Let’s Stop Calling Female Leaders Cold and Aloof

September 14, 2016 by Meredith Brandt

“I know that I can be perceived as aloof or cold or unemotional. But I had to learn as a young woman to control my emotions. And that’s a hard path to walk.”

Humans of New York’s recent post quoting Hillary Clinton has gone viral. While there is many a takeaway from the post, one that I found particularly relevant was the idea that successful women are often perceived as emotionless or cold.

Women in the workforce often toe a line – if they appear too assertive and strong they’re seen as heartless, if they are too emotional or empathetic, they’re seen as weak. It is impossible to ignore the perception disparities between men and women with strong leadership qualities.

One of the reasons for these perceptions is that we are accustomed to certain traits belonging to certain genders. An article from Psychology Today on the topic addresses how men and women’s perceived characteristics align with their traditionally assumed ones. The article states, “A strong woman in power will maximize her position, asserting herself in the key issues, addressing them at the core and yet, she will be aware and connected with her audience, listening to their stories, empathizing with their challenges, and proposing the commitment to help them out in every possible way.” The article concludes that perfect leaders won’t just have traditionally masculine or feminine characteristics; rather, they would demonstrate a balance of the two that allows them to gain the trust of their followers.

Another reason that female leaders are more often seen as colder than their male counterparts is the stereotypes that exist. Minorities are often stereotyped, and women in leadership roles are no exception. A Forbes article reported that when female leaders are asked how they are stereotyped, the number one answer is as an “Ice Queen.” CEO Halley Bock is quoted saying, “A woman who shows emotion in the workplace is often cast as too fragile or unstable to lead. A woman who shows no emotion and keeps it hyper-professional is icy and unfeminine. For many women, it can be a no-win situation.” She believes the stereotype is rampant.

Research and advisory organization Catalyst partnered with IBM to produce a study about the perceptions of female leaders. The study found that, “stereotypes lead respondents to judge women leaders according to extremes—they are frequently seen as too nice or too harsh, but rarely just right.” Summarizing its findings on the predicaments that these perceptions cause, the study says the following:

In sum, by casting women as a poor fit for leadership roles, gender stereotypes create additional hardships for women leaders—stereotypes men leaders do not have to face. As a result, women constantly have to monitor their behavior and how they interact with others. Due to gender expectations, the same leadership style can be described as assertive in a man but abrasive in a woman. These perceptions not only influence whether people respect women’s styles of leadership, but also the extent to which women leaders are perceived as trustworthy.

It is time to address this publicly. It is time we acknowledge our own biases, stereotypes, and perceptions we make of women at the top. This form of gender inequality is one that we must confront at every level of industry, from your local small business to the White House.

Meredith Brandt

Meredith Brandt

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