Timeless piece by Angela Priestley on the language we still use to describe women’s success.
Too often I hear negative comments about some of the most well-known women at the pointy end of leadership.
“But you should see what she’s really like,” I recently heard one woman say about a well-known American-based chief executive she once worked for.
“She’s hated by everyone. Women especially,” I heard another say about a key female business leader closer to home.
If it’s a well-known businesswoman being discussed, we’re quick to determine whether or not she’s well-liked, how she behaves behind closed doors and if she’s aggressive. On the more positive end, she’s assessed according to how “inspiring” she is, often with regard to how she’s managed to raise a family while climbing the corporate ladder.
It’s a different conversation regarding a well-known male leader: his strategy and vision are considered, along with how he’s managed to turn around a company. His kids? Well we might talk about how many he has, if any, but we’ll rarely question how he’s managed to raise them.
It’s an issue that came up at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, at the weekend during a panel discussion on gender equality, and it’s one that could ultimately be holding women back.
According to Facebook chief executive officer Sheryl Sandberg, unintentional discrimination hurts women from a particularly young age. It’s the “soft stuff that people don’t talk about” that really matters, and often means a woman’s success comes with consequences: “Success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women,” she said.
Why does this happen? According to Sandberg, it starts with the mixed messages young girls receive about power and ambition. She used the example of baby outfits she came across last year that featured one catchphrase for boys: “Smart like Daddy”, and another for girls: “Pretty like Mommy”.
“As a woman becomes more successful, she is less liked, and as a man becomes more successful, he is more liked, and that starts with those T-shirts,” said Sandberg.
And it continues in the workplace. Sandberg believes that too often a woman’s workplace performance is judged using benchmarks that have nothing to do her efforts in the office. They’ll say she’s “not well liked by peers” or “a bit aggressive”.
“They say this with no understanding that this is the penalty women face because of gender stereotypes,” she said.
And then there’s the fact women have two jobs, while men have the one. “From the moment they leave school, the messages for women are different: ‘Don’t you want to have kids one day?'”
Sandberg made the comments during a panel session on gender equality where four of the five speakers were women.
It was a fitting place to start such a conversation, given the yearly WEF congregation carries one similarity year after year – a distinct lack of women in the audience. The forum’s never topped more than 20% female representation. This year, women accounted for just 17% of delegates.
So will we see much change in the future? According to Sandberg, it won’t happen without women continually speaking up about some of these issues. The conversation needs to be had, and continued, until some of these gender stereotypes are expelled.
It’s a conversation that could start by simply considering the language we use to describe some of our most significant leaders.
Click here to read more about Sheryl Sandberg’s comments during the panel session