Here's how women can manage the gendered norms of leadership

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Emily Reynolds
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“As long as female executives face the double bind, they will need to find ways to manage it” 

Women working in business often have to juggle an increasing number of “paradoxical tensions”, a new study has found – and it’s affecting the way they do their jobs.

To explore this tension, researchers Wei Zheng, Olca Surgevil and Ronit Kark interviewed 64 executives from the US. And in the journal Sex Roles, they write that top-level women leaders are expected to both display agency and warmth, despite the fact the two qualities are often considered to be antithetical to one another. They’re then expected to “deal with the incongruity” between communal gender role expectations and more agentic leader role expectations. 

The team identified four paradoxical ‘balancing acts’. The first is the pressure for women to be both demanding and caring: one HR executive told them that pushing her team to succeed had been beneficial in a business sense, but that she had been told that she was “intimidating” when given feedback on the project. “Would I get the same feedback if I was a man?” she said. 

The second is “authoritative versus participative” – “the paradox between asserting one’s competence and admitting one’s vulnerability”. Women are expected to be “credible” and therefore authoritative, or risk not being taken seriously. But to avoid being called “arrogant”, women also feel as if they should acknowledge weakness. 

Thirdly: advocating for themselves whilst also serving others. How do you manage a team, sharing your knowledge with them and supporting their needs, whilst also trying to reach your own goals?

Finally, the team write, women have to both maintain distance and appear approachable. One interviewee, CEO Dawn, said that she tried to bridge this gap via clothing: “I try to dress more formal than employees, except on Fridays when I dress very informal to show I’m also not stiff and unapproachable.” 

So how to manage the loads of these tensions? The team has several suggestions. 

First, they say, women tend to learn how to adapt to situations depending on their audience – sitting at the head of the table during some meetings to indicate decisiveness and sitting amongst their team during others, for example. They also suggest “going in order” – being nice to begin with, then making tougher decisions. 

They also note that being “tough on tasks and soft on people” often works for women. “I learned that we could vehemently disagree on an issue, and when we walked out of the room, we were friends. I really came to see the importance of being able to separate [that] out,” explained a woman who used this strategy.

“In the long run, organisations and society must produce systematic change to alleviate conflicting expectations for women and additional hurdles for their leadership,” the team conclude. “But as long as female executives face the double bind, they will need to find ways to manage it.”

Images: Getty, Unsplash