Marrying femininity and leadership is not easy.
And being a strong, powerful woman while also remaining feminine, well-liked and, why not, successful at dating and relationships, is even more difficult.
But alas, difficulties also present the biggest opportunities for those elected few who manage to crack the code.
This article teaches you the science and psychology of being a powerful woman while also remaining feminine, attractive and well-liked.
- The Science of The “Female Leader Curse”
- #1. Lead For An Ideal, For People Or A Bigger Goal
- #2. Use “We” Frames To Avoid Being Overly Ambitious
- #3. Make Use of Indirect Forms of Dominance
- #4. Use Democratic Style of Leadership
- #5. Offset Power With Feminine Qualities
- #6. Pursue More Typically-Female Careers
- #8. Combine Warmth With Power
- Is The Female Leadership Curse Cultural or Inborn?
The Science of The “Female Leader Curse”
Research has spoken loud and plenty: many women pay a social price for their power and leadership positions.
By “social price” I refer here as to being disliked and, possibly, socially marginalized and excluded.
On the workplace, that might mean being passed up for promotions, being the first choice for getting fired or, in politics, that could mean not getting elected.
The female leader’s curse applies without women having to do anything.
Indeed research shows that when students read the exact same description of a male and female leader, they ended up liking the male leader but disliking the female one… For the simple fact of being a woman.
Of course, there are also studies to the contrary, but there are always studies to the contrary and, in this case, they mean little (also read “How to Lie With Statistics“).
When it comes to female leadership indeed the body of research overwhelmingly point out to women facing strong social backlash when they pursue power and/or when they present dominant traits (just as an example you can check the abundant finding of researchers Madeline Heilman and Susan Fiske).
The tendency might be stronger with men and conservatives, but it also applies to women and liberals:
Let’s not forget one of the major forces in highlighting the “likable” issue around Hillary Clinton was Barack Obama himself.
Female Leadership Curse & Politics
Looking at the recent political elections also provide supporting evidence for the female leadership curse: Clinton’s ratings dropped precipitously the moment she announced her candidacy for the presidency (Clinton lost also because she failed to be feminine enough).
Correlation is not causation, but we can probably guess here that an important differentiating factor was her decision to go for the top leadership position.
Female Leadership Curse & Dating
Most mainstream research does not discuss female power, dominance and dating success, but we have evolutionary psychology here to provide us with answers.
Evolutionary psychology postulates that while men seek quantity, women seek “better” partners (female hypergamy).
The consequence, of course, is that men feel more comfortable dating and getting into relationships with women who are somewhat “less” than they are.
That’s especially true when it comes to power and dominance and that’s why women who complain about “bigot men being scared of powerful women” are missing the mark: men are actually being rather rational in going for a more submissive woman who is more likely to stay with them and not cheat or leave him for another man.
In a nutshell: powerful, ambitious and dominant women are unattractive for most men (also read: strong VS submissive women).
The Power-Charm Trade-Off
Some women might want to say “to hell being liked, I don’t care about a few bigots, I’ll go for power and make them all jealous with my success”.
Most of the times it doesn’t work that way though.
To begin with, most of us suffer when we are harshly criticized and most people dislike us.
The second problem is in actual power.
Women who go for authoritarian and more typically male styles of power lose all or almost all of their charming power and seductive power.
Indeed a more aggressive man can more easily move from social charm to authoritarian leadership, but a woman who crosses into authoritarian leadership can hardly be charming.
As an example, look at this video:
Kamala Harris chose to go the authoritarian way, leaving all her femininity behind.
That makes it much harder for her to use charm the same way that a more feminine woman could.
Unless your natural disposition is exactly like Kamala Harris, I recommend you stay away from that style. Especially from her most angry, judgmental and haughty attitudes and facial expressions which make her easily disliked.
The “female leadership curse” has a solution though.
The solution needs social intelligence, tact and some good understanding of psychology, power dynamics and human nature.
This article is here to help
#1. Lead For An Ideal, For People Or A Bigger Goal
The women who pay the biggest social price of the female leadership curse are the ones who look like they are in it mainly for the power.
Power is mostly a male pursuit, and women who are after power look very “gender deviant”.
