How to fight the workplace double standards that hold women back

Women can rarely just be themselves in positions of power.
Women can rarely just be themselves in positions of power.
Image: Portra via Getty Images
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I suggested she—a rising female attorney at a law firm—be more assertive to make her ideas and opinions heard in meetings. She told me she’s compelled to filter every word lest she be perceived as overly ambitious—or worse, aggressive. She noted that her male counterparts, by comparison, seemed to feel free to say whatever, whenever, without incurring any negative judgment.

She wasn’t wrong—she really did need choose her words more carefully than the men.

Despite decades of work to improve gender equality and free professional women from the stereotypes that trap them in a double bind, double standards painfully persist in nearly every industry, from business to politics.

As an executive coach who has worked with a great many senior women executives, I have witnessed the challenge female workers face. Women typically rank higher than men on “agreeableness”—they have a reputation for being more nurturing, empathetic, kind, supporting, and accommodating. If you’re a female executive who others consider agreeable, chances are you will be seen as more likable.

But leadership positions require people to command authority. Aggressiveness will do this for you. But for women, the more aggressive they are seen to be, the less likable they are found—by men and women. It’s a double bind.

Is there a way out of this Catch 22? Yes—many, in fact. The right solution varies by a woman’s circumstances such as her sector and company culture. But we can learn from the talented women in business and politics who have felt the fear and done it anyway; women like GM CEO Mary Barra, House speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

These outspoken women have defied the odds and overcome the negative perceptions toward ambitious women who seek power and advancement. And they have a few things in common. Those common threads can provide a template for how women can move through the ranks and own their power in a wide variety of industries.

Work for the job you want. If you’re a female executive going for promotion, illustrate how, in the position you want, you can help the whole company to grow, tackle threats, and lead progressive and lasting change.

Women who are already powerful aren’t yelling: “I will be the next CEO!” or “My goal is to be President of the United States!” Rather, they focus on what they can do for you, the team and the business—on growing the company, overcoming competitive threats and leading change.

It’s an altruistic approach that can pay off, and one from which we can all learn, perhaps particularly men. Research shows that most effective leaders are humble. Men are more likely to be narcissists, while women tend to be much more humble (though pressure to not brag about one’s accomplishments may also be part of the double bind).

Recognize that you may need different personas. It’s okay to get comfortable with the fact that, at times, you need to be hyperaware of how you’re coming across. As backwards as it sounds, one of the challenges with authentic leadership is that women are judged more harshly than their male peers for letting their personalities shine through. If you’re a woman who is highly agreeable, you might express this at work by being warm and nurturing. But male colleagues might describe the same display as “weak” or “fluffy.” It may be worthwhile for women to consider situations in which donning a less agreeable persona may be to their benefit.

Accept that it’s hard work. It’s unfair but true that women typically have to work harder and more effectively than their male colleagues to be viewed as competent leaders. The “system” is fundamentally flawed and too many organizational structures are still male-oriented. A societal shift in attitudes is underway, and, thankfully, we are seeing progress. But it’s slow. And in the meantime, some women will still find they need to work harder and smarter than male counterparts.

But remember: Knowledge is power. Knowing that there is implicit bias in organizations means you have a choice in how to take up your role and how to adapt to get the best out of it.

Men must be part of the solution. The advice above can only go so far—organizational architecture and culture has to change, and bias (conscious or unconscious) must be weeded out. To make that happen, both men and women must be part of the solution. This is a fight that belongs to all of us.

So let’s applaud, and be inspired by, the many powerful and ambitious women who are blazing a trail. But all of us, men and women alike, need to also rise the challenge of changing the existing structures—in companies and in ourselves—so that all talent can rise on equal terms.