When I was a teenager, I wanted to be an artist.
I would spend hours staring at photographs of my subject matter, and fight back tears of frustration and disappointment when, despite my best efforts, my pencil or paintbrush failed to mimic reality.
Until one day, my art mentor said, “Why are you trying to make your paintings look like photographs?
Photographs will always be better photographs than paintings will be. Besides, photographs are limited to what already exists. Paintings are an opportunity to make anything you want exist.
This sentiment often comes to my mind when I think about the future of women’s leadership…
For better or worse, when most people think of leaders, they think of men.
This makes sense, as throughout history the majority of leaders have been men. However, times are changing, and this implicit association has put women leaders at a disadvantage–women who act “ladylike” are seen as not leader-like, while women who act masculine are viewed as “abrasive,” “bossy,” and “unlikable.”
This catch-22 has been highlighted in recent years by movements such as the “Ban Bossy Campaign” which notes that “When a little boy asserts himself, he’s called a ‘leader.’ Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded ‘bossy.’”
This campaign also argues that these playground insults continue to impact how women are treated in the workplace.
Consistent with the campaign, we found that:
- women are called bossy more often than men—even though men are just as likely to use bossy behaviors at work.
- women have harsher consequences for acting bossy as compared to men (i.e., are seen as less popular, less likely to be successful, and less promotable).
However, unlike the premises put forward by Ban Bossy, bossy men were also viewed negatively and were not seen as good leaders. Based on these results, we advise both women and men to avoid being bossy in the workplace, as doing so is likely to damage their careers.
But more than this, our results led me to wonder—why do we so often advocate for women leaders’ equality through the narrow lens of encouraging women to act more like male leaders?
Like a painting trying to mimic a photograph, women will never be as good at being men as men will be. And why should they?
Research shows that women often use leadership styles that are more effective in the workplace. Additionally, coaching women to be carbon copies of men could damper the new perspectives, experiences, and solutions that women can bring into organizations.
At CCL, we encourage women leaders to reinvent and redefine what leadership is, and encourage organizations to leverage women’s unique perspectives to create innovative directions for the future of leadership.
So women leaders everywhere: don’t limit yourself by trying to duplicate someone else. Take the opportunity to be the leader you want to exist in the world.