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How to combat female leadership stereotypes

Ellen Degeneres, Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Gloria Steinem are just some of the strong female leaders in today’s climate I Illustration by Fiona Legesse/ The Cougar

Leaders are commonly described as “confident” and “assertive,” and more often than not these traits are linked with the male gender. A double standard still persists when women are described in a similar context, and suddenly good leadership traits in a man become unfavorable for women.

Why does this phenomenon continue to persist well into the 21st century? It’s a part of traditional gender roles, where men were often leaders taking on ambitious roles like presidents, scientists, engineers or CEOs while women remained at home. These images contribute to the status quo of equating males to a position of leadership more often than females.

In the workplace, disparaging connotations of women in leadership positions intimidate future female leaders. These women try to avoid being typecast as  “controlling” or “bossy” – a caricature of the “horrible female boss.” 

Women looking to climb the ranks to the top must combat unfavorable stereotypes. They must fight the historically male dominated image of leadership by slowly changing the language used to describe men and women. 

1. Subtle power is not weakness. 

The modern world is still adjusting to the image of a woman in power. To smoothly transition into a place where women become leaders, we need to think about power differently. Men tend to wield power in a more aggressive manner, showing strength to communicate authority. We must challenge that connotation by encouraging cooperation and teamwork.

Female power is often less showy and more subtle, stemming from a desire to build a consensus

A difference in wielding power does not make women weak or ineffective leaders. Accepting a different approach to leadership as neither weak nor strong is a good step in the right direction.

2. Showing emotion is not bad thing.

There is a pervasive stereotype that women are too emotional to be in power. It is a common stereotype that women are unstable because of their “hormones” or prone to changing their mind constantly because of their fleeting nature. In truth, women can be just as objective and rational as men.  

Women aiming for the stars must not be afraid to be seen as more than a one-dimensional character. Instead, they should be viewed as a complex individual. To combat this stereotype, we must stop linking our idea of emotional strength with leadership ability. A good leader does not equate a leader who is emotionless or struck by emotion too often.

Instead, a good leader is a person who can make rational decisions despite their feelings.

3. Tough leaders can be women.

Another stereotype around female leaders stems from the idea that women fit into three or four roles: the mother, the seductress, the pet or the tough “mannish” woman.

Women can subvert these stereotypes by incorporating the best qualities of all these roles. A female leader can offer support and advice to her employees like a mother and be allowed to take on male attributes such as assertiveness and confidence. More women breaking boundaries and being who they want to be would expose people to the complex world of female leadership.

A woman can be tough, assertive and controlling without it making her less of a woman or turning her into a man. Allowing women to create their own identities exposes people to different ideas of female leadership.

A young woman with leadership ambitions should not be afraid to be tough or girly, or even tough and girly. It is important to subvert ideas of women fitting into one-dimensional roles. This will profoundly shape how we view women in comparison to men, allowing women more than a simple role.

Negative stereotypes about female leadership continue to thrive in our subconscious. It is vital to push against negative connotations of women in power. A young woman starting her career must subvert stereotypes by presenting herself as a complex individual. As more women take on leadership positions, our unconscious biases will fade from a strict link between men and leadership to a more flexible definition that includes both men and women. 

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