what is it saying?
"I feel that one of the things that's really tough about being a female executive is that there is a de-feminization that goes on as you advance to higher positions. You neutralize your femininity, but also, you are not treated as much as a woman as you would be if you were at some mid-level position. If you have any insecurity at all about your femininity, your sexuality, your level of attractiveness, it is really tough. People treat you like a man, or a houseplant, or whatever it is...."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Breaking Through "Bitch""
Copyright © 2015 Carol Vallone Mitchell.
Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword by Annie McKee,
Part One: Why a Different Road Map for Women in Leadership?,
Chapter 1 What's Sex Got to Do With It: The Impact of Stereotypes,
Chapter 2: How to Look Like a "Bitch" Without Even Trying: A Case Study,
Part Two: Defining the Road Map,
Chapter 3: Women's Road Map for Leadership: A Primer,
Chapter 4: Step Up and Hit it Out of the Park: Confidence and Achievement Drive,
Chapter 5: Win Them Over: Influence,
Chapter 6: Tell the Story: Conceptual Thinking,
Chapter 7: Navigate the Terrain: Cultural and Political Savvy,
Chapter 8: Make Them Comfortable: Tempering Assertiveness,
Chapter 9: Plan Your Route: Self-Development Savvy,
Part Three: Using the Road Map to Develop Leaders,
Chapter 10: Helping Women Break Through the Barrier,
Chapter 11: What's Good for the Goose Is Good for the Gander,
Appendix: Perceptions of the Goose and Gander: Importance of the Women's Leadership Blueprint,
About the Author,