A research team from three different universities recently interviewed 64 senior women leaders (all at the VP level or higher) from 51 different organizations in the United States about how they navigate expectations for female leaders that are different from expectations for men. Their findings and recommendations are reported in Harvard Business Review.
According to the article, the researchers identified four paradoxes many women leaders face: Be demanding yet caring; Authoritative yet participative; Advocating for themselves yet serving others; Maintaining distance yet being approachable.
The article goes on to offer recommendations made by the research team: “Our findings suggest that to successfully navigate these paradoxes, women leaders first need to become aware of them, teasing out the different tensions rolled up into the central nice/tough double bind. Then, they can develop and customize a repertoire of strategies to manage, thereby enhancing their effectiveness and resilience.”
The five recommended strategies are:
- Adapt to the situation. Demonstrate niceness and toughness in different situations, toward different audiences.
- Go in order. First, build relationships, establish trust, and engage people, and then follow up with harder behavior or language to challenge the status quo or achieve goals.
- Look for win-wins. understanding what are the values, the traits, the goals of that person that you’re trying to influence.
- Be tough on tasks and soft on people. Find a way to deliver a tough message in a soft way.
- Reframe. Recast behaviors that might be considered weaknesses as strengths – for example, vulnerability. Frame assertive behaviors that others might find threatening as originating from genuine care.
The article concludes, “In the long run, organizations and society must produce systematic change to alleviate conflicting expectations for women and additional hurdles for their leadership. But as long as female executives face the double bind, they will need to find ways to manage it.”
The researchers are from University of Wisconsin, Dokuz Eylul University, in Turkey, and Bar-Ilan University in Israel.