Wearing the Pantsuit: The Tension Women in Leadership Face

She is a b#@ch, but she gets thing done.” “She is so sweet, but everyone walks all over her.” Ever heard comments like this about women in leadership positions?

Comments like the ones above exemplify the tension women in leadership feel to practice the traditional leadership styles exhibited by their male counterparts, especially in the executive and entrepreneurial worlds. Faced with such cultural expectations, an important question emerges: How can women maintain their unique sense of identity when leading in the executive and entrepreneurial positions?

I recently led a think tank of ten women in business, including entrepreneurial artists, therapists, marketing executives, and fitness leaders, where we explored what it is like to be a woman in business. The prevailing theme that emerged from those interviews was that striving to emulate the cultural ideal and classic styles of male leadership increases feelings of anxiety and tension for many women in executive and entrepreneurial roles.

In fact, multiple stories were shared in the interview circle of female executives feeling less respected by female and male employees because many employees expect women to be more “soft, nurturing, and kind.” Stories like these were shared by women from all different sectors of business and leadership. It seemed to unify the group to be able to acknowledge the difficulty in management especially related to power dynamics of masculine and feminine energy.

Speaking from the experience of working within a mostly male-dominated field, artist Megan* stated, “My team really respects how I care about them and how I ask them about their lives, but it is difficult when I have to say you still are not doing xyz right and not be seen as critical.” The rest of the women wholeheartedly agreed that it is difficult to earn respect while also exhibiting care and concern for workplace relationships.

An article in Psychology Today by Dr. Mira Brancu, who writes on women in leadership, further illustrated the tension women in leadership feel when she interviewed Dr. Vanessa Roddenberry, a psychologist who left her job at the VA to launch into the entrepreneurial endeavor of starting her own private practice.

When Dr. Roddenberry was asked what leadership looked like to her, she replied:

‘There are stereotypes about leadership that you need to be loud and control other people and situations through your own force of personality that fit more with male stereotypes. As an introverted person, being a leader never occurred to me because that description didn’t fit with who I was.’

Dr. Brancu, in response, stated the research around the classic view of male leadership:

‘Indeed, Dr. Roddenberry was referring to the leadership motivational style that is focused on personalized power, which includes influencing others through overpowering, controlling, and influencing them through coercion, manipulation, and/or control. This style is seen more often with a directive “command-and-control leadership style” (see also Valerio, 2009), which is often perceived as stereotypically male.’

Drs. Brancu and Roddenberry highlight the difficulty and discouraging dynamics female executives and entrepreneurs face in leadership. This experience was echoed by the women of my interview group. In fact, Shannon, a leader in the fitness world, stated, “I wonder how others do it.” when referring to the management styles of other women in business.

Women in leadership positions struggle to embrace their unique style of leadership while still maintaining the respect of employees who embrace the cultural definition of leadership. So, how do women see themselves as leaders when the cultural definition of leadership often encompasses characteristics typically exhibited by men?

As a result of the think tank discussion, two themes emerged as ways to help women in leadership embrace their unique identity and style: core values and community.

These themes are not new to the human experience. In her book, Daring Greatly, Dr. Brené Brown, researcher, author, and speaker on topics like courage, vulnerability, and shame argues that when going into the arena (which is any difficult place that calls on your courage and vulnerability – cough, cough* hello business world!) clarity of values and community are essential.

She claims:

“Two things you have to have when you go in the arena: somebody who’s willing to pick you up and dust you off when you get your butt kicked, which you will,” Brown says. “And the second thing is absolute clarity of values. You have to be sure what your value is.”

When heading into your arena as a woman in leadership, it is important to ask yourself these questions:

What are the unique, personal core values that I hold as a leader in my role or business?

Who picks me up when I take a fall in and out of work?

In short, to women in leadership in all business arenas: besides not having to wear the pantsuit to work, (unless you want to) you get to be yourself.

Your unique outlook already makes you a great leader, but you must be clear on your core values, and build a solid community to help manage the anxiety and tension of the road to ahead. Join in with me to explore values, concepts, relationships, and other ways to support fellow women in leadership in and outside of the business arena.

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