THE BLOG
04/24/2013 10:22 am ET Updated Jun 24, 2013

Women in Leadership: Breaking Free of Stereotypes

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Whether you agree with her or not, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has stirred up the debate about gender at work and the damage that stereotyping can do to women's progress.

Stereotypes are, by their nature, simplistic, yet a number of labels are still attached to women in leadership. When high-powered women were asked to single out the stereotypes they most disliked, the following came up: Ice Queen; Single and Lonely; Tough; Weak; Masculine; Conniving; Emotional; Angry. The media dubbed city hedge fund boss Nicola Horlick "Superwoman," because she successfully juggled career and a large family. The late Margaret Thatcher was often accused of being too masculine -- MP Barbara Castle called her "the best man among them" (while adding she would "have enormous advantages in being a woman too").

Sticks and stones? It depends. Media gibes may be easy to brush off, but stereotypes are harder to ignore if they create systemic bias.

Some are deeply embedded in our culture. UK studies of pre-teen children have found that girls are just as apt as boys to select career options that are considered feminine -- nursing instead of engineering, for example. I've experienced it at the school gates. Chatting to successful career women on the morning of a cross-country run, we discovered that, while the boys woke up full of confidence in their potential to win, our daughters were far more given to doubt their abilities. So even where girls may have strong female role models at home, they may demonstrate less confidence than their male peers. Do stereotypes have their root in real and fundamental differences?

National differences also play a part: in some societies, women are brought up to speak quietly. I worked with a highly capable and intelligent woman for whom this meant that she struggled to be taken seriously by her mostly-male colleagues. It was a question of helping her find her own voice and presence -- without working against her natural behavior.

Stereotypes are often widely held and fail to recognize the many different hats women wear in one lifetime, or the simple fact that women are no more typical as leaders than men. They limit the scope for aspiring leaders who don't fit any of the existing types, close down any potential debate on gender at work and exclude the notion that diversity of leadership is preferable to the status quo.

They can also send confusing messages about what sort of behavior constitutes 'leadership material.' Former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright noted the "different vocabulary used to describe similar qualities in men (confident, take-charge, committed) and women (bossy, aggressive, emotional)." The famous 2003 'Heidi/Howard' experiment used a fictitious character to demonstrate how stereotyping can influence selection choices. But perhaps more telling, when it was repeated more recently, the result was reversed.

This suggests stereotypes are beginning to lose their potency. There is a growing recognition that we need a more "conscious leadership" style that blends traditionally male and female traits.

Rising above stereotyping calls for self-awareness and recognition of your right to be 'at the table.' Many women (and men) suffer from the so-called imposter syndrome. Do you 'fake it till you make it' -- or is there another way of convincing yourself you have a right to be in a position of leadership?

The only person you can change is yourself, but there are ways of addressing conflict persuasively if you're aware it exists and if you begin to note how you react in situations.

Shifting stereotypes out of organizational systems is a tougher task. It will come, in part, from simply recognizing the value of traditionally feminine traits -- being able to engage people, bring them along, communicate and collaborate well, and build vision while still seeing the details. Old "post-macho" models of leadership, which rely on hierarchy and control, are giving way to an approach that creates workplaces "fit for human beings," as Gary Hamel puts it.

Greater complexity and radical shifts at work call for more diversity of leadership, with 'emotional literacy' coming to the fore. Since this favors a balance of traditionally male and female traits, we need systemic changes to catch up.