Last week our weekly blog post focused on mapping out the hidden obstacles that tend to trip up women on a leadership track. This week we provide you with a 6-step survival guide to help you navigate the hidden obstacles to female leadership – i.e. how to get around them!

As we explained and substantiated with lots of empirical evidence in our blog post last week, these obstacles are not imaginary but very real. However, most women won’t encounter them until they progress past the middle management level, but after that they become very real. As a result women make up just 15 % of executive officers and 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs.

So dismiss this all at your own peril. We rather hope you won’t though, because our whole purpose is to help more women lead.

I. Overcome the Perceived Competency Gap: Be Twice As Good

As we shared in Part 1 last week, hundreds of studies have confirmed again and again that a woman’s performance is rated lower compared to the performance of a man who performs at the same level. This is commonly known as the “Goldberg effect” after the researcher Philip Goldberg whose study in 1968 proved that the same essay was scored lower if it was perceived to have been written by a woman.

The reality therefore is that any woman who aspires to leadership will need to outperform her male peers in order for her performance to be rated equal to them.

Don’t dwell even for a moment on whether this is fair or not. It isn’t, but it is the reality so if you want to succeed as a leader than deal with it. Being good won’t cut it. You’ll have to build a track record of being exceptional.

II. The Answer To The Double Bind: Transformational Leadership

The infamous double bind that women face is created by the stereotypes we all unconsciously have about men, women, and leaders: The idea of a female leader is incongruous with our stereotype of what a leader should be and what a woman should be. We unconsciously expect a female leader to both pass our test of what a leader looks like as well as fit our pre-existing models of what a woman should be. And historically those are incongruous as we associate leadership with the masculine domain and we associate women with care taking.

The industrial economy relied heavily on the traditional leadership model of command and control, which perfectly fitted the stereotypical directive, assertive and authoritative male qualities.
However, with the emergence of today’s more global, fast-changing and increasingly complicated business environment, command & control no longer works . No longer do leaders direct their teams to deliver against goals, which can be achieved through a known step-by-step execution plan. Instead, leaders need to engage and tap into their teams collective intelligence and creativity to find and deliver new innovative solutions to achieve their organizational goals in today’s constantly changing business environment.

And that requires a very different set of skills than before: To engage their team members to willingly give their best of their intelligence and creativity, leaders can no longer rely on direction and their positional power, but instead have to inspire their teams with a compelling vision of the future they are working towards. In this fast-changing world leaders can no longer use plans based on how things were done yesterday. Instead they have to let go of control and enable their teams to experiment to do things in new, better ways. Moreover, to get the best of people’s intelligence and creativity they will have to make it also personally meaningful for their teams and make it safe for them to try new things.

This type of leadership is no longer a direct reflection of stereotypical masculine qualities, but instead requires a leader to combine a much looser, more inspirational & motivational form of direction and monitoring instead of control, with strong people skills to enable, empower and encourage people. It may therefore come as no surprise that this has resulted in a shift in the receptiveness to women as leaders as their stereotypical communal qualities are now perceived as much more relevant.
In academia this style of leadership, which blends the stereotypical male qualities to be independent, assertive, and competent, with the stereotypical female qualities to be friendly, unselfish, and expressive, is referred to as transformational leadership. There is a lot more to it than we can share here. Posner and Kouzes developed a great model to help you discover the actual behaviors that constitute exemplary transformational leadership. They explain this in detail in their seminal book “The Leadership Challenge” — a highly recommended read for any aspiring or existing female leader.

III. Ready to Run The Business: Get in Line

Experience in line management roles is seen as a critical step on the path to leadership. Line management roles oversee the core corporate functions, that contribute directly to the output of products and services, such as for example operations and sales.

However, there is a disproportionate number of women in staff functions such as communications, human resources, accounting, and legal. Why? Many organizations still operate on stereotypical norms that women’s communal qualities best match staff positions, while men’s agentic qualities best match line positions. In fact, this stereotype is so ingrained that a 2006 study by Karen S. Lyness and Madeleine E. Heilman showed that women’s performance ratings in line jobs are heavily influenced by the perceived lack of fit between their stereotypical communal attributes and the typical agentic requirements of line jobs. As a result, women in line functions are held back from succeeding as they on average received 6% lower performance ratings than men in line jobs.

