Women and gender stereotypes

Successful women discuss the misconceptions about female leadership and give strategies for overcoming them.

Women and gender stereotypes

A few short decades ago, many thought a woman couldn't be president, because she would become emotionally unstable once a month -- as if she'd hit the red button during a chocolate craving.

There have been many misconceptions about women leaders over the years. Here's advice from an expert and women in the field about the state of some classic stereotypes and how to battle them.

Women Are Not Assertive Enough to Lead

According to a 2000 study conducted by The Winds of Change Foundation in collaboration with the Center for Research on Women at Wellesley College, most of the 60 preeminent female leaders who responded, including leaders in industry, medicine and law, are results-focused but are also interested in growth of the people around them and employ a democratic approach to leadership. "Whether or not it is put into actual practice, the ascendancy of the democratic, people-oriented leadership practice forms the contemporary context of leadership today," the study says.

Marystephanie Corsones, former director for international business acquisition for Coopers Lybrand and current director of support programs for City Schools in Kingston, New York, would agree with these results. She says that as a leader, she tries to build consensus.

Sally Helgesen, a lecturer and consultant on issues of work and leadership and author of The Female Advantage: Women's Ways of Leadership, sees many businesswomen leading from the center and focusing on relationships.

Katina Paron, editorial and program director of Children's PressLine, notes that when leading, "men are more likely to go at it alone," while she prefers to spend her meetings talking through issues.

Of course, to say that women should stick to certain behaviors because of their gender is unfairly restrictive. "I think male and female leadership styles are becoming more similar [as] men and women's lives become more similar, and organizations achieve a better balance between women and men," Helgesen says.

Female Leaders Must Act Like Men

"In the early '80s, women were encouraged to learn the language of football so they could communicate as leaders –– even if they didn't care a thing about the sport," says Helgesen.

Corsones, who entered the workforce in the late '60s, says this male miming happened even earlier, because "business culture was dominated by men, and the rules that existed were the rules created by men."

Men are no longer the only role models. Paron credits a retreat and networking group from the Woodhull Institute as a source of empowerment. Corsones is a member of the American Association of University Women and helps women in business through her local YWCA.

A Woman's Loyalty to Family Means Disloyalty to Work

Although women's strategies for managing family and work vary, this stereotype persists. Corsones remembers when superiors asked her why she had not had children and if she planned to do so. This thinking is still in the back of people's minds, she says.

"Women still have to prove their loyalty every day," Helgesen says. "The recent media circus over women ‘opting out' of powerful positions added to this [notion]," even though that group is statistically small.

Women Are Held Back by Men

When asked about this stereotype, both Paron and Corsones mentioned incidences of women impeding them professionally. Corsones said that in the male-dominated finance world, she has benefited greatly from male mentorship. It seems men are not held solely accountable for the hurdles women in leadership face, and women examine the role other women play in perpetuating misconceptions.

While women leaders now are given more credit, expectations persist about their behavior and abilities. But a growing number of role models and networking opportunities illustrate there is more than one model for leadership success. Helgesen's advice to a woman who wants to be a leader is to be an individual and learn how to voice your worth. "And she needs to know that even if she does all this, some people may not respond," she adds. "That's their problem."

Overcome the Stereotypes

How can women get past these stereotypes and rise to leadership roles? Try these tips:

  • Be an individual so people view you first, not your gender.
  • Remember: You don't need to take on "male" interests or stereotypical behavior.
  • Seek out networking opportunities with other women on their way to the top.
  • Look to role models. If it's been done before, you can do it too.
  • Find the leadership style that works for you, be it the classically female "leading from the center" style, the classically male individualistic style or somewhere in between.
  • Let your company know that your personal goals are separate from your work ones -- just like your coworkers.
  • Seek your real allies. Gender does not always predict the level of support you'll receive.