Powerful women know how to flip feminine stereotypes to their advantage.
There has been a lot of talk recently in the political arena about the likability trap for women: Women who behave in authoritative ways risk being disliked as insufferable prima donnas, pedantic schoolmarms or witchy women.
What you haven’t heard about much is the way successful women overcome this form of gender bias. I have interviewed about 200 women over the years in my research on gender and the workplace, and they all employ a similar set of strategies for escaping the likability trap. One former chief executive described hers this way: “I’m warm Ms. Mother 95 percent of the time, so that the 5 percent of the time when I need to be tough, I can be.” She embraced a stereotype that typically holds women back — the office mom — but flipped it around, using its momentum to propel herself forward. I call it gender judo.
Why do women need to do this? Even as women have moved into traditionally male domains, feminine mandates remain. More than 40 years of research by social scientists have shown that Americans define the good woman as helpful, modest and nice. In other words, as focused on her family and community, rather than working in her own self-interest. Meanwhile, the ideal man is defined as direct, assertive, competitive and ambitious.
This version of masculinity maps perfectly onto what we expect from leaders, in business and politics. Women in leadership need to display these “masculine” qualities, but when they do they risk being seen as bad women, and also as bad people. So savvy women learn that they must often do a masculine thing (which establishes their competence) in a feminine way (to defuse backlash).
Other research finds that women make a similar finesse while negotiating. Women who negotiate as hard as men do tend to be disliked as overly demanding. So they use “softeners” in conversation. (“It wasn’t clear to me whether this salary offer represents the top of the pay range.”) When Sheryl Sandberg negotiated for what no doubt was an outlandishly high compensation package at Facebook, she told Mark Zuckerberg: “Of course you realize that you’re hiring me to run your deal teams, so you want me to be a good negotiator. This is the only time you and I will ever be on opposite sides of the table.” She turned a salary negotiation (competitive and ambitious) into a touching testimony of team loyalty.
Isn’t this all a bit revolting? Here’s what works for men negotiating for a higher salary: I have another offer, and I need you to match it. Why should women have to do something different?
When women embrace feminine stereotypes like the office mom, they reinforce both the descriptive stereotype that women are naturally nurturing and communal, and the prescriptive stereotype that they should be. But sometimes what women need to do to survive and thrive in the world is exactly the opposite of what they need to do to change it.
For women who want to master this strategy, the first step is to behave as assertively as comes naturally and see what happens. If you find your effectiveness jeopardized because you being yourself triggers dislike, then you need to decide whether overcoming the backlash is worth the sacrifice.If it is, try doing something masculine in a feminine way. Think of femininity as a tool kit, and choose something that feels authentic to you. But don’t choose deference. One study found that women who used a submissive conversational style, apologizing and hedging, just undercut themselves.
The most common anti-backlash strategy I found in the women I interviewed was to mix authoritativeness and warmth. “I got feedback I was intimidating, so I would make sure that I got to know people, and before a meeting I would share something personal to make myself more approachable,” one woman, who is now a chief executive, told me.
Some women use metaphors to recode behavior that is coded as masculine. A woman responsible for winning new clients at a major consulting firm, where rainmakers were called “hunters,” told me she rejected that label. “I always said: ‘No, no, no, I’m a gardener. I grow things,’” she told me. Just another dame who loves to nurture.
Another tried-and-true move is what anthropologists call gender display. “For me, it’s pink lipstick,” one woman told me. She is the lone female member of the board of a public company.
In the most sophisticated form of this strategy, powerful women create an entirely new narrative, softening their hard-driving personas by highlighting that they are also communal, selfless mothers. A brilliant recent example is M.J. Hegar’s 2018 congressional campaign video. In it, a battered door — all that’s left of the helicopter she was shot down in while on an Air Force rescue mission — is tucked behind her dining table, where she sits contentedly with her family.
This is all a lot of hard work, and it’s work that men don’t have to do. Men, to be successful, just need to master and display masculine-coded traits; women, to be successful, need to master both those and some version of feminine-coded traits that do not undercut their perceived competence or authenticity. That’s a lot trickier.
What’s the solution? Organizations have to be vigilant about challenging the biases that force women to do this in the first place. The workplace is often structured in ways that reward behavior that’s considered socially appropriate in white men but socially inappropriate in women and people of color. This provides an invisible escalator for white men.
The goal is not to empower women to be as emotionally tone deaf and grabby as men are sometimes encouraged to be. Instead, we should work to make sure that both men and women are rewarded for displaying empathy or a willingness to put the common good above self-interest. These qualities have long been undervalued in work and in political life because they have been coded as feminine, and the world needs much more of them.