The Backlash Effect for Disconfirming Female Stereotypes

If you follow my work, you know that in the past couple of years I have been writing about women breaking out of the rules and roles for female stereotypes. 

These Inner Glass Ceilings include things like people pleasing, being nice, unconscious bias that women have towards other women, internalized misogyny, imposter syndrome, and more. 

I have also observed and written about the difficulties and frequent competition experienced between women.

Believing that we must fit into prescribed ways of being, into predetermined gender roles, to be hired, promoted, or rewarded in the workplace is not without merit. 

What happens to women when they break out of these limiting stereotypes that have been handed down for generations?  What is the backlash for violating female stereotypes?  Is impression management worth the trade-off of your own authenticity?

I recently found myself stepping into an assignment that I almost immediately wanted to withdraw from.  The project itself was interesting – developing an executive business program in partnership with a leading business school.  But this project was fraught with risks.  There was a six-week timeline to launch and the business school hadn’t been identified.  The team on the project had no experience in curriculum development and had never designed a business program.  And, I was new to this organization and didn’t know how to navigate all the groups I’d potentially be working with.  I didn’t have a team and had to make a fast decision to hire a temp.

But I was up for the challenge.  I’d been doing this kind of work for more than 25 years and knew that I had all necessary competencies and sensitivities to the nuances a program like this might require.  So off we went. 

I had to be intentional about how I would lead this initiative.  Who on the team had what skills and where did I need to compensate for gaps?  I assessed the situation as being a crisis.  We were trying to do in six weeks what would normally take six months.  The failure to deliver on this would be visible to the highest levels in the company. 

I knew what to pay attention to and what could be side-stepped and chose to offer this wisdom to the working team so they could also navigate effectively.  I decided to take on a directive leadership style.

Why did I think a directive leadership style would work best?  Well, we were in both a crisis mode and working with a team who didn’t have experience in the work in front of us.  This is the most effective style in both situations (Hay Group).  I ruled out an affiliative leadership approach which is for leading in situations best suited to high relationship and low task; a coaching approach that is high relationship and no task; and the pacesetting style was not even an option as it is both no relationship and no task.   

For the most part, the organization rallied around the effort to stand up this program.  Key departments understood the timeline and stepped up to offer support wherever they could.  What began breaking down was the actual working team.  They weren’t stepping up to take on work.  In fact, one person attended only half the meetings that were scheduled.  None of the working team members showed up for the meetings during launch week.  While I raised these ongoing issues of participation to my own leaders, I was told to just keep doing the work myself and accept that the team was limited.

What I didn’t anticipate was the backlash I would experience at the end of the launch.  But first let me share the program results.

The program went off splendidly!  In six weeks, we identified a business school partner and effectively collaborated in the design and launch of a 6-month executive business program.  The attendees loved it finding value in the content, the structure, and the opportunity to work with global peers.

The executives were delighted about the delivery of this program, its alignment with the business’ vision and strategy, and that we had created a template for future leaders.

But the backlash has been devastating.

At the end of the launch weekend, I was confronted by the working team members telling me that I was inflexible, demanding, and intimidating.  In that moment of wanting to sleep, sigh relief, or just celebrate – I thought I’d lose my mind.

Then, I went back to the office only to have my own manager accuse me of virtually the same thing.

I was exhausted after working 80-hour weeks for so long, and I felt cheated from being able to bask in the accomplishment of this goal.  What the heck was going on?  I had demonstrated competence, assertiveness, and decisiveness.  Qualities that are typically rewarded in organizations – especially when the outcome is so positive.  And, we got to a great result.

I knew on some level that I had broken a gender rule.  But which one?

Over the past few years, I’ve done so much work on myself – releasing pleasing, giving up the nice girl façade, learning to listen to my intuition and letting it guide me into flow states of work.  I was so happy to feel connected to my authenticity.  Yet something had seemingly backfired.

The attributes that characterize successful leaders (assertive, decisive) are stereotypically male (not female) qualities. Research now abounds that female agency can result in backlash effects and penalties for disconfirming prescriptive stereotypes

It is so unfortunate that women leaders face a double bind when they must choose between being liked but not respected (by displaying communal qualities) or being respected buy not liked (by displaying agentic qualities).  A choice that men are not required to make.  Interestingly, the greatest backlash I received in this situation was from other women, not men.

I am now wiser for this situation and recognize the power of this double bind.  Personally, I continue to work to integrate my feminine and masculine sides – drawing intentionally from those parts as needed.

I also believe that as women, we must continue releasing our own stereotypes for female behavior.  Otherwise, we end up reinforcing the gender stereotypes that are at play in our organizations and cultures and rob those around us of the opportunity to revise their gender beliefs, limiting the ability to fulfill our human potential.  And, it is ever so important to recognize our own female stereotypes in our own inner glass ceilings so that we can support other women to step into their full agency and power. 

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