Women comprise 50.8 percent of the U.S. population. They earn the majority of undergraduate and master’s degrees. They hold 52 percent of all management and professional level jobs. But when it comes to representation in leadership positions, women lag substantially behind men.
In the late 20th century, the women’s movement ushered in an era of rapid progress—the gender wage gap narrowed, sex segregation declined and the percentage of women in management rose.
But in recent decades, women’s gains have slowed. The gender wage gap has decelerated, and the number of women in top management positions and on corporate boards has stalled.
Structural barriers and gender bias require women to walk a fine line between two opposing sets of expectations. To access positions of power, female leaders are expected to be competent and tough (stereotypically male traits), while remaining warm and nice (stereotypically female traits).
Women who assert traditionally masculine qualities are often considered unlikeable, while women who express traditionally feminine qualities are not considered leadership material. In both cases, women are less likely to be promoted than men. These opposing expectations create a Catch-22 for women hoping to advance in leadership positions.
Although the onus is on organizations to alleviate these conflicting expectations and hurdles for women, here are some ways female leaders can get ahead in the meantime.
1. Leverage existing relationships.
Men who exhibit assertiveness and decisiveness are often rewarded as leaders automatically. Because they’re navigating double standards, women might need to take a different approach that involves prioritizing relationships and establishing a foundation of trust before advocating on behalf of a specific goal.
Trust and relationship building can be helpful for all leaders, but they are imperative for female leaders who, without an established foundation of trust and rapport, are more likely to experience backlash and be penalized for their assertiveness.
2. Look for win-wins.
Women in leadership can manage the conflicting expectations of niceness and toughness by looking for opportunities where the two converge. For example, by identifying where their goals align with the goals and values of the person they’re seeking to influence, female leaders can aggressively pursue their vision in a way that’s seen as supportive and socially acceptable.
3. Actively communicate goals.
Stereotypes around women’s prioritization of work-life balance can lead to women losing out on challenging opportunities.
To combat the assumption that women might not be interested in additional responsibilities, an increased workload or advancement, women need to proactively and consistently communicate their desire and willingness to do so.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2020 issue of SUCCESS magazine.
Photo by @galinkazhi/Twenty20.com