Avoiding the cliché: how narrow female stereotypes are used to undermine woman in leadership
She’s so bossy! She’s too emotional! Look what she’s wearing!
Sound familiar? There are countless negative stereotypes female leaders face, almost all of which have nothing to do with their leadership. While some leaders may play into the stereotypes, others will do everything in their power to avoid assumptions and overcome prejudice.
In psychology, there are three stereotype phenomena – the stereotype effect, the stereotype threat and the stereotype tax, which provide an interesting case study when applied to women in leadership. Here’s what I’ve learned about stereotypes, and we can overcome them – or even use them to your advantage!
AN UNTIMELY REMINDER: THE STEREOTYPE EFFECT
I recently read an article in the Sydney Morning Herald titled Are power pearls the new padded shoulders? discussing the pearl earrings the NSW and QLD premiers had been wearing.
My first thought? “You’ve got to be kidding me! In a time when there is so much on the line for our leaders, who cares what they’re wearing?!”
When women are reminded of their femininity in a way that plays to a negative stereotype it undermines their performance, distracts from their leadership, and diminishes their credibility. This is what’s known as the stereotype effect.
Instead of reminding female leaders that they need to pick the kids up from school or that their clothing choices “attract attention”, we should be reminding them of their strategic approach, insightful ideas, and leadership capability.
Female leaders must also stand their ground and not feel pressured to conform to negative female stereotypes – remember, it’s ok to be feminine – in fact when women feel like they are able to lead like women, we’ll all be better off.
Lead like a leading woman, not like a man
PLAYING DEFENCE: THE STEREOTYPE THREAT
On the opposite end of the spectrum, instead of playing to a stereotype, sometimes female leaders are so afraid of being labelled feminine, that they’ll do anything to avoid confirming this.
I once worked with a female executive who was having trouble feeling heard in her organisation. It turns out that she was so afraid of being labelled “bossy” or “difficult” that she rarely claimed her space or even stood her ground in meetings. As a result her team did not respect her or her position, because she had unconsciously shown them that she could be walked all over. With the threat of a negative female leadership stereotype, she unconsciously self-sabotaged and under-performed.
When someone tries so hard to avoid a stereotype, their performance suffers because they’re too busy not being one thing that they miss out on showing all their other qualities. The threat can also impact us when we compare ourselves to a perceived positive stereotype. In one study, Caucasian men, usually at the top of the societal hierarchy, underperformed mathematically when they were told their performance would be compared to that of Asian men, because they assumed that their competitors would be better than them.
In order to overcome the stereotype threat, you need to own your own awesome. When you lead with authenticity and confidence, comparisons don’t matter, and fear is diminished. Know your brand, use it to your benefit, and let your capability speak for itself.
Once again, a classic opportunity to embrace the power of the feminine, and lead as yourself.
CALLING THEIR BLUFF: THE STEREOTYPE TAX
Never assume as it makes an ASS out of UME
If you’re tired of being mislabeled and misjudged for being female, there is another option – using the stereotype to your advantage. The stereotype tax is based on the notion that individuals pay a “tax” when they make assumptions based on stereotypes. If the person whom the assumptions are about is aware of this prejudice, they can use it to their advantage.
A great example of this comes from professional poker player, Annie Duke. The only female in the 2004 World Series of Poker Championship, Annie knew her male contestants underestimated her. Instead of trying to prove them wrong, she played into the narrow negative stereotype of a helpless woman to catch them off guard. The outcome? Annie went on to win the competition and took home a cool USD$2MIL.
Breaking the mould of stereotypes is the only way forward to see women respected as leaders. But, if you’re in an environment where every bit of competitive advantage counts and you’re being underestimated, you may as well make the most of it!
We need leaders in all spaces performing to their best at the moment, which is only possible if we focus on impact and influence, rather than outdated narrow stereotypes. Whether you’re trying your hardest to avoid being pigeon holed, or you’re playing up those clichéd traits to mask your true self, you’ll never have the impact you desire in your leadership if you’re not in touch with your most authentic self.
Own your own awesome, lead with confidence, and be strategic about your goals. And the next time a male journo talks about your pearl earrings, remind them just how much influence you have with or without them.