When I worked at a major television network a number of years ago, the VPs, who were mostly men, would ask, “As a leader would you rather be loved or feared?” Not surprisingly, the majority answered “feared.” These men took pride in being tough bosses. They were leaders who pushed people to do their best and stretch for big results. They did not accept excuses and could be punishing if you did not reach their expectations.
But what happens when women are hard-nosed, tough leaders? What if they choose to be “feared” over “loved” or what if that’s just their nature and not their choice? During the same time in my career, Martha Stewart was on the rise. Much of her success – and workplace criticism – was due to her hard-driving perfectionist nature. She embodied many of the same qualities as the male leaders I knew.
Why do men get away with acting aggressive and tough, but women do not? To understand this, we need to examine the adjectives we use to describe masculinity: strength, courage, independence, violence and assertiveness. We assume that men are more aggressive by nature and are therefore acting normally. But is it really masculinity that is driving that intense behavior or is it the desire to succeed?
From my experience studying human behavior as an executive career coach, I believe the answer lies in understanding personality styles and societal norms. People who have an extraordinary amount of drive can be intense and quiet or intense and explosive, and occasionally somewhere in the middle. I don’t think any of those combinations are driven by gender. Rather, it is related to their personality style and competitive nature.
For those who push fiercely for a goal, they are going to become outwardly upset if it gets derailed. The challenge for women is that society sees this as normal, even desirable in men and extremely undesirable in women. Aggressive behavior is not seen as natural for a woman and instead some consider it very unattractive.
As a consequence, women are constantly counseled against and punished for being too aggressive. They are ostracized at work, marginalized or fired from jobs and often seen as outcasts.
Serena Williams is our latest example of an angry woman. Feeling that she was falsely accused of cheating while she was trying to recover from a tough first set loss put her over the edge. In a championship game of that magnitude and after coming back from the birth of her child, it’s understandable. She was driving for perfection and in her mind the umpire tried to unfairly sabotage her. Regardless of who was right or wrong, what has to come into focus is the judgment society puts on women when they show intense emotion. It’s that intensity that got her to center court and we need to keep that in mind. She should be celebrated for her drive and accomplishments and, at the very least, understood when she displays frustration and anger.
In order for women to continue to rise, we have to recondition our thinking around what creates success and be more open-minded to the way women express it. We should remove the barriers and broaden the menu of emotional responses for women.
If a woman wants to be quiet and intense, that doesn’t make her boring and weak. And if she wants to be explosive and intense, it doesn’t make her emotional and caustic.
How women choose to forge their path to success should be given the same respect and qualifications as men. Many men are only judged on whether they succeed, not on how they get there.
While I’m not encouraging bad behavior, I do think it’s very hard for women to thrive in this competitive environment without being fierce and empowered to leverage whatever strengths they choose. It’s time for women to step into their power condition-free.