Gender stereotyping and leadership. Why it matters – Mary T. O’Sullivan

By Mary T. O’Sullivan, MSOL

“Any society that fails to harness the energy of its women is at a huge disadvantage in the modern world” Tian Wei

What happens when, for most of her career, a woman exhibits a more masculine style? This style in women has often been perceived as too aggressive, too controlling, too competitive, too driven, or too bossy. She may be “counseled” on these qualities more than a few times in her career, depending upon the make-up of her company. If a woman works in a dominant male environment, she could face more bias than in a more balanced workplace.

It has long been observed by many women that when this style is exhibited by a man, the negative associations are not even mentioned. Women have learned to re-cast some of these tendencies into a more palatable demeanor by expressing their behavior in terms of “leadership behavior”.

Let’s say a woman attends a class where all are required to bring their own laptops. In this scenario, a woman arrives early and plugs into the port incorporated into the classroom table. The instructor arrives and decides to plug a hub into the port where her laptop was originally attached, and then plug her machine into the hub. Immediately, her connection disappears. She tries to log on wirelessly, but, to no avail. The instructor disconnected her machine from the hub and back into the direct connection. It worked for awhile, and then only intermittently. She begins to get impatient with the instructor. She feels he is disorganized and unprepared. He didn’t ensure full participation by the class, and he didn’t show them respect, as several others had similar issues – but she was the ONLY ONE “complaining” about it.

She repeated her complaint each time the instructor fiddled with her connection (“It was working fine until you unplugged me.”). Finally, a male colleague sitting nearby said, “that’s about the fifth time you’ve said that!” This remark made her even more uncomfortable, but instead of telling him what a sexist comment that was, she simply said, “Oh, right, leadership behavior.” Everyone paying attention (only about 3 people) nodded. To her, his comment was akin to accusing her of that trite female stereotype, the nag, and she resented that.

She was unhappy with the male co-worker and with the male instructor, but she kept her mouth shut for the duration of the class, as she knew pursuing this line of discussion would get her nowhere, except maybe to make enemies of these men.

It seems that a woman who speaks out of turn, makes decisions, takes actions, and might not be as gentle in her delivery, is considered either a nag or a tough and hard character.

Maybe, during her career, she was accused of being abrasive, condescending, rude, among other negatives. Unfortunately, leadership is in the eyes of the beholder, and women who behave with a high” M”, or masculine gender assessment leadership score, are too often stereotyped and categorized. This woman had an HR representative challenge her to push back harder on the prejudice she faced, due to her untypical behavior. Eventually, she decided it wasn’t worth the battle.

She focused on moving toward more “leadership” behaviors as defined in terms outlined by her company. This only allows for judicious and minimal use of her “M” score tendencies. 

She now has learned to smile sweetly but make her point firmly.

After all, the only score that counts is the annual pay raise, and if it takes a closed mouth to get the raise, women will take silence every time.

“Next time you are about to call a little girl “bossy”, say instead: she has executive leadership skills”. – Sheryl Sandberg


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Mary T. O’Sullivan, Master of Science, Organizational Leadership, International Coaching Federation Professional Certified Coach, Society of Human Resource Management, “Senior Certified Professional. Graduate Certificate in Executive and Professional Career Coaching, University of Texas at Dallas.

Member, Beta Gamma Sigma, the International Honor Society.

Advanced Studies in Education from Montclair University, SUNY Oswego and Syracuse University.

Mary is also a certified Six Sigma Specialist, Contract Specialist, IPT Leader and holds a Certificate in Essentials of Human Resource Management from SHRM.

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