A recent HBR Blog case study
tells the story of Sarah, the only woman on the board, who was being marginalized by the group. A fellow board member told Sarah that she talked too much “just like his teenage daughter.” Her CEO told her to stop “arguing” with the CFO when she was merely asking the tough questions. These are typical responses to an assertive woman in a powerful role. Women leaders who demonstrate assertiveness and a confident mastery of their field are often viewed as brash, pushy, bossy, overbearing.
Men are viewed as strong and competent when they forcefully assert their point of view. Women who demonstrate these behaviors are seen as a problem.
My research, and that of other practitioners and academics, shows that people expect women to be more democratic and interpersonally-oriented than men. Further, research shows that successful female leaders blunt their sharp elbows and temper their assertiveness in order to meet those gender expectations.
In the case study, worried that he might lose his CFO, the CEO gave Sarah an ultimatum: tone it down or leave the board.
What should Sarah do?
She should remain on the board, but change her approach at board meetings. Her male colleagues see her as “grilling” the CFO and putting him in the hot seat. If she has concerns and wants more information, she should meet with the CFO, perhaps including the CEO, prior to the board meeting.
In the public setting of the boardroom, since the group dynamics amplify Sarah’s “unacceptable” behavior, I’m sorry to say, she should “tone it down.”
Reading the environment and using that awareness to tailor ones behavior is a powerful ability. Generally, women are particularly astute in grasping a culture and figuring out how to operate within it. Sarah’s challenge is to adapt her style to fit the culture of her board. If she can do that, over time she may be able to positively influence the board’s culture.
What do you think?