Lessons in Leadership


Have you ever heard women in the workplace use phrases like “I feel” or “I don’t know much about this, but…” to preface a thought? Or, maybe you’ve used language like this yourself?

The truth is, such subtle preluding clauses are common among female employees, but self-effacing behaviors like this could be holding women back as they strive to claim positions of power in the workplace.

In a recent Women Powering Business panel event held in San Francisco, some high-profile business women from the area discussed this and more.

Here are some of the highlights:

Who’s the Boss?

The interaction between women and men in the workplace is oftentimes based on deeply ingrained behaviors that stem from childhood. The long-held stereotype that “boys are leaders, girls are nurturers” still influences how children in today’s society are raised. In the classroom, for instance, studies have shown that girls get called on less and are interrupted more compared to boys.

“We expect our boys to grow up to be leaders and we are discouraging girls to lead at a young age,” said panelist Rachel Thomas, Co-founder and President of LeanIn.org, an organization committed to encouraging and empowering women to pursue their ambitions. “The more we understand that we are inadvertently holding girls back, the more we can make a difference. We can move the dial quickly with a lot of little changes.”

One of these little changes could be the use of the word “bossy.” Sheryl Sandberg, author of the popular book Lean In, which was the impetus of Thomas’ organization, spoke about how labeling little girls “bossy” can later impact how they navigate the workplace in a recent NPR interview.

Said Sandberg: "Go to a playground: Little girls get called 'bossy' all the time, a word that's almost never used for boys. And that leads directly to the problems women face in the workforce. When a man does a good job, everyone says, 'That's great.' When a woman does that same thing, she'll get feedback like, 'Your results are good, but your peers just don't like you as much' or 'maybe you were a little aggressive.'"

Want Power? Drop the “Ifs, Ands or Buts”

Thomas said women can learn to present themselves with more authority just by altering a few, small words—because how you say things is just as important as what you say.

“If you have something to say, let the ‘buts’, the ‘ands,’ the ‘ifs’ fall away and just say it. You assess confidence through body language and intonation of voice. Also, if you talk within the first few minutes in a meeting, you establish yourself in a leadership role. These are small changes you can make on a daily basis to present yourself as more powerful and more confident.”

Women: Too Soft or Too Tough?

Women in the workplace oftentimes walk a fine line between being labeled too soft or too harsh—which The Washington Post recently called “The Goldilocks Syndrome.”

“For decades, research has shown that women are penalized if they act too confident or dominant,” reads the article. “Because these leadership traits are traditionally seen as stereotypically male, women who display them get unfairly penalized for going against type.”

Panelist Jennifer Turpin, Provost and Academic Vice President at the University of San Francisco, said she’s witnessed women who are reluctant to speak up and will wait to let men speak before them. But, Turnpin added, women shouldn’t be forced to choose between soft and tough.

“It’s a false dichotomy,” Turpin said. “Any woman who rises to a leadership position has to be incredibly tough to get through everything she goes through along the way. You can be tough and nurturing; you can collaborate and have grit. It isn’t one or the other.”

Thomas added that in order for women to succeed in the workplace, they must focus on their unique strengths. “When women learn the dynamics of a difficult conversation, they know when to play high or when to play low because they know how to read a room. There are a lot of areas where we have strengths. Where are the areas we excel? Let’s lean in to those.”

Want to read more about the rise of women in the workplace? Read Randstad’s new whitepaper, Women Shaping the World of Work: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, and be sure to check out the Women Powering Business pillar on Workforce360 by going to http://www.randstadusa.com/workforce360/women-powering-business.