As researchers in the field of women and leadership, we read a lot about this topic. The scope of dos and don'ts for working women never ceases to amaze us. If a woman was considering leadership, getting through this maze of advice would be exhausting. It has become obvious to us that there is a template being advanced for the purposes of molding aspiring women into caricatures: a Stepford leader.
Here's an example from one of the books we read:
Competence is only table stakes. It's what gets you in the door. It's expected that you'll be competent, but competence alone won't move you forward. Research showed that about 55 percent of your credibility comes from how you look. How you sound accounts for an additional 38 percent. Only 7 percent of your credibility is based on what you say. If you don't look the part, you won't be recognized as a competent professional — no matter how smart or educated you are.
To help cement the idea that a woman's looks are essential for success, an anecdote was a provided where the author asked a male boss what a particular woman employee could do to overcome existing barriers for promotion. After listing the positive aspects like speaking up and being an advocate of her staff, he added, "Maybe she could start wearing makeup."
The author then argues that you can "hear the comment as just another sexist remark — or as a valuable insight into what people expect as you climb the ladder."
While the advice no doubt is well-intentioned and stems from the motivation to help women succeed in the workplace, from our perspective it traps women into a social vacuum of the 1950s. It perpetuates the societal expectations of women and, more to the point, what they should look, sound, and act like.
While this critical example is from one book only, we read many other books, articles, and websites that were providing advice that caricatures women. From our review of the advice for women wanting to succeed in the workplace, we have noticed what the dos and don'ts of Stepford leadership consist of. Some are extremely unrealistic. This is just a sampling of the daunting, if not exhausting, set of "rules" we've gathered through our research:
- The right look is the corporate appearance, assimilating this accords familiarity and respect. Be attractive. As you grow older, your hair should be cut shorter, as it conveys professionalism. Dress for the job you want, not what you have.
- Avoid emotions, remain calm while being yelled at, and be respectfully feminine in your response.
- Sacrifice your personal time; you have to dedicate your time 24/7. It is only those who work excessive hours that achieve leadership.
- Claim your ideas, make statements rather than ask questions to open dialogue, and avoid being seen as pushy or aggressive.
- Ensure good relationships with men, so that they are comfortable in your presence, and "avoid the hen house." Women shouldn't be seen in each others' company, and definitely do not congregate. It makes men nervous.
- Look for opportunities to network with senior men, and work out your strategy to get leverage. Show that you want the job, go for drinks or a round of golf, and get comfortable being on your own with 20 men in a meeting.
If at the end of all the advice above, there are some aspirants who are not exhausted and have negotiated the contradictions, welcome to Stepford leadership for women. However, our research with aspirant women has led us to consider the need for more meaningful advice. Advice that does not continue with stereotypes.
We argue for the new criteria that promotes not Stepford but step-forward leadership for women. We need to identify and promote the true leadership qualities that women can bring to the workplace. This is currently being overshadowed by the Stepford "rules," giving people false expectations of what women in the workplace should be. We need to write less about what we expect women to do or wear, and more about individual, interpersonal leadership approaches that work. Step-forward leaders have multiple attributes that defy gender stereotyping. When examining, reporting, or discussing successful women, the emphasis needs to shift away from identifying them only from a gendered perspective and look more at the positive qualities they bring to the workplace.
Then we need to take this discussion and communicate it through action. Communication is more involved that just talking or giving advice. It involves the unspoken: It is about establishing a shared understanding between both parties. We must identify professional dialogues and communication that enables women to establish successful work relationships with each other in order to build capability. We need to help support advancement of other women by exemplifying good leadership. We need to actively inspire, achieve, and collaborate through good leadership.
Step-forward leadership is about moving away from the familiar, old-fashioned advice. It is about stepping forward and actively finding new ways to talk with each other, and moving that talk into action that builds successful professional identities more suitable for the twenty-first-century woman.
What else can women do to promote the positive leadership attributes — and move from Stepford leadership to step-forward leadership?
This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 04/03/2012.