Be the Best or Bust: Realigning the Female Leader’s Uneven Playing Field

Ever since women have entered the workplace they have been traversing the slippery slope that is based upon the incompatibility that comes when traditional female gender norms are combined with historical masculine business ideals. There is no getting around the fact that there is a long-grounded and stereotypical belief that women are supposed to act “a certain way”—and unfortunately that behavior is usually in complete juxtaposition of what it actually takes to get ahead in a male-dominated corporate hierarchy.

I have long held the belief that there is an uneven playing field when it comes to how leadership roles are defined based on gender. While women have made considerable strides and progress over the past few decades in climbing the corporate ladder and finding a (limited) place in executive leadership, a stark truth remains. A woman leader must be truly and unquestionably exceptional to aspire to the few top leadership posts. Her male counterpart? Not so much. He’s got plenty of positions to choose from, and includes room for incompetent male leaders.

As a society, we will be able to identify that true leadership equality is attained when the prevalence of women in positions of power is so high that there will be room for incompetent female leaders too. Today, that isn’t the case.

Different Does Not Mean Deficient

Let’s call it as it is. Men and women operate differently; at home, at work, in society, the list goes on. However, just because there is a difference in a leadership approach does not mean that positive results cannot be achieved. Men and women simply have different ways of going about getting to the finish line.

Women, traditionally, value connections and collaboration. Building bridges. Men, on the other hand, place their focus on hierarchy. Getting ahead. Deborah Tannen in her book, ‘Talking from 9 to 5’ identifies these behaviors in the workplace. While her seminole book, ‘You Just Don’t Understand: Men and Women in Conversation’ she researched where they began.

Tannen gives the example of children playing during recess in elementary school. The girls are all focused on playing together; using their imaginations, setting up a story to act out in a make believe world. The boys, on the other hand, play ball or a competitive game on the other side of the playground. Now, you might think about this and say, “Yep, sounds pretty normal for kids.” But what I want you to focus on is the difference in these two playground styles and their outcomes. The activity that the girls are involved in has no clear winner or loser—there is just a sense of collaboration and togetherness. Not the case for the boys—they know exactly who comes out on top when the teacher blows the whistle and it’s time to get back inside to begin class.

In the past, boys were frequently taught that it’s normal to be competitive, loud, and aggressive when working toward a goal. Girls, however, were instructed to mind their manners, get along and act like a lady. While these past values and lessons are changing, and may not be as overtly communicated today, residuals of these messages remain. The problems emerge when a girl grows up to be a professional woman looking to make her mark in a company, if not before that time. When a woman decides to “act like a man” and looks to wield power and act assertively, her chances of rising to the top may be hindered. She may be punished socially and professionally because of her ability to demonstrate competence in a masculine domain. Again, probably not the case for a man.

While Henry Higgins wondered, “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?”, women are wondering the same thing. However, a woman just can’t act like a man, because she simply isn’t one. The same behavior looks different, or gets labeled differently, on the opposite sex. Men are assertive; women are bitchy. Women are intuitive; men are pansies.

Men have a formula to get ahead. Act like a ‘man’. Yet, a woman can’t act like a ‘woman’ to get ahead, nor can she act like a ‘man’ to get ahead. So, how can a woman get ahead?    Lots of ways…

For starters, women can continue to do what they do best: Be supportive of, advocate for, and speak out for their female colleagues. There is growing evidence that when women wield power and look to assert themselves on behalf of another woman, the threat of suffering social and professional repercussions is lessened. On the other hand, studies show that when a woman advocates for herself in the workplace it is considered a violation of a traditional gender role, and therefore, she is punished by both men and women.

When a woman steps up for another woman, endorses her, and promotes her ideas, authority is better leveraged because the behavior is based on the traditional gender norm that a woman should be helpful and nurturing. In turn, both women are more likely to get ahead.

As you consider that bit of information, realize that I am not saying that as a woman, you should not advocate for yourself—you just have to be strategic about how you do it. A recent study showed that women can advocate for themselves so long as they don’t look like they are going at it alone. Ultimately, a woman leader who is responsible for the direction of others and who requires resources for themselves as well as their team, typically does not suffer any of the penalties or backlash when they advocate for all parties involved, i.e. themselves and their direct reports.

It comes down to a simple change of pronoun: “we” versus “I.”

What Leaders Can Do

Yes, there are still misogynists in the workplace, and there probably always will be—but I believe this group is a dying breed and an increasingly endangered minority. They simply have to be, especially since women, on average, are becoming better educated and more qualified than their male counterparts.

According to a report by the American Management Association, the gender leadership disparity in the workplace is not one borne on standard operating procedures created by the cast of Mad Men. Rather, it’s because female leaders are held to higher standards than male leaders. They need to do twice as much, never make a mistake, and always show competence—a man is not beholden to these rules. This, in turn, causes women to be overlooked when an opportunity for advancement presents itself. There is discrimination—both conscious and unconscious.

The American Management Association says that women are 33 percent more likely to earn a college degree than men. Currently, 36 percent of women in leadership roles, compared with only 28 percent of men, hold STEM degrees. Moreover, the colleges and graduate schools that female executives attend typically rank higher on average than the schools that men graduate from.

As a management consultant, I regularly coach both male and female leaders alike on how to promote change within an organization, and the subject of female leadership development is a topic that comes up quite often. Right now, leaders of both sexes have a very important choice to make. They can institute programs that develop the next generation of effective and successful leaders to be gender neutral and based on a person’s abilities and not what or who they are; or they can suffer the long-term consequences when the talent pool available to them is less-than-stellar.

Leadership teams should be evaluating and assessing their policies in order to ensure that gender discrimination isn’t present within an organization. This includes taking a look at compensation guidelines, hiring practices, career development initiatives, and even considering the behavior and attitudes of the people who are currently in charge. A proactive approach is necessary to prevent reactionary results.

Other ideas for promoting the advancement of women leadership are: a) get women involved in projects that are designed to groom a future leader; b) establish and communicate clear guidelines on how results and success are measured; c) assign mentors to female employees who exhibit leadership potential and allow these women to build their confidence and credibility as they also receive an education on organizational politics; and d) let women be visible and vocal in positions of authority while celebrating the introduction of different work styles.

Finally, realize that the future is here. The makeup of the workforce is changing and the companies that accept this change with open arms will rise to the top of their respective industries—they will reap the rewards that come when women are elevated to the highest levels of an organization and allowed to use their natural skills without prejudice.

It’s Time

In closing, there is no denying that the make-up of leadership is Corporate America is changing. Considering the increased prevalence of women in higher education and the workforce; changing societal norms and behaviors; and a growing appreciation of the benefits of a diverse workforce, I am sure the next generation of impactful female leaders can be developed and take their place in the corporate hierarchy of society. This change cannot be stopped and Corporate America is due for a leadership makeover. Women will advance and succeed, and new leadership styles will be introduced.

We just need to answer Henry Higgins question, “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?”

Contact Julie Kantor at