This is the third post in a series about Sandra Peterson, CEO of Bayer CropScience
Several studies suggest that women walk a tightrope, or face a "double bind," in that they must be perceived as both strong and sensitive in order to get ahead. Men need only be perceived as strong. And ongoing research by Alice Eagly has consistently shown that the concept of manager equals "male" so women in that role are seen as a "disconnect." But when women managers try to act in more masculine ways to fit the expectations (that is, strong, tough, decisive, independent and so on) they are doubly penalized as not fitting the more feminine stereotypes.
Throughout Sandra Peterson's career -- currently Bayer CropScience's CEO, she has often been the only woman at high-level meetings. I asked her how she has managed to navigate the dual expectations.
"As a woman, this is one of these areas where you have to walk a fine line; the classic: are you soft and squishy and you hug everybody and you're a cheerleader? Versus are you the hard-nosed you-know-what, female dog? What I've learned over time is that the way to walk this fine line without being one of those two extremes is you take work seriously, and deliver business results seriously. But you can also joke around and have fun at work, and try to be very open and talk to people about their families, their hobbies, make jokes so they realize you're a human being as well. But at the end of the day, the thing that makes it work for women who do this well is that they are very decisive. It's about making the call and being willing to take the risk, and not waffling on decisions."
Sandra has also had some experience in dealing with men who have various, and often conflicting, expectations of her as a woman operating in a man's world.
"Men don't quite know how to read women if they're not used to seeing them in a business environment. And so they have a stereotype of women are either A, B or C. You've got to figure out ways to get them to realize you're normal, and no, I don't fit into one of those boxes, so don't interpret what I'm saying or doing as one or the other extreme."
She gave the example of how she would come out of a meeting and get two different and opposite views on how she conducted herself. I asked her how she handled those situations:
"I just started being much more open and started talking about it. It's kind of disarming when you say back to them, well that's really interesting because Joe just said the opposite to me. So why do you think that is? Is it because people just aren't used to seeing a woman leader displaying both of those things at once? And then over time they get used to it."
The next post in this series will look at work/life balance and the tradeoffs women executives, like Sandra, often make to stake their claim in the corner office.
This post first appeared on Forbes.com.
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