Many business women feel they get confusing messages from their organizations about how to become leaders. Recently, a woman client came to me for coaching because her boss told her that she needed to smile more to get promoted. She wanted me to teach her to smile more, but she was bewildered about what this feedback really meant.
Another woman client came for coaching because her supervisor gave her a mediocre performance review for being “indecisive” saying she spent too much time “coddling” her team by asking for their input to decisions—although her results were very strong.
Yet another woman recently came for coaching on how to get promoted. She had been with her large company for more than 25 years. She wanted to become a senior leader and had done everything her mentors had suggested to prepare herself, yet more than 10 years had passed since she had been offered more than lateral job changes, while men all around her were moving up. When she asked why she was not moving up, she was told she lacked “executive presence,” but she was given no useful guidance about what she needed to do differently.
Each of these cases individually could be explained away as deficiencies of the individual women that they needed to “fix.” In fact, my professional experience and a lot of recent research show that these women are probably being held back by common biases and assumptions present in many organizations. These biases are subtle and hard to see, but they can have a significant impact on women’s careers and self-confidence.
Could subtle biases be holding you back? Here are some steps you can take to overcome them:
The subtle bias usually operating in this feedback has to do with the difficulty women have with being perceived as both competent and likeable, what Sheryl Sandberg discusses as “the likeability factor.” To overcome this bias, educate yourself about gender bias in the workplace and keep the conversation with your boss focused on your results. Additionally, network with other women and have a “safe setting” where you can talk with other women about their experiences and the feedback they are getting and share best practices.
Practice collaborative leadership.
Building and utilizing teams is a strength we should feel proud of and leverage. The command/control leadership style rewarded in most organizations is not the only style that produces results. Share some reading materials about gender style differences with your boss and challenge him or her to consider supporting diverse leadership styles.
Exhibit executive presence.
Promotion decisions for women based on “lack of executive presence” often reflect a bias in organizations that is gender based—men are more comfortable tooting their own horns about their accomplishments and nominating themselves for assignments and promotions for which they may not even be qualified. Women hesitate to do these things, which can be interpreted as lacking executive presence. Learn to be more self-promoting.
If we women educate ourselves about gender bias, we will be more likely to recognize it when we experience it and to know when feedback is useful and when it isn’t. We also need the support of other women so we can share best practices for dealing with subtle workplace bias. And we need to be more self-promoting. With awareness and support, we can overcome these barriers that hold us back.
About the Author
Anne Litwin is the author of New Rules for Women: Revolutionizing the Way Women Work Together and owner of Anne Litwin and Associates. For more information, visit www.annelitwin.com.