Gender bender: Let’s polish our executive presence, ladies!

Let’s get real: If more women are going to gain the workplace status so many of us deserve, we’re going to have to better use our intuitive skills because, as a gender-defined group, we are less likely than men to exude executive-level personas. Part of the problem is that, as a class, we are modest. We are people pleasers. We are, more often than our male counterparts, also judged to be perfectionists and risk-averse. However, we’re also (our saving graces) more intuitive and big picture-oriented.

Leadership is all about confidence and being comfortable taking risks. You won’t get far projecting a cautious, modest, perfectionist persona unless your role is accountant. C-suite women must navigate a “double-bind” during their career; if they assert themselves forcefully, there’s a backlash for not being feminine enough. Conversely, if they act in a stereotypically feminine way, they aren’t perceived to have leadership qualities.

Let’s take a typical executive responsibility — heading a staff meeting — and see how this plays out.

Challenge 1: Dress. A recently released survey from StyleCard reveals that women, on average, spend more than a year of their lives deciding on their outfits. Part of the problem is that we don’t have a set workplace uniform, like men do with their business suits. However, the real time-sucker is concern over how we will be perceived. Dressing “too professional” in a red power suit can be off-putting, while a too-casual color or floral palette is underwhelming. And we know that we will be judged on our looks in a way that men will not. We have to find a balance to put our best shoe forward.

Hint: Set your wardrobe dial to corporate expectations. To save time and aggravation, wear a brown, navy, or black business suit or dress, and use scarves or jewelry to add color or to accessorize up or down, depending on subject matter and presentation goals.

Challenge 2: Broad spectrum notice (and people pleasing). Sally Helgesen and Julie Johnson note in their book The Female Vision: Women’s Real Power at Work that women pay extra heed to emotional reactions. Through that skill, we can almost instantly analyze how much support we have for our ideas. “The first component that shapes our vision is our capacity to notice,” the authors assert. “What we notice determines what we see. What we notice also informs how we understand events, order information, and assign value.” While our intuitive skill is a great strength in negotiations, it’s a confidence killer if even one person displays a particularly negative reaction during your presentation. Men, on the other hand, often don’t notice — and so don’t care — about such subtle reactions.

Hint: Adopt the mindset that your purpose isn’t to control thoughts or make people happy. You are there to educate and/or motivate others toward a better outcome. Remember, you have standing in that community. Some will be resistant while others will immediately embrace your thoughts or information. Believe in your message, search the crowd for nods instead of frowns, and stay on topic. You then won’t be as easily affected by an initial or fringe reaction to it.

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Challenge 3: Modesty. Women don’t have to be arrogant to be a force of nature or to show others what we bring to the table. We don’t have to “lay down the law.” However, our modesty — paired with talents for cooperation, collaboration, and consensus-building — may get in our way during times of crisis or change, when “leadership” is defined by our ability to make autonomous decisions and then to inspire a team to implement them. When we clearly are called to lead at a staff meeting, followership will most depend on our confidence in our own authority and ability, and we’ll need to own it and communicate it.

Hint: What differentiates you from other staff, regardless of your title? When presenting new approaches or a critical mission, explain how your background, research, professional skills, and influence will contribute to the solution. Then ask others to identify how they can also move the mission forward. Assign roles so that everyone sees how the whole fits together. That’s where your big-picture skills help you as a manager.

Every human being is born to a spectrum, and only a misogynist would think that women have a set skill set or will exhibit the same group weaknesses or strengths. However, we are biologically wired toward certain inclinations or proclivities, with unique and varying degrees of competence or incompetence. Knowing our gender’s strengths and business challenges helps us — not only to mentor others, but also to polish our own executive presence.

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