The Gender Trap

This week I have been doing a bit of market research on my forthcoming executive coaching offer for women in leadership. One of my friends was kind enough to read through my material for me and gave some really useful positive feedback, but she also raised some concerns. One thing she pointed out was a problem with the word ‘confidence’ for its connotations of being loud, brash, outgoing. To quote her, “When I read 'confident women leaders' I immediately think of confidence-building roleplay exercises and having to behave like a ballbreaking extrovert in order to be seen as leader potential.” Well, OK, that isn’t the mental image I was going for (and I, for one, *fully* share her horror of hideous roleplay) so from a marketing perspective this clearly needs a rethink.

It’s an interesting point, though, about introversion and extraversion. I have observed this personally, where male peers with severely limited interpersonal skills (sometimes destructively so, causing real damage to the business) are excused because they are ‘technical specialists’ who don’t need to be able to connect with people. Yet women who are similarly skilled and bring rigorous specialist knowledge are not given this Get Out of Jail Free card – they are expected to develop the ability to communicate, to bring people with them, and to be empathetic. For men it is an allowable weakness that the business culture will accommodate, for women an unforgivable one and they must accommodate to the business culture.

40 years ago Rosabeth Moss Kanter identified four ‘roletraps’ faced by women in leadership, who found themselves forced to enact the stereotypes of Mother, Seductress, Pet or BattleAxe. The extraverted ballbreaker definitely fits the BattleAxe stereotype . . .  So clearly, even after 40 years, this stereotype lives on. Women still find themselves quite lonely in the boardroom, and these stereotypes offer one possible way to manage their situation. Of course, over this period thinking about these role traps has moved on. Judith Baxter, writing in 2012, argues that these roles can be reconceptualised as ‘leadership strategies that senior women can utilise to their advantage in largely male executive teams,’ turning them from a trap to something with more agency.

But yet…it’s clear that women are still not free of these stereotypes, and are still unable to enter the boardroom on equal terms. 40 years is a hell of a long time without significant change, but I still feel optimistic; the world is moving faster than it ever has before and if ever we have a chance to overturn these ideas, the time is surely now. Let’s make the next decade the one in which women are allowed to be leaders in their own right. Let’s reject the leadership roles offered to us and create our own. Let’s escape from the gender trap for good.