Gender deviant is a very ugly expression, but it correctly identifies the problem here.
Research shows indeed that men who look like they are after power are not penalized.
But women are.
And that’s why you should avoid looking like you’re after power for power sake.
As a matter of fact, I warmly invite you NOT to go after power for power’s take as that makes you a much worse leader, no matter whether you’re a female leader or male leader.
#2. Use “We” Frames To Avoid Being Overly Ambitious
Similar as above: ambition is a trait that is OK or even appreciated in men. But it’s very much disliked in women.
Sheryl Sandberg in Lean In says that when you negotiate from an “I” perspective, both men and women will like you less.
You must approach negotiations, speeches and campaigns from a “we” and “us” platform instead of “I”.
If you are negotiating for a raise, always frame it as a win for both you, the company and your team.
Say “me and the team can do so great if we find a solution” and:
Let’s just find an agreement and we will be so strong
#3. Make Use of Indirect Forms of Dominance
Studies show that direct expressions of power and dominance (for example: direct requests) adversely affected women’s likability.
But indirect expressions of power (ie.: eye contact) did not.
This means that for you as a woman it might be better to ask something in a friendly tone such as:
You: Do you think you can do that?
(hold eye contact)
Him: Yeah, I think so
And then hold eye contact and have him (or her) acknowledges that yes he can, rather than telling him “do it”.
The effect is the same, but the indirect social pressure might be a more effective tool to wield power for women (and from an Influence point of view, it’s also much more effective!).
#4. Use Democratic Style of Leadership
So far we have spoken generally of the inverse relation between power, dominance and effective female leadership.
But here is the catch: research shows that when women lead with a democratic style of leadership (also read: “Primal Leadership“), then there is no social price to pay and adverse effect on her likeability and social relationships.
Says Eagly ( Eagly et al. (1992)):
Female leaders showing autocratic (i.e. masculine) behaviour are evaluated more negatively than male leaders showing the same. However democratic male leaders and democratic female leaders are not evaluated differently.
People are much more comfortable with women in power positions who ask questions, include and, generally, act like benevolent leaders.
But what to do when a female leader needs to put her foot down?
#4.1 Consider A Maternal Style of Leadership
As much as I recommend men to adopt a “father figure” style of leadership, I can also recommend a “mother figure” style of leadership to women.
A mother figure style of leadership is a wonderful role and solution to most of the female leadership problems.
When needed, you bust out the spanking.
But it’s not a scathing dress down in front of everyone, but more like a spanking for the bad boy because whose deserved it, but which is delivered not to re-assert power but because it’s in everyone’s interest.
And then you can go back to a more communal and affiliative style of leadership.
Angela Merkel is referred to as “mutti” or “mommy” in Germany:
Angela Merkel’s secret is that of staying away from all excesses of both extreme male expressions of power and typically feminine expressions which would decrease a leader’s perceived authority.
#5. Offset Power With Feminine Qualities
I remember years ago in my first big corporate job, working as a Lean Methodology consultant alongside McKinsey and internal DHL consultants.
The head of the program was called “Tania”, and she was an icy German woman with an authoritative streak and a tall figure with blue eyes and light blonde hair.
Her appearances certainly didn’t help her to come across more relatable. But she didn’t even try that hard: everyone thought of “nazi” and “ice queen” in her presence when in the presence of Tania
When Peter, one of the line managers described her to me, he said:
The new project head is German, woman, 43… No kids..
You should have seen his expression of contempt as he highlighted those words.
And by the time he had reached “no kids” I already knew where he was going.
What he wanted to say was this:
She is not a real woman
Which, in turn, translated to this:
She is not a normal human being, she doesn’t belong to our species and we can’t relate to her.
This is rather common.
When women come across as “gender deviant”, from a sociological perspective, people place in the “out-group”, or “different from all of us”.
We don’t relate to people from the out-group and it’s much more likely that we will see them as enemies.
Here is the catch though: if a woman can show and “prove” her femininity, she can offset the
This research indeed shows that when people see that powerful women also present typically female characteristics, hostility decreases and the strong female leaders become more liked and more accepted.
