Gender Bias: Balancing on the Tightrope

By: Maja Egnell

This is the second of a four-part series examining patterns of gender bias affecting female executives, and how “bias interrupters” can be used to challenge them.

He asked me why I was being so emotional about the whole thing,” the woman I was coaching said. “But I wasn’t. Really, I felt calm and assertive, arguing my case in a logical and quite dispassionate way.” It was not the first time it had happened. In fact, this female executive quite often felt misunderstood at work as well as surprised to learn how she apparently came across to others. As we dissected the experience, we could not discount the possibility that she was affected by “tightrope bias,” associated with acting out of line with the expectations for her gender.

The Tightrope
The tightrope is the bias most commonly experienced by female executives, according to Joan C. Williams (University of California, Hastings College of the Law), whose research we are highlighting in this series on gender bias. The tightrope refers to the need for women to master a balancing act between being seen as too masculine to be likeable and too feminine to be competent and ultimately respected. In organizations that have not eradicated gender bias, female executives can feel the pressure to behave in feminine ways but get penalized career wise for doing so. Unfortunately, acting in a masculine way is not much of an alternative, as this behavior results in pushback as well. An example of this is showing anger, which while an assertiveness marker for men, can tend to reduce women to “emotional,” “unstable,” or “crazy.” This is especially true for female executives of color. Tightrope bias can also result in female executives being scrutinized more closely than males. As a consequence, research shows that performance evaluations typically include more negative commentary about their personalities than those of their male counterparts.

If you find yourself balancing the tightrope, Dr. Williams recommends reflecting upon the type of feedback you typically receive on your behavior. Does it fit in the “likeable, but less competent” bucket or “competent, but less likeable” bucket? According to her, this will indicate which behaviors you may want to start focusing on showing.

It may seem discouraging and sad that women need to go to these lengths to be successful. In this day and age, shouldn’t we have progressed further? Aren’t we in the times of leaning in, finding our voices, claiming a seat at the table? While we in many ways are doing just that, the reality is that in many organizations, solely playing in the masculine or feminine arena can backfire for female executives. Before society has evolved further, it seems that female executives will stand a better chance of becoming successful by deliberately displaying a blend of leadership behaviors, or, as Dr. Williams calls it, mastering the art of “Gender Judo.”

To be clear, this is not about being inauthentic. All leaders, regardless of their gender, benefit from expanding their behavioral repertoires and gaining a more well-rounded leadership style. “Gender Judo” is about working with the existing gender norms in a targeted way and focusing on displaying only the behaviors that you are comfortable with. Below are some examples of how this can be done.

What Female Executives Can Do

  • Be cognizant of when you tend to exhibit masculine or feminine qualities and try to blend them in a savvy way depending on the situation and the impact you want to have. Many female executives’ rule of thumb is to overindex on the warm and nurturing behaviors, as this frees them up to be tough when necessary.
  • In order to engage in healthy self-promotion without being seen as overly ambitious and aggressive, use the above-mentioned “behavioral blending” to your advantage.  An example of this is praising your team and their work, but at the same time making it clear that you were the one leading the team. Another idea is to form a posse—a group of allies/co-workers who can help in celebrating each other’s successes.
  • Proactively manage expressions of frustration. As mentioned above, the display of anger is often more accepted for men than for women. With that in mind, be careful regarding how you voice your frustration. If you can, wait until you can describe your feelings rather than show them. It can also be helpful to clearly connect your reaction to an outside attribution: “I am frustrated right now and let me tell you why….”
  • In order to display an executive persona, the way you carry yourself is important. Monitor your body language and lean in—visibly claiming your seat at the table. Assuming an expansive posture will increase the perception of confidence; some studies even suggest that it increases your own testosterone level as well as lowering the stress hormone cortisol.
  • Mind your communication and drop the tentative speaking style. Stop using hedging phrases such as, “I’m not sure but...” or upspeak (statements that sounds like questions). Rather, speak confidently and don’t undercut yourself.
  • Be cognizant of the tendency to ask female leaders to be the meeting scribe, office party planner, or engage in other types of office housework. Dr. Williams’s recommendation is to avoid openly refusing, as this typically results in pushback. The balancing act here is about graciously accepting the task once and then turning it into a rotating assignment, or, alternatively, delegating the task to support personnel.

What Their Allies Can Do

  • Be aware of the fact that men tend to interrupt women far more than women interrupt men. If you are in a meeting and see such a pattern playing out, make a point of calling on the woman by saying “Jennifer, I think you had a thought there?” Creating a “no-interrupting rule” as part of the team norms will help people hold each other to it.
  • If you find that women on the team end up doing most of the office housework, counteract it by never asking for volunteers, knowing that women might feel expected to sign up. Rather, assign the work to support personnel or establish a rotation.
  • During talent review discussions, be on the watch for language indicating the likeability penalty. If you hear descriptions such as “bossy,” “pushy,” or “crazy” about a female executive, ask for a specific example of what she did. Then ask, “Would you have the same reaction if a man did the same thing?” Additionally, questions such as, “How different is this from what John did?” can help illuminate a lack of consistency.
  • Keep in mind that self-promotion is seen as a masculine-type behavior for women, which can lead to pushback. Therefore, don’t rely on self-promotion as a primary identifier of interest for advancement or limit the self-promotion to formal contexts, where people are explicitly told what is expected.

To summarize, balancing on the tightrope is hard work. Organizations need to be vigilant about the possibility that their female executives feel the pressure to engage in such acrobatics and to be aware of the energy this expends. If this is the case, then systemic changes need to be made to challenge the broader patterns that create the foundation of bias. At the same time, individuals within the same system do have the power to make things better for themselves. Connecting warmth with authority rather than with submissiveness is a recipe for success for all leaders, but for women it may very well be the critical solution that enables them to be the boss without being seen as bossy.

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