Photo credit (above): AK Rockefeller | Flickr
By DEBBIE POZZOBON
Not all women have to shoot lightning to succeed in their fields!
Why can men climb the corporate ladder but when women do it, they are branded or stereotyped in usually negative ways?
There are multitudes of high profile women in business, politics and positions of power. This is not a new phenomenon. What remains a contentious issue is the negative sentiment that still surrounds them, no matter what their chosen field.
Valerie Young, author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, says: “Women are being judged more, even by other women. It appears that whilst male leaders are allowed to have complex personalities, powerful women are often summed up by hackneyed stereotypes that undermine them and their power.”
Forbes Woman tracked down many of the world’s most powerful women, from International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde to Jill Abramson of the New York Times, to ask: What is your least favourite stereotype about powerful women?
According to Jenna Goudreau from Forbes.com, the following represent the 10 most hated and pervasive stereotypes.
1 Ice queen
Halley Bock, CEO of leadership and development training company, Fierce, notes that the ruthless “ice queen” stereotype is pervasive. Do you remember the movies: “The Devil Wears Prada” and “Damages?” The first movie saw Meryl Streep playing the part of editor Miranda Priestly.
This role was based on real-life counterpart Anna Wintour of Vogue. This and other pictures paint successful women as unsympathetic power-mongers. “A woman who shows no emotion and keeps it hyper-professional is icy and unfeminine,” says Bock.
2 Single and lonely
Harvard lecturer Olivia Fox Cabane notes that there is a strong perception that powerful women are intimidating to men. Furthermore, there is an opinion that they need to sacrifice their personal lives to become successful. Men get to be “bachelors” while women are reduced to “spinsters” and “old-maids”.
In fact, when Janet Napolitano was nominated secretary of Homeland Security, critics commented that her single status would allow her to “spend more time on the job”.
She had a challenging and difficult career that commenced as an investigative reporter at The Wall Street Journal, from where she edited her way to the top of the Times masthead. Despite her complexities, she must contend with being called “tough” and “brusque”.
Costa Rica president Laura Chinchilla, the country’s first female leader, is reported to have said that successful women face type-casting largely because society is still adjusting to the advent of women’s power and ability to make decisions.
Chinchilla believes the most pervasive stereotype is that women are “weak” – a perception that may stem from women’s greater desire to seek and maintain consensus.
“We understand success not as the result of the efforts of a single person, but rather as the outcome of the collaborative efforts of a team,” she said. Because this is not the traditional expression of power – it is often mistaken or misinterpreted as weakness.
The notion that powerful women must emulate men in terms of the way they behave, look, and lead is said to really aggravate IMF managing director, Christine Lagarde.
In a video interview with Forbes, she is reported to have said that she hated the idea that “you have to look like a businessman.” She admitted that she sometimes felt the pressure to maintain a certain image. However, she tries to seek a balance between her femininity and the need to appear professional.
Now, at the top of her game, she says the stereotype that most offends her is the idea that a woman can only be successful because she somehow connived or engineered her rise. She has experienced it herself, saying that she gets asked if she forced NBC to give her the anchor job or if there was a backroom deal.
Ellen Lubin-Sherman, executive coach and author of business guide The Essentials of Fabulous, believes one of the most dangerous stereotypes female leaders will face is that they are prone to emotional outbursts.
Despite US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton’s consistent cool-headed demeanour, when she became teary-eyed during the campaign trail, the media pounced. Similarly, former Yahoo chief Carol Bartz is frequently cited for her salty language, which has been used as evidence that she is “emotional” and a “loose cannon”.
The expression of anger is often perceived as a sign of status in men. However, when women show anger, they are often viewed as less competent. US first lady Michelle Obama was condemned as an angry black woman when she was campaigning for her husband in the 2008 presidential election.
The Harvard-trained lawyer conscientiously softened her image and speeches in order to appear more likable, becoming better known for her fashion and her interminable support of her husband than for her stance on political issues.
9 A token
Women in business are an undeniable fact of modern life. However, instead of there being a view that a management team or board of directors that contain some female presence is a reflection of diversity, they are often considered as token appointments.
Former US vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin was often perceived as such an appointment. Similarly in the corporate world, “while companies take their diversity goals seriously, they are not going to settle for less than the best person for the job,” said Lynne Sarikas, director of the MBA Career Centre at Northeastern University.
“Women are hired because of their education and experience and what they can do for the company”, not merely because of their gender.
10 A cheerleader
Billie Blair, president and CEO of Change Strategists, notes that prominent women who are considered feminine and warm may be dismissed as cheerleaders instead of being recognised as the strong leaders that they are.
Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma is a South African politician and former anti-apartheid activist. She has held the positions of South Africa’s Health Minister, as well as those of Foreign and Home Affairs.
She was recently elected by the African Union Commission as its chairperson, making her the first woman to lead the organisation, and yet she has never truly received the recognition from her male counterparts on the continent because of her being stereotyped as a “cheerleader”.
Whilst there are certainly some examples in this article that are quite funny – we should never lose sight of how serious stereotyping can be. How can we attach what we believe to be the characteristics of an entire group to an individual from that group?
By doing this – we completely ignore the individual, their background, personality and own strengths and weaknesses. We make assumptions about the person based often on a single factor – without actually knowing the individual at all. We would finally move to a world that truly embraces equality, when we commend individuals for their achievements irrespective of their gender.
Stereotypes about women do have a negative effect on career progression of many female professionals. What we need to do is carry on educating the people around us on how these perceptions are mere stereotypes, and as such, they should be treated as career myths that should never be taken seriously.
When looking at the leadership skills of women, we need to judge them on the same qualities that we judge men’s leadership skills by – vision, humanity, interpersonal skills, communication skills, etc, rather than categorising them in boxes that are suffocating their leadership characteristics and reduce them to mere stereotypes.
Originally published online on 28 March, 2013.