As discussed above, it is no news that women have to outperform their male counterparts to be perceived as equally competent in the same position. To succeed in a line position, women need to specifically focus on honing key traits that are perceived as critical to success in a line position:

  • Assertiveness:Ability to make your case — rationally and not emotionally.
  • Bias for action:Can-do attitude and drive to constantly move things forward.
  • Self-assurance:Confidence in your own abilities to deliver
  • Resilience:The capacity to recover quickly from difficulties
  • Grit:A sense of resolve, courage to take on and tackle challenging goals and situations
  • Calm under pressure:The ability to appear & act effectively under pressure

IV. Get Heard: Develop Male Allies & Don’t Mitigate What You Have To Say

To most women it won’t come as any surprise that researcher Kathleen Propp found that in group interactions, information introduced by men was six times more likely to influence the group decision than the same information introduced by women.

However, influence is critical to leadership. So you will need to proactively address the fact that your voice might not get heard. One way of pre-empting this is to lobby your influential male peers and superiors for their support prior to key meetings. Just try it and see how the response differs when you speak up and say “Richard and I discussed this yesterday and we both came to the conclusion that ……etc”

Wouldn’t you rather do that, than have your point ignored until one of your male colleagues or superiors says the exact same thing, but without any credit to you?

In addition, women have a tendency to speak in a way that is more indirect and tentative. Whilst mitigated speech, as it is referred to, may be more effective in a meeting with mainly women, it undermines a woman’s influence and credibility when interacting with men. Kira Hower summarized the four main culprits of mitigated speech in her essay “Influencing For Impact” as follows:

  • Disclaimers are conversational rituals commonly used at the beginning of sentences, preceding the speaker’s own thoughts. These sentences are used to downplay status and accomplishments while simultaneously attempting to soften the blow of criticism and minimize the potential for conflict. Examples include “I’m not sure about this; however …”; “I don’t know if this will work, but …”; “Maybe it’s me, but …”
  • Fillers are short utterances and words that we unconsciously add to sentences but that have no real meaning. Everyone uses them, yet women have been cited for using fillers more often than men. Fillers can include the following: “Um,” “You know,” “Well,” “Like,” and “Uh.”
  • Hedges are words that diminish the strength of a sentence and make the speaker sound unsure: “kind of,” “sort of,” “something like,” and “maybe.”
  • Question tags are short questions at the end of sentences that are used to confirm understanding or connect with another person’s thoughts or feelings. Question tags help create balance by linguistically involving the other person in the conversation. An overuse of question tags can lead to a misperception that the speaker lacks confidence, knowledge, and individual opinions. Examples include “That report was really well written, wasn’t it?” “I believe it’s the best way to do it. OK?” “Our presentation seemed to hit the mark, didn’t it?”

Next time you are in a meeting start by noticing whenever you use one of these language devices. Keep doing that until you are so aware of your speaking habits that you can proactively start to change them.

By the way, the same applies also to your written communications, so start rereading those emails. Are you undermining your influence and credibility by using any of these language devices when emailing your male peers or superiors?

V. It’s Not All About Work: Get Social

These days everyone is aware of the power of networking, but many women network mainly outside of work, and often mainly with other women.
However, if you want to advance within an organization, then it is critical to also spend ample time in informal interactions with peers and colleagues across your organization. Socializing within your company, outside your own team, group or division helps you build knowledge, trust, cooperation and shared understanding with people across your company. These relationships enable you to call on others for support, whether that is for advice, to obtain information or to set up deals and partnerships.

We understand that in many organizations the way colleagues socialize both at work and after work, is usually still dominated by typically male preferences: They talk about sports over lunch, go out for a beer after work, meet up for a round of golf, etc. As a result you may be tempted to just huddle together with your female colleagues. However, we highly advise you don’t. Instead, try and join in as best and authentically as you can, because strengthening your informal relationships with your male colleagues will give you access to valuable mentoring and sponsorship, include you in their flow of information and referrals, and help you build your influence and reputation.

VI. Stretch Yourself: Get Out Of Your Comfort Zone

It is important to note that working hard at routine assignments is not a route to advancement. Leadership requires an ability to handle ambiguity, take calculated risks, deal with the unexpected, deliver under pressure and conquer tough, unknown challenges. So any aspiring leader needs to actively seek out assignments and opportunities that require them to do exactly that — to stretch them.

This may sound obvious, but many women prefer to play it safe until they are totally certain that they will succeed at something, and as such many women hold themselves back from important opportunities to prove their leadership potential.

Part 1 of this post: A Map Of The Hidden Obstacles To Female Leadership (Part 1)