Here is what you might strategically choose to do:
- If you’re a mother, make that information circulate
- Spread information on how you spend time home/parenting
- If no children, get a dog and do the same
- Tell stories of your cooking
- Put fresh flowers in your office
- Avoid masculine suits
- Use more colorful dresses
- Do your makeup
All these actions serve to communicate to the people around that “oh yes, she’s a woman alright”.
Since the backlash against women arises in good part for her violation of “expected gender roles”, a woman can offset her power and dominance by showing feminine traits outsider her leadership position
#6. Pursue More Typically-Female Careers
Paustian-Underdahl in her meta-analysis on female leadership and power found out that:
(…) Male leaders were seen as more effective than female leaders
in organizations that were male-dominated or masculine in other
ways (i.e., numerically male-dominated organizations; military
roles; Eagly et al., 1995). Additionally, female leaders were seen
as more effective than male leaders in less male-dominated or less
masculine organizations (i.e., educational, governmental, and social service organizations)
Basically: organizations and businesses that fit the female gender stereotype boost the credibility of female leaders.
This was a study on effectiveness rather than likeability, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we can infer the same for likeability and acceptance.
Miranda Priestly in “The Devil Wears Prada” would have been less respected, would have had less authority and would have probably been even more disliked and has she worked in, say, an arm’s producer rather than a fashion magazine.
#8. Combine Warmth With Power
This is more from a technical point of view, but whenever you can combine warmth and humor with a reprimand or with a request for compliance, you are better off than crude power.
This is an example of a woman who’s done it very well:
Is The Female Leadership Curse Cultural or Inborn?
If you read the researches and studies linked in this page you will realize that the researchers themselves often speak about “culture”, “qualities traditionally associated with…”, “traits linked to behaviors that people associate to leadership and genders” and, of course “gender stereotypes” (as if all gender differences when it comes to dominance and power were stereotypes).
Basically: most researchers refer to the culture and nobody mentions nature, genes or evolutionary psychology.
I’m not surprised in the slightest.
In my opinion, this is in large part due to our current cultural climate.
For various reasons that I won’t analyze in depth here, it’s politically risky to say that something might be genetic and inborn.
It’s much safer instead, and you are much more likely to be heard and appreciated if you say it’s mostly cultural (fro a more in-depth analysis read Steven Pinker’s “The Blank Slate“).
In my opinion, this is wrong.
Sure as hell culture plays a role. But so do genes and nature.
Evolutionary psychology can help us explain that quite well.
I will not go too in depth here as this is more of an “how to” article, but in a nutshell: the distaste for dominant women has roots in evolutionary psychology, psychology as well as culture.
The Future of Female Power
Since part of the backlash against powerful women is partially culture, we might see further improvement for the conditions of female leaders.
Researchers who have compiled meta-studies have indeed noted a tendency toward more acceptance of female leaders.
It’s also possible that as more inclusive and less authoritarian styles of leadership become more the norm than the exceptions, women will do better and better (also read “Leaders Eat Last” for an example of leadership cultural shift).
As Koenig et all (2011) point out in another meta-analysis:
Leadership now, more than in the past, appears to incorporate more feminine relational qualities, such as sensitivity, warmth, and understanding.
Basically, things have improved for women and are likely to further improve.
However, in my opinion, that’s a tendency that cannot be extrapolated to infinity and to perfect equality.
And that means that the social backlash against powerful women is not going away any time soon.
It’s also not obvious and not written anywhere that we will keep moving towards more equality.
Cultures always change and our culture might also swing again towards more conservative attitudes in the future.
This makes it all the more important for women leaders to learn how to wield power in a way that maximizes their chances.
There is no research which shows that people dislike successful women. Indeed, nobody has anything against’ women’s success.
It’s when women have power, act dominant, or hold leadership positions that things can get a bit trickier.
Specifically, it’s how women wield their power that makes a big difference. And when women behave like men, they lose.
Power, dominance, and femininity are not necessarily at the opposite end of the spectrum.
Yet they don’t exactly overlap either.
And it’s sometimes difficult to combine the two.
However, it’s possible, and this article gave you a few ideas how to be a successful female leader all around: from power to charm to social success to success in dating and relationships.
This is a sample from Social Power (more examples there).