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The likability dilemma for women leaders

"For as long as I can remember, I've had this insatiable desire to compete, to accomplish and to prove myself. My energy isn’t easily contained, and I've been called by both men and women intense, high-octane, aggressive. These words don't feel like compliments to me. I try to control my eagerness. I try to be softer. It's exhausting."

Does this statement from Documentarian Robin Hauser resonate with you?

In her 10-minute TedTalk, she "dives into the dilemma between competence and likability faced by women in leadership roles," and the unconscious and conscious gender bias that inform what we consider a good leader.

As a woman in the medical profession, I remember what it was like to walk this tightrope, balancing being brilliant at my job while also trying to be soft so as to not step on my male colleague’s toes.

While my male colleagues were celebrated for speaking their minds and rewarded for their tenacity, my female colleagues were penalized and seen as aggressive and combative for digging deep and standing up for their values. I vividly remember being flippantly dismissed when I mentioned having to go home to be with my children and a trip to gym was always a secret for fear others would judge me as selfish.

The undercurrent was that, by choosing myself or my family, I was lazy or unmotivated.

Even more traumatizing was the way I abandoned my OWN needs and those of my family in order to be available to everyone else. In the end, the person who suffered most was me as I became exhausted, distant and burnt out. My family often got the short end of the "work/family" stick and I mourn those lost opportunities for quality time.

While it’s true that we’ve come a long way in the fight against sexism, as Robin astutely points out "today’s sexism can be more subtle". Consider the Harvard Business Review report that reveals how managers describe women and men during performance reviews.

The top words used to describe women in the workplace: compassionate, inept, selfish & enthusiastic.

The top words used to describe men in the workplace: analytical, competent, athletic & dependable.

The report shows that the majority of the words used to describe women in the workplace were negative and the majority were positive for men. Is this because women workers are actually more inept, frivolous, and passive compared to their male counterparts? NO WAY!!

Instead this may be due to the competence/likability dilemma described by Robin, "where women, unlike men, are rarely perceived to be both competent and likable….The sad truth is, most of us don't find strong, competent women easy to like."

And so, as women leaders, it’s up to us to redefine what leadership looks like.

Effective leadership is not only presenting "masculine" qualities like decisiveness, assertiveness, and strength, but also includes embodying "feminine" qualities like compassion, connection and nurturing.

It is only when leaders learn to embody and express all of these multiple facets of being human that women leaders will be seen as assets instead of liabilities. Once the feminine, in all of us, is considered AS important, AS respectable and just as vital to the bottom line, we will finally be free to fully become ourselves in the workplace and the world.

In The Empowered Women’s Circle, we practice being BIG and taking up space - which is one of the keys to modeling female leadership. Join us this fall as we talk to 4 women who have had to embrace both their feminine and masculine skill sets (their softness and their ferocity) in order to succeed in their corner of the world. They will share how it hasn’t always been pretty or easy and some of the ways they have learned to overcome resistance. It is possible that some of their stories, skillsets and creative solutions may be game-changing for you too!

Go be BIG